In a lecture hall of Cairo University’s Center of Arabic Language and Culture, Tarek Abbas, a blind composer, sits with his oud, a pear-shaped instrument similar to a lute, and presents a number of songs in classical and colloquial Arabic. Abbas isn’t there just to entertain, though: He’s a professor of Arabic at the university, and his audience is a group of foreign students who want to learn the language.
Abbas believes understanding and mastering Arabic grammar is easier for non-native speakers when they learn through music. “Music is a common language among all peoples worldwide,” he said.
“Language and music are similar in terms of harmony and vocal harmony,” he said. “Certain song passages can be used to explain and facilitate understanding grammar and pronunciation.”
Arabic is a notoriously difficult language for non-native speakers to learn. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute’s School of Language Studies classifies it as Category 4, the highest level of difficulty, and a “super-hard” language for native English speakers to learn.
Abbas pointed out that Arabic has many letters and sounds that are rare or have no equivalent in other languages, such as khaf (خ), daad (ض), ayn (ع) and hamza (ء).
People who want to learn Arabic find it difficult to pronounce them properly, Abbas said, but music can change that. “It’s easy to chant and memorize lyrics with beautiful melodies, so it’s easy to pronounce a lot of letters and words correctly,” he said.
Abbas began using music in teaching the language in 2001. Students need about 10 months in his class before being able to speak the language with minimum proficiency.
Abbas’s efforts to improve Arabic language instruction for non-native speakers fit well with the Egyptian government’s goal of attracting more foreign students to Egypt, in light of the increasing number of non-native speakers who want to learn Arabic and the limited number of specialized institutions in the region. (See a related article, “Egyptian Universities Want More Foreign Students.”)
Security issues in the region may also work to Egypt’s advantage. Many students used to go to Syria, for instance, to learn the language. Egypt hopes students will see it as a safer destination country, even though some Western governments—including Britain, Canada and the United States—still advise caution in travel to Egypt.
And not all students going abroad to study Arabic are from the West: Many Chinese students, for example, now study Arabic in Egypt.
One of the challenges of Arabic-language study for non-native speakers in Egypt is the lack of a standard measure of proficiency.
In English-speaking countries, universities have standardized examinations like the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for measuring the English-language skills of applicants from other countries.
But in Egypt, different language-learning centers divide their curricula into varying stages or levels, and each university sets its own criteria for how many levels students must complete. In addition, each university conducts its own exam of students’ Arabic-language skills.
For example, a student needs to complete seven levels in Al-Azhar University’s program before being able to enroll directly in the university. At the American University in Cairo, students need to pass 13 stages.
In general, students need an average of two years of study to reach basic proficiency in Arabic.
“We have an aptitude test that measures the four linguistic skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking, prepared by a group of qualified Arabic language teachers,” said Hebatalla Salem, executive director for the Center of Arab Studies Abroad at the American University in Cairo.
Fahr Shaker, a professor at Cairo University and director of the Center of Arabic Language and Culture, regretted the lack of a standardized test to measure proficiency in Arabic. But he stressed that there are efforts to do so soon. “We need to develop a measure to assess the examination’s efficiency first before circulating it to all centers,” he said.
Arabic language education for non-Arabic speakers in Egypt faces other challenges, according to Abdel-Rahman El-Sharkawi, a teacher of comparative literature at Cairo University’s department of Arabic language. Among them are the lack of a unified system for teaching Arabic in Egypt and the scarcity of specialized curricula for teaching Arabic to non-native speakers in general, based on contemporary linguistic bases.
In addition, the spread of nonspecialized centers in the field has led to a confusing array of choices for foreign students. Students do not know which center or program is better, or where to enroll.
Music Makes a Difference
For all of these reasons, El-Sharkawi said, “Abbas’s experience in using music is especially important because it is based on training students on a specific text with diverse vocabulary reflecting the aesthetics of the language and its grammar in an enjoyable way.”
He added that it is necessary to choose the songs carefully to ensure a rich vocabulary and the accuracy of the grammar they use.
Shaker said using music is important for another reason. He believes that teaching the Arabic language should not be limited to grammar and vocabulary but should also include the teaching of Arab culture.
“Students from different nationalities are coming to study in Egypt,” he said, “and they have a great passion to learn about Egyptian culture as well as learning the language. Using music contributes to both.”
A year ago, Lee Seung-gi, a 24-year-old Korean, arrived in Egypt to learn about import opportunities from Egypt. But later on, he discovered the importance of mastering the Arabic language to better connect with people and complete his work. He joined the program at the Center of Arabic Language and Culture at Cairo University. It was not easy at first, especially with the great difference in the nature of the letters and characters used in Arabic and Korean.
“It was very difficult for me to pronounce many Arabic letters,” he said. “But music made everything easier and helped me to master the correct pronunciation and enjoying it as well.”
Abbas hopes that his method will be officially adopted in Egypt so that it will be widely distributed to various educational centers.
“Education in music is not a modern invention; it is a method used abroad,” he said. “But its dissemination will make Egypt a key destination for those who want to learn Arabic.”