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What's Wrong with Arabic Language Education -- An Opinion
Culhane and AUB classmates explore Beirut's ocean environment.

What's Wrong with Arabic Language Education -- An Opinion

Thomas Culhane is a doctoral candidate in UCLA’s Department of Urban Planning. He specializes in environmental policy with a strong interest in education. He spent Summer 2003 studying Arabic in Beirut, and went on to spend the academic year at the American University of Cairo.

by Thomas Culhane

I had a wonderful time at the American University of Beirut this summer on my Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship. The campus was beautiful with the azure Mediterranean to gaze upon and the magnificent trees to study under. The staff were helpful, passionate and hospitable, the instructors brilliant, compassionate and considerate. The weekly film series, highlighting documentaries and docudramas on the tragic civil war in Lebanon, was moving, compelling and inspiring. They even brought in the filmmakers to discuss the production of their films and the political and social perspectives contained therein. The weekly field trips to historical sites, such as the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos (predating Pharaonic Egypt), the spectacular Jetta Caves, the Roman temples at Baalbek and the baths at Beiteddine were enormously enjoyable cultural outings that usually concluded with derbeki dances at villagers' homes and sing-alongs on the bus going back to Beirut. Enchanting. The weekly lectures on graduate-level topics from economics to post-modernism were fascinating… or would have been if we could have understood them. And therein lies the crux of the matter, because for all of the wonderful things about the program at AUB's Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES), very few of us learned much useful Arabic, and despite our great affection for our teachers and administrators, with a Lebanese fire in them that cannot be quelled and a real concern for their students' progress, most of us agreed that we got far less out of the intensive four hours' daily instruction than we had hoped.

Some say this is because Arabic is just a really difficult language. But I disagree. I had a conversation about this with my editor at the Daily Star, Lebanon's English-language newspaper (I covered the opening of Chicago at Baalbek, the ballet Romeo and Juliet at the new Zouk Mikhael Roman theater and French rocker Johnny Halliday's 60th birthday concert tour, all francophone performances in this divided society where the bourgeoisie still insist on speaking French). My editor is a Columbia Journalism School graduate who went through the same Arabic program last year and similar programs elsewhere and had the same sense of bewilderment, rage and disappointment. I found these feelings to reside in the hearts of many of my fellow students and even the instructors and administrators. So what's going on?

My conclusion, and the subject of this essay: Arabic language instruction suffers from the "cart before the horse" phenomenon. In this case, the cart is a hidden assumption in the American education system that by and large fuels such language abroad programs. The assumption is that Arabic is an inherently difficult language that must be taught through endless drilling in grammar and the mastery of obscure texts. The fact that the kind of Arabic one is taught in such programs is almost wholly irrelevant to real comprehension and communication in the Arab world is apparently irrelevant to those who design and impose the curricula on programs like that at AUB. So there is a disconnect. The staff strive heroically to make the experience pleasant and exciting for students and to show off their culture to its best advantage, and then they shake their heads in sadness when class attendance falls off and student performance plummets.

You would think students would be chomping at the bit to get to class every day and make sense of all the wonders they experience on the excursions and the questions raised during lectures and film screenings. But the classes and the cultural activities lacked correspondence. For the most part, class was considered drudgery, completely unrelated to the activities organized by the otherwise excellent program and irrelevant to life in Lebanon. Only the threat of a bad grade could keep most students in line.

This is not, I suggest, because Beirut is a party town (as I was told) or because everyone speaks English (they don't). And it isn't because nobody could stick to "the pledge" (we all took a pledge to speak only Arabic while on campus). Most students didn't stick to the pledge because class failed to give them the tools to communicate, and therein lies the crux of the matter.

It may seem ludicrous to say that some attention should have been paid to teaching certain students the Arabic vocabulary for partying and drinking on Monot street, for there were those who spent time doing that and unfortunately doing it in English. Or that class time should have been devoted to following the text in myriad popular magazines available at newsstands. But in a truly results-based program that could have been a legitimate use of class time, and every instructor knows it, as was obvious during class discussions that deviated from the prescribed text.

I'm not talking about the difference between `ammiyya (colloquial Arabic) and fusha (classical) Arabic here either. Since every movie and television show has subtitles in fusha, and all radio and TV announcements are in fusha, and billboards and ads and comic books and popular magazines are in fusha, there is an entire world for students of literary Arabic to mine all over Beirut. One of the best conversations occurred when our class took a break from drilling al-Qawa'id (The Rules) and a UC student did a report in literary Arabic on Terminator III which was then playing in town. But the forces controlling curriculum standardization somehow don't consider this to be "serious" Arabic study and for that reason our delightful instructors and program coordinators at CAMES were forced to do the "fun" things on the sly. The "serious" instruction, the teach-to-the-test instruction that leads to endorsement in the US, has to be pedantic, boring, mind-numbing and ineffectual. Why?

