x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Debate over Arabic instruction heats up

As schools are required to improve their Arabic lessons, parents and administrators agree the emphasis should be on quality, not quantity.

Nemah Abdulaziz teaches grade four pupils at Raha International School, a Taleem school that emphasises Arabic instruction.
Nemah Abdulaziz teaches grade four pupils at Raha International School, a Taleem school that emphasises Arabic instruction.

Robert Lakos, a long-term Dubai resident, speaks fluent Arabic. His children have been raised in an English-Arabic household, and he would like them to speak the language fluently, too. But despite taking Arabic classes since entering school, his children, now ages 13 and 16, have not advanced beyond the basics.

"They had Arabic every year at EIS (Emirates International School), but it has been ineffective," said Mr Lakos, an American. "They studied French in the same school system for a far shorter time, and they can already communicate at a reasonable level in French. "There is something wrong when they are more comfortable in French after two or three years than they are in Arabic after six or seven."

He especially regrets that his children, who now attend Jumeirah English Speaking School at Arabian Ranches, have not learned the language well enough to use it to interact more with Arabs. "Kids want to learn a language to do something with it, to talk to Arabic-speaking kids during a soccer game, or at least understand what they are shouting," he said. Mr Lakos's dissatisfaction with his children's Arabic education is not uncommon.

Parents, administrators and Government officials are at odds over how much Arabic should be required, and which curriculum and methods should be used to teach the language. This week, three Dubai schools are believed to have been demoted from an "outstanding" rating to "good" in part because of the quality of their Arabic classes. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the emirate's school regulator, chastised schools that did not improve their Arabic instruction after being found lacking in last year's initial inspections.

Last year, the KHDA found that one in 10 private schools were in violation of federal rules that govern the amount of time pupils must spend on the subjects, and student progress and attainment were low. This year, the organisation pledged to place an emphasis on Arabic and Islamic Studies during inspections, which began earlier this month. That has left schools scrambling to raise their game. Very few stressed Arabic instruction before it became an inspection criterion.

Under federal law, Arabic is compulsory until Grade Nine for foreigners, and schools must offer four Arabic-language classes per week for all grades. Non-Muslims are not required to take Islamic Studies. Arab and Muslim students must take both subjects through until the end of school, and Muslims are required to attend more classes than their foreign classmates. Schools were warned there would be penalties if Arabic was not up to scratch this year. Inspection grades are important for schools because they affect the bottom line an institution's ability to raise fees is linked to its performance on inspections.

Schools that do not teach the language well must also face disappointed parents. Hanan Saadah, a Palestinian American whose three children go to the International School of Choueifat in Abu Dhabi, moved to the UAE almost five years ago. One reason was so her children would be fluent in Arabic. She chose a private school because she wants them to be bilingual. "They are learning, it's better than nothing," she said. "They know the alphabet, how to read, how to write, but it's not what I expected coming to live in an Arabic country."

Kirsten Brooks, an Australian whose three children have been at Wellington International School in Dubai for two years, has been frustrated with their progress in Arabic. "Part of coming here was to immerse ourselves in the culture as much as we could, and I think learning the language is just an obvious part of that," Mrs Brooks said. "Most people I speak to are very happy for their children to be learning Arabic."

Wellington was instructed last year to address compliance issues related to Arabic and Islamic Studies, and she said the school had made changes to improve instruction. Mrs Brooks said a mandate that children take more Arabic classes each week ran the risk of making the children lose interest. "It's the same poor experience more often," she said. Other parents have expressed concern that as more Arabic instruction is required, it will take away time from teaching the core subjects.

"I would love to see the Ministry [of Education] acknowledge that Arabic can be taught as a modern language, like we teach other languages," Mrs Brooks said. "It only needs to be two times a week with staff who are trained, who have resources." Taaleem, which runs several schools in the UAE, is one of the few private operators to emphasise Arabic instruction. "We are committed to place special emphasis on the teaching and learning of Arabic language, Islamic history and culture," said Ziad Azzam, the chief executive of Taaleem.

Two Taaleem schools were among several private ones that received positive comments from the KHDA last year about their Arabic and Islamic Studies. Other school operators say it is difficult to find strong Arabic teachers. Although teachers are approved by the ministry, they are not required to have teaching credentials. "A lot of the training that Arabic teachers receive is very different to - the methods a British curriculum school would employ," said Debbie Watson, the head teacher at Kings' Dubai, which retained its "outstanding" ranking partially because of a strong Arabic and Islamic Studies department.

"Good teachers are hard to find in those areas," she said. "I think there needs to be a drive to put more training in place for Arabic teachers. "We do a lot of work with our teachers in-house to bring them up to speed, and it's not their fault. It's a completely different training method." Dr George Robinson, superintendent of the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, said it took his school years to put together an excellent group of Arabic teachers.

"The ones that you get, you have to train them yourself," he said. "You have to go through the whole process of training them to understand the methodologies we would use in our regular classes, otherwise the kids don't respond well." The national curriculum used to teach Arabic has also come under fire. Private schools are allowed to use their own Arabic curriculum if it is approved by the ministry.

Richard Forbes, marketing and communications director of Global Education Management Systems, the largest private school operator in the country, said finding the existing curriculum for teaching Arabic as a foreign language needs to be completely overhauled. He thinks schools need to be allowed to establish their own methods and find their own materials. "Schools are very good at finding materials to enhance the learning process," he said. "If we could truly treat Arabic as a modern foreign language, and look at the best materials that are available around the world, which the authorities would of course sign off on - that would accelerate the quality of Arabic."

Ms Watson said the ministry needed to "look at the curriculum and bring it up to speed". "The teachers spend an incredible amount of time making resources because the resources aren't available," she said. "We generally place a lot of emphasis on real life learning of the Arabic curriculum so it is contextualised - a textbook is very dry and dull." Mr Lakos said he had had the same experience as a parent. "Expat kids here think Arabic is boring, and that's a shame.

"I have spent a lot of time looking at the textbooks and the material that is given out. They are boring. "If you compare it to a French textbook or a Spanish textbook basic things like the drawings, are they appealing I'm afraid for Arabic they look old-fashioned, dull and irrelevant." Another problem, Mr Lakos said, was that schools focused on teaching classical Arabic as opposed to the language used in the area.

"We live in the UAE, so they [his children] should be comfortable with basic greetings and questions in local Emirati Arabic," he said. "I lived in Egypt for a couple of years and the first thing I learned was the Egyptian way of saying hello, how are you, where are you going. That helped connect me into the Egyptian culture. Egyptians love it when a foreigner tries to speak Egyptian Arabic. "My kids have been in school in Dubai for all this time and nobody has ever taught them the basics of Emirati Arabic.

"A lot of the expat kids taking Arabic are only here for two or three years. Why not give them some practical Arabic communication skills that are useful now and connect them better into this culture?" The current curriculum failed to teach children about Arab culture, Mr Lakos said. "My kids have spent eight, nine years in Arabic classes and they haven't learned very much culturally about the people who speak this language.

"To be honest, they are really smart kids, but they can't name all the Arab countries, they can't name all the rivers, they don't know the geography, they don't know the differences between North Africans and Gulf and Egyptians and Lebanese. "But these are the things that make Arabic fascinating. It's spoken by such a wide variety of people and the countries are so very different and interesting."

klewis@thenational.ae