Shifting Winds in Arabic Teaching [Inside Higher Ed]

Teaching conversation skills in an Arabic classroom may seem like an uncontroversial thing. It would be standard, after all, in many introductory courses for other languages. But when Munther Younes started integrating instruction of the formal written language with a spoken dialect in Cornell University classrooms 18 years ago, he was a pioneer.

“What we’re doing that’s different … is that other programs either teach the classical language by itself – they’re a small program and they don’t have the manpower or support. Other programs that are bigger introduce a spoken dialect, but they do the two in separate tracks. What we do at Cornell is integrate the two into one track, with two sides, so students learn to read what Arabs read and write, and they learn to speak what Arabs speak,” says Younes, a senior lecturer and director of Cornell’s Arabic program.

“So it’s an honest reflection of what really happens in the Arab world.”

Arabic is characterized by a so-called “diglossic” situation, in which the formal, uniform written language (Modern Standard Arabic) differs considerably from the various spoken dialects. Traditionally, and still, the former has been privileged in foreign language classrooms — in some cases to the total exclusion of — the latter.

The reasons are complicated. Some are pedagogical — fear of confusing students in constantly switching between varieties. Some are practical — native Arabic speakers pick up the dialect at home and study Modern Standard Arabic in school, and carry that tradition to the North American classroom. And some are ideological or political. Modern Standard Arabic is the language of literature and Arab culture, while the dialects lack respect. Arab students, Younes says, “would be condemning the dialect in the strongest terms [while speaking] in the dialect.”

Younes has authored two textbooks on his approach (in elementary and intermediate Arabic, and published by Yale University Press). He clearly stands out in the field for the degree to which he practices (and authors materials on) integration of the written and spoken varieties. Yet, many describe varying degrees of integration or synthesis as occurring increasingly in pockets, and as the future direction of Arabic instruction.

Asked of his own reception by the field, since 1990, Younes paraphrases Gandhi: “First they ignore you and then they laugh at you and they fight you and then you win.”

So, he’s won?

Younes laughs, seemingly embarrassed by his own suggestion, and qualifies it. “I’m not there yet. I think it will happen, but it’s probably going to be a long time.”

On the Cutting Edge

Arabic study has been booming since Sept. 11. The Modern Language Association reported last year that the number of students enrolled in Arabic at U.S. colleges increased 126.5 percent from 2002 to 2006, the raw number growing from 10,584 to 23,974.

“These people would like to be able to speak with Arabs, converse with them, understand them,” says Younes. “If you want to converse with Arabs, you have to converse in a language they communicate with” — a spoken dialect.

In outlining his approach to teaching Arabic, Younes says that he “capitalizes” on the many shared aspects of the written and spoken forms – in his case he teaches the Levantine dialect, spoken by Israelis, Lebanese, Jordanians, Palestinians, and Syrians. (“It is mutually intelligible,” he explains, “with Egyptian and other major Arabic dialects.”)

“So students listen to things and read things, and what they listen to is going to be mostly the spoken, conversational language, and what they read will be the written language. It is done so naturally. This is exactly what Arabs do in daily life and they don’t think much about it.”

“For example, in a classroom in the Arab world, a professor would be reading a text in the literary language but discussing it in spoken Arabic, the dialect.”

Among the common criticisms is that a free mixing between the two confuses students learning the language. “We deal with it, in that we teach students how to navigate through the system,” Younes says.

“In the first semester, they start using them appropriately, because whenever we speak, we use one. Whenever we read, we use another,” says Younes. “We don’t want to simplify the situation in a way that will deceive the students…If we have to give the students two different forms, we try to help them distinguish them, which is a sociolinguistic skill that they need to develop anyway.”

“There’s no doubt about it, that it adds an element of potential confusion,” says Kirk Belnap, director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center and a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University, which has, independently of Cornell, also used an integrated approach since around 1990. “Your students, ideally you want them to keep them separate, not mix them and not be confused about what belongs to one variety and what belongs to another variety, but the fact is Arabs mix them all the time.”

“Our experience has been that the output is a happier product – we have students who are able to use the language for speaking earlier,” says Belnap.

“It’s spreading,” Belnap continues, of integration in Arabic instruction. “It’s kind of a gradual thing.”

Of Younes, Belnap says, “He’s pretty much been cutting-edge for some time.”

“He’s probably been the one who’s gone furthest in terms of publishing his materials.”

Degrees of Integration

By his own account, however, Younes’ textbooks haven’t been adopted by many colleges, and are used primarily as a supplementary resource. “It’s not competing in any way with the main textbook,” says Younes.

Even some professors who most avidly support Younes’ approach have made the conscious choice to stick with the most popular book in Arabic classrooms — Al