It has taken me years to work up the courage to criticize the system and suggest an answer.

When I first studied the Arabic language as an Arab-American undergraduate at Harvard, I was still reeling from the appraisal of a guidance counselor who, seeing my scores on French grammar exams, decided I had no aptitude for foreign languages and should avoid any field of study that required them. I was stubborn and persistent, however, for I wanted to be involved in International Development. I plunged into Arabic, Spanish and Indonesian with a passion over the next four years, earning my A's and gaining enough facility in all of them, as well as French, to navigate comfortably, if not with fluency, around the globe. I found I did particularly well when I went to the country and traveled in the hinterlands, carrying along comic books and a dictionary for self-study.

But I was always dissatisfied with my achievements in grammar and blamed myself and my "lack of aptitude" for the struggle I went through to get a language under my belt. At that time I had a certain faith in education systems with high credentials. It never occurred to me that there could be deep structural flaws in the way languages in general, and Arabic in particular, are taught, and that these flaws, not any deficiency in aptitude, might explain why I found it so hard to learn a language like my ancestral Arabic, and why there were so many other students like me.

It took working as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language with the Department of Public Service in Cairo for a year, and then as a Sheltered English teacher in south Los Angeles for eight years, servicing immigrant Latinos, "at-risk" African-American teens, and gang kids, to convince me that the methodology we use to teach foreign languages (and almost every other subject, particularly rule-based systems such as math and science) is the real culprit behind the tragic idea that some disciplines and subject matters are inherently difficult, and worse, that some people (and some groups of people!) are simply no good at them. This is something Foucault and Marx would have no problem recognizing: a type of power politics that maintains class divisions and keeps power pooled in certain locations.

What my marginalized "troubled" students taught me in their struggle to learn in the ghettos of Cairo and LA is that most educational difficulties are really struggles of resistance by healthy minds in a state of constant rebellion against a kind of pedagogical imperialism. For those of us descended from oppressed cultures, Arabs, Africans, Mayans, Native Americans (many, like me, raised in the United States), the phenomenon is acute. On some deep pre-conscious level we perceive any attempt to use rewards and punishments (grades, peer competition, differential praise, insults, disappointed or threatening looks, threats of undesirable future consequences should we fail, all in the teacher's toolkit of social control) as an insultingly pavlovian way to get us to conform to a system of rules and therefore an imposition to be fought against and a moral outrage to be protested. And so we undermine our own learning.

Then begins a perpetual cycle of self-flagellation and further failure, as we internalize the historical process of "blame the victim" that has kept our people in our homelands oppressed, and we blame ourselves for lacking some natural ability to learn the subjects in the way that the power hegemon has institutionalized them.

It turns out that I'm actually quite good at Arabic. In the streets of Cairo I excel at negotiating, I can get around the entire Arab world by myself without fear, and I can read complex texts that few others at my level can handle. So why do I still struggle with the exams? And why are Arabic classes so painful? And why did I not enjoy the Arabic classes at AUB this summer despite the fact that I loved my instructors?

The problem with Arabic language education, I believe, stems from attitudes inherent in East-West relations, heir to the colonialist moment in history, subject to the worst paradoxes of "Orientalism" and what Palestinian scholar Edward Said calls "othering." In one of our intensive four-hour classes this summer, our wonderful and impressively able instructor Abdullah asked us to converse in Arabic on the topic, "Is the Arabic language harder than any other language, particularly English?" The consensus, hammered out in a furious flipping through dictionaries by student teams cobbling together sentences and arguments: No, Arabic is no harder, it's just poorly taught.

I won't go into all the supporting evidence students gave for the conclusion that all languages can be considered equally easy or difficult to learn, for it gets very philosophical, delving into the very purpose of language as a medium of communication. But I will explore why learning Arabic this summer was a very frustrating experience and how it may be improved, both at AUB and throughout the world.

First of all, Arabic is poorly taught not because the teachers are not qualified, for they are immensely well qualified. I submit that they are burdened by fear of reprisal by the Hegemonic Demagogues who control the discourse of education theory and practice.

It is one thing when an Arabic language program in a US institution alienates its students. Many of us have observed that American schools find it difficult to produce even bilingual graduates, let alone the polyglots that emerge in almost every other nation. American cultural arrogance and the stigma attached to speaking "foreign" languages in everyday life, to say nothing of the dearth of foreign materials in the everyday media, from billboards to street signs to television broadcasts, ensure that learning another tongue is a terrible challenge in the US.

