Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Will my dream of learning Arabic be fulfilled any time soon?

Arabic must be taught in a more practical and interesting way, writes Maryam Ismail.
For students who have Arabic as a second language, the bane of their existence is the dreaded workbook. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
For students who have Arabic as a second language, the bane of their existence is the dreaded workbook. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

“I want to speak English like a nightingale,” some of my students used to tell me when I taught English in Istanbul. My reply would be obvious: “Nightingales don’t speak English”. However, I understood their keen desire to perfect the language.

When I think of it today, I too wish that I could speak Arabic “like a nightingale”. Although I have a teacher, she like most others is addicted to using workbooks. You can learn the grammar from them, but never the conversation. For that, you have to hit the streets to observe how people converse in the language.

For pupils who study Arabic as a second language, there is another challenge: getting out of the city of Tamreen and Tadreeb. It’s a maze of grammar in which I have been living for a long time.

The good thing is that I am not alone. Students for whom Arabic is a second language just wander around words and grammatical constructions called “irab” as they try to learn where to put “ta’s” and “sa’s” and “tanweens”.

I yearn to break out of this maze one day and take the plunge into conversations with neighbours and Arabic-speaking friends. I am begging my teacher to read with me, watch videos, but she thinks it’s dumb. Why don’t I change the teacher? That’s because Arabic teachers are hard to find.

I just want to read a novel – one written by the Egyptian writers Tawfik Hakim and Salwa Bakr, or the Arabian Nights without the orientalist filter – just pure Arabic. That way I can learn new worlds, the French twists of Moroccan Arabic, or the delicious “keda-keda” of Egyptian and even better understand the Quran.

Before I came to this country, I thought I knew enough Arabic. When I realised that I didn’t know much, I got a teacher.

“No need to be a Sibawayh,” my teacher says.

Sibawayh was the father of Arabic grammar, who laid the foundation of modern Arabic. However, like me, he was an Arabic learner and in his mission to improve his skills he created a canon. I don’t have the same opportunities as him, but I still want to live up to his example and for that I need the right environment.

I know a Korean man who, after converting to Islam, learnt Arabic after taking a two-year course in Medina. He can speak the language. I don’t get jealous often, but I was green with envy after watching a video he posted. What is the difference between here and there? The UAE can’t be the worst place to learn Arabic? But what we do need is a revolution in teaching methods.

For students who have Arabic as a second language, the bane of their existence is the dreaded workbook. Learners can read a novel together, explore the vocabulary and differences in the dialect. It should be mind travel.

For small children, there is Mo Willem’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, which is available in English and Arabic. Reading the book is so much fun that even I read it again and again. However, they should first feel the joy of understanding the content before going into the grammar.

For adults, there are short series such as the Tekki on YouTube. It is spoken in the Saudi accent and the first season has subtitles. It offers enough opportunity to learn the grammar. The lively vocabulary and drama will leave you wanting more. It is one way to improve your understanding of the language, especially if you watch it with a teacher.

Unfortunately, this will mean that teachers will have to learn something new. This is the hard part, because many of them have force-fields thicker than anything that Star Trek’s Captain Kirk ever came up against. Even so, I am sure we can change the script on teaching Arabic.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE

Updated: January 30, 2016 04:00 AM

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