How Should Arabic Language be Taught?

    "I hate Arabic class!"

    After years of teaching in Muslim schools, Sunday schools and summer schools, this is the one universal phrase uttered by children and teenagers of all ages. I have never once heard, "I love Arabic class."

    Even if the children like the teacher, they rarely like the subject. Why is that the case? After all, we adults emphasize that Arabic is the language of Allah's last Message: the Holy Qur'an.  To know Arabic is to have the clearest understanding of what Allah wants of us in this life.

    But the youth never budge in their dislike. Can it be the youthful rebellion against learning in general? Maybe for a few, but I remember in high school that my favorite subject was Spanish. And in junior high I liked English very much.  I even wanted to take Chinese language courses but there were none offered in my home town.

    I've met Muslim kids who attend public schools, quite a few in fact, who say they love Spanish class. I even know some who are taking German or Korean in their schools- and they're so excited! So why don't the kids like Arabic class?

    Are you ready for the answer? It may surprise you and you may not agree with me. But what I'm telling you is my heart-felt observation with the goal of getting people to learn Arabic. Everyone should learn it. Allah's revelation is waiting to be unlocked in its entirety and we're out playing games in the alley. So if you're ready for very terse observations and some interesting solutions, then read on.

    I took my first Arabic classes in college as an undergrad. I loved the classes! I enrolled for a total of three in a row and had so much fun. We had a really good teacher from Jordan who had a very friendly disposition. Arabic was the hardest subject I ever had but it was made easy and fun.  Not by the teacher, necessarily, but by us students who were quite a lively bunch.   In addition, we were using the "Orange Book." (U of Michigan's Elementary Modern Standard Arabic program.) It was a very useful book and followed a logical pattern of development.

    I would often practice what I learned in the local student Masjid at Michigan State University. Most of the brothers there were from the Gulf region and were very good Muslims. I really felt comfortable there. Everyday I'd ask a brother, in Arabic, how he was, what city he was from, what he was studying, etc... The brothers were so happy I was learning their language that they opened right up and brought me close in their community.

    Two years later I transferred to another college that was closer to my home. There was no student Masjid near the university there. The closest Masjid to my house was half an hour away. I remember the first time I went there. It was a big place, frequented by professionals and doctors of Sub-Continent origin. I didn't have the comfort of anyone speaking Arabic for me to practice with. Urdu was the language of the gentry there.

    My practical knowledge of Arabic, therefore, declined. There was no one I could practice with or speak to. I began to wonder how to maintain Arabic in my head and I tried to review my old notes and lessons. But the decline went on, except for my skill at reading and pronouncing the Qur'an, which any good Muslim does everyday.

    I had a good job during that period of my life. Not financially lucrative, mind you, but "situationally" good. I was a security guard and you know what that means: pure reading time! If they say that prison is the best college of Islam, then a security job has to be at least a trade school of Islam. I read so many books even I'm amazed to this day. Of course I still did my official duties, but that would take perhaps only ten minutes of every hour. (I came to learn quickly that many of the guards there had earned their PhD's on the job!)

    I read so many ahadith in Arabic and English, so many manuals, so many ayat. In time, I found myself losing one kind of Arabic and gaining another. Let me explain. In school you are taught how to speak mundane, everyday Arabic. Phrases and words which will help you get a taxi, exchange an address or read a newspaper article about Bahrain or Yemen. But a lot of the vocabulary in the Qur'an and ahadith is of quite a different range.

    You never read about umbrellas, lemons, planes, coconuts, banks or billboards in the Qur'an and ahadith! Yet in our Arabic classes, this is what we are teaching! We say that the youth and others should learn Arabic to understand Allah's revelation but we teach them words that have no relation to understanding the language of the Qur'an!

    Let me elaborate further. As I began reading exclusively the Arabic of the Qur'an and ahadith, I was learning a set of words and phrases which were never really covered in Arabic class. In fact, I can say that most of my Qur'anic vocabulary was self-taught. Those words were never taught to me by a teacher. I had to use dictionaries and Islamic "terms" books to get them.

    What I learned in Arabic class had little impact on my ability to understand Qur'anic vocabulary, save for a few essential grammar rules and prepositions. It got to the point where I was able to understand almost all the du'at and praises that a Friday Khatib would say in the beginning and the end of his speeches! I was elated.