But when Arabic programs fail to engage their foreign students in the Arab world itself, where saturation in the linguistic and cultural experience is guaranteed, I consider it a crime. And I put most of the blame on a suspicion I have that the Hegemonic Pedagogues who march in lockstep with the Controlling Demagogues consider Arabic to be an immensely difficult language which may not, nay, must not be taught in an entertaining, enjoyable and brain-compatible manner. Forget the fact that you don't need to be able to properly insert the harakat (vowel marks) to read the newspaper (excuse the pun, but diacritical marks are not critical!). Forget the fact that you can put the verb in the wrong position and still read and appreciate Khalil Gibran and converse about his poetry with the girl you are trying to woo. Arabic programs always insist that you master the nuances of grammar first, before you learn how to think in and understand Arabic! What a crime it would be if students followed a six-week program at AUB and went home knowing how to translate popular Arabic songs, magazines, television programs and novels, and could talk about the great movies they'd seen! No, they must suffer through endless grammar drills and vocabulary tests on words they will never use because that is how it is done!

Perhaps the survivors of these programs will learn Arabic if they stick with it for ten years. It reminds me of a teacher I knew when I worked at Crenshaw High School in the 'hood. He said, "I was a C-student all my life. I had to struggle to learn and I'll be damned if these kids are gonna have it easy. They have to suffer like I did, dammit." He hated those of us who made learning fun. But Arabic can be fun, and as soon as my formal Arabic course ended, ironically, I really started learning Arabic, going to children's bookstores and buying tapes of illustrated adventure stories.

My best learning during the course happened when our instructor bucked the trend and let us give Powerpoint presentations in Arabic on topics of our own choosing. Imagine ignoring the foundational vocabulary related to the activities of the minister and the meetings between envoys and all the other important people in society who control official discourse! But even though we learned a massive amount when our instructors moved outside of the normal curriculum (I learned all the vocabulary related to urban planning and the natural environment, topics rarely covered in the newspapers), these forays into meaningful learning did little to prepare me for the standardized exam tied to the Al-Kitaab series, which tested only the hegemonic vocabulary of big-man politics.

Let me describe a few of the foibles of Arabic language education that I experienced this summer. The textbooks almost invariably focus on readings, vocabulary drills and exercises completely tangential to the interests, experiences and needs of the students. Instead of being tailored to the real life experience of the student living in, adjusting to and hoping to make friendships and functional relationships in the Arab world, the texts contain the following four tacit assumptions:

  • The best of Arabic culture occurred in the past.
  • The only things of value in contemporary Arabic culture revolve around politics, politicians and conflicts.
  • The factor most germane to the study of the Arab people and thus worthy of endless discussion concerns the way that women are treated or perceived in the Middle East.
  • Since the West is obsessed with Islam as our generation's Evil Empire, Arab culture should be studied with an eye toward figuring out just what those Muslims are all about.

Thus the students are forced to slog through texts that generally come from:

  • periods ranging from 600 to 1400 AD, interesting for historians but hardly useful for the conversations one expects to have with a "real" Arab that one befriends during the program of study;
  • dry newspaper articles on the statements of this or that minister of the republic of this or that nation concerning the current state of affairs as discussed in the recent meeting of the council held to review the latest developments in the policy concerning the recent motion set forth and ratified by the governing body last Thursday;
  • male scholars noting the achievements of some amazing Arab woman at the turn of the century who shocked the world by demonstrating she actually had a brain, implying perhaps (one hopes) that today's Arab women should not be regarded or relegated to the role of a man's domestic servant (to which contemporary Arab women and male non-chauvinists say "Duh!");
  • religious texts (chiefly the Qur'an) and commentary suitable for a theology major but of little interest to most beginning and intermediate students.

I do not mean to imply that there is not a time in one's Arabic language education when one would want to study this kind of material. I intend to master it all one day. But it is not for students who can't yet think in Arabic or converse fluently on a daily basis. Thank God I was fortunate enough to have Michael Cooperson and Natalie Khazaal at UCLA who allowed and encouraged us to study and translate texts of interest to us, texts germane to our majors, who brought in contemporary materials that had humor and excitement and really reflected what's going on in Arab culture today, and who tied the translation of historical texts to broader courses in history that supplied all the necessary context. Yet the four types of text I mentioned above, in broad strokes, are examples of what we have been forced to endure everywhere else that I have tried to formally study Arabic, both in the US and abroad (in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon). The end result is that very few foreigners gain fluency in the language with any rapidity (if at all: many give up), and when they compare it with their experiences studying, for example, intensive Spanish (which I did both at university and in Guatemala), they conclude that Arabic is very difficult, and certainly harder than those other languages. Yes, Virginia, and the Arabs are difficult people too, more difficult than other peoples, so watch out!