    Now I have about a 30-40% comprehension rate when I hear Qur'an and ahadith being said in Arabic and it's growing, slowly but surely. The realization hit me that we're using the wrong methodology in Arabic classes all over the world. I personally have never met a child from a Muslim family, born and raised in America, who acquired Arabic as a second language, without their parents being native born speakers already.

    American schools based on Islam do not produce Arabic speakers by and large. In the five Islamic learning institutions I have worked with, not one child from lower to higher grades could speak Arabic, even if they studied it for four or more years and had a variety of different teachers in that time. Sure they could say a (very) few simple phrases, but that was about it. (The kids from Arabic speaking families merely spoke their own "slang" Arabic and were not influenced by their Fus-ha (correct) lessons at all.)

    What they were learning had no relevance in their lives, either in a secular or spiritual way. (They weren't even encouraged to recite beautifully, i.e. with Tajweed!) I began to take a keen interest in the teaching of Arabic. No, I didn't start teaching it myself, I'm not qualified to do that yet. What I did was look at the methods and materials used. I quickly identified two main problems.

    The first and most serious problem is that most teachers of Arabic I have seen do not know how to teach Arabic. (Read that sentence one more time please.) It's not enough that a person can speak a language. Teaching another person to do the same is a whole different matter.

    Out of perhaps thirty teachers of Arabic in full-time and Sunday schools I've seen, only about two knew how to teach their subject. Some even spoke that "slang" Arabic that we all complain about outside the classroom! Some didn't even know correct Qur'anic Arabic. This is sad.

    Now this is a message to all those who run schools and Islamic centers: Why does a person have to study English and teaching methods for four to six years before they are allowed to teach English in the schools? Yet you are hiring people who have degrees in engineering, politics, botany or even no degrees at all, just because they happen to speak Arabic! What are you trying to do! Kids can spot a bad or untrained teacher immediately no matter what the subject. If they feel they will get nothing out of a particular class, they will "turn off" to it. Hence the call echoes in our schools and Islamic centers across the nation: "I hate Arabic class."

    We need to hire people who have degrees in Arabic, and who also took teaching methods courses as well. If the supply of people available to you doesn't fit that bill, then create what you need! Save at least a few kids from having to become slaves, er, I mean doctors, and encourage them to study Arabic in college and instructional teaching methods. In the meantime, require all your current Arabic language teachers to enroll in local colleges and take teaching methods classes. If they can't handle doing that, then maybe they shouldn't have been in your establishment to begin with!

    The second major problem I saw was in the materials used. The materials used for teaching Arabic are, in a word: substandard. Even the colorful books produced out of Chicago are often difficult to use for both students and teachers. I don't care if people with PhD's wrote the books. They are not appropriate for learning. If you don't believe me, take this challenge: gather some elementary level English books, gather some junior high level Spanish or French books, then compare them with the Arabic teaching materials we have. Quite a difference!

    The Arabic books are almost always complicated, boring and rely on endless drills of copying. Vocabulary lists are long, grammar rules are not fully explained and the water-color pictures often used look very unprofessional. (You won't see such sub-standard illustrations in non-Arabic language books.) Spanish class was fun for me because the book was fun! In addition, most of the books would be at least half in English so a student could really understand how to use Spanish. Explanations were clear and easy to read and what I didn't understand was explained to me by the TRAINED, licensed, educated teacher.

    Lots of elements of Hispanic culture were highlighted throughout the Spanish books I've used in my three years of study making me like the language, culture and lifestyle of the "Spanish" orbit. The same holds true for textbooks teaching German, French, Chinese or whatever. In contrast, our Arabic language materials don't make you feel good about Arabic or Islamic culture at all. There are no beautiful pictures and captioned illustrations highlighting everyday life. No lifestyle snippets or biographies. No fun cartoons or stories to read or interesting practice selections. The books are simply boring and complicated.

    In addition, the levels suggested by the publishers of most of these Arabic learning materials are highly inappropriate. For example, here are the directions for a child in first grade taken out of a widely used Arabic textbook: "Read the 'nunated' nouns in the right column, then read the same nouns without "nunation" in the left column adding the definite article."

    I kid you not, the book's cover says it's designed for use in first grade! And there are even more complicated passages than that! Compare a first grade English book with any first grade Arabic book. The Arabic book will seem as if it was made for child-geniuses!

    If a publisher wants to produce useful Arabic language materials, it must examine and study real children's public school textbooks for English, social studies, reading, etc... The publisher must notice how they are all set up in a certain way and study the look and "feel" of those books. Then Arabic language books can be patterned after that style and methodology.  Then children will see those subjects as "real."

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