I say all this bitterly as an Iraqi-Lebanese-Irish-American who has suffered the disillusionment and discrimination that comes from having a definitively Arab look in a society that has always treated Arabs with suspicion if not hostility. I say this also as the product of a strong-willed Iraqi mother who is facing danger every day in Baghdad where she works with the Coalition to "reconstruct" her homeland. My mother, who is the only female Iraqi national in charge of Educational Reform throughout Iraq, wants me to join her in her work in her native land where she hopes I can employ my skills as a UCLA Urban Planning MA recipient and doctoral student, and she is impatient with the progress I and every other foreigner she meets and works with are making in her native tongue. "Ummi" is a professor of psychology, a scholar with a doctorate in Education, and a dedicated educational reformist who, like me, believes the problem is not with the Arabic language but with the hegemony in the way it is taught.

Let us move beyond the marginally relevant texts and on to the substance of the coursework. In order to "stick to the text" (the first mistake of any education program!) and "satisfy the scope and sequence of the methodology" (a fallacy deadly to the non-linear nature of human minds, as we know from Multiple Intelligence Theory) and "standardize the experience" so that a grade from AUB would be commensurate with the grade one would receive at a similar program in an American university, we spent most of our time in the advanced intermediate class this summer drilling the dual form. The irony is that we rarely ever use the dual form in real life. A further irony is that every student understood what the dual form was and knew what it looked like from their beginning Arabic class. All could identify it in a text passage and properly translate it on the first day.

But what all could not do was use the dual forms correctly in a self-generated text. So we drilled and drilled, trying to get everyone in class to know when to use the case ending -ani and when to use -ayni, wasting precious hours that could have been spent conversing and mastering the subtleties of linguistic meaning. And most of us still didn’t get it in the end. In fact, they were still drilling it in the advanced class. I know this because I placed into the advanced class when I arrived, and after a week I chose to go down a level because of the disappointing emphasis on exacting grammatical forms.

Besides the dual form, we wasted endless hours drilling other grammatical forms, and because the course was to be taught in Arabic only (total immersion, just as if you were being raised in an Arab household, except that Arab parents don't usually drill their kids in grammar, they read them fairy tales and books like Discovering Your World with great pictures of space ships and dinosaurs, as I know from spending time with Lebanese friends who have small children), we had to memorize obscure grammatical terms for concepts most of us had detested studying in English and only dimly remembered (nominative, accusative, genitive, indirect object, etc.) We memorized almost 50 terms for grammatical parts of speech instead of 50 terms that would help us understand the weekly lectures we attended but barely understood.

Even though one of these fascinating lectures was given by our brilliant instructor Abdullah, he could not devote class time to preparing us for his lecture because he had to be a slave to the textbook series used in the UC system and elsewhere in the US which scholars have deemed the preferred way to prepare non-Arabs for Arabic, even though the students, the teachers and the Arab administrators hate it. And this is because somewhere in the sclerotic bastions of the educational establishment it has been decided what the experience must be for students coming to the Arab world. To be eligible for stateside funding like FLAS and other fellowships, I gather that summer intensive language programs should generally conform to certain guidelines. And the administrators of these programs in the Arab world are not blind to this, though many lament it. As the director of CAMES told me with a sigh, "I think the book is awful too. But until somebody writes a book or designs a curriculum that is not only better but is approved over there, well, we're stuck. Who will write such a curriculum? Will you?" She wasn’t being facetious, she meant it. We need an Arabic program that can benefit from over 100 years of educational reform, from John Dewey to Montessori to Howard Gardner, and lead us out of the dark ages of drill and kill and this constant insistence on grammar so that standardized tests can be given and people graded and put in boxes. Teach them well, say the luminaries in education, make it relevant and interesting and exciting, and they will come to the grammar themselves.

Grammar is an inherent structure according to Chomsky, and there are places built into our psyches for the rules to fit. Pedagogically, grammar is an emergent phenomenon, a post-facto pattern recognition process that springs into full comprehension when a mind begins to make sense out of chaos. Brains are pattern-seeking devices, we want rules, form and formality and sense made out of our world. We secretly crave grammar, and we secretly crave rules and order, just as my Iraqi relatives and friends tell my mother they secretly want the benefits that American intervention can bring to Baghdad: law and order and development. What we resist is an occupying power telling us when and how to accept the terms of that order and those rules. In language programs we fight grammar and the rules of syntax not because we don't want the mental discipline to speak Arabic correctly and fluently. Of course we want that. We'd all be poets if we could be! No, we resist it because it is imposed on us at the beginning of our journey, instead of being offered as a key along our path that will open many doors to the delicious "aha" moments that make a language take hold. When Arabic instruction is liberated so that the student can learn in the way he or she learns best and can come out of a six-week intensive program being able to talk about the things of most vital concern to his or her own inviolate mind, rather than being able to pass yet another exam, then and only then, I believe, will the money invested in teaching Arabic to Americans begin to have the positive impact that we who enroll in these programs dream of: the flourishing of true peace and democracy in the Middle East and at home.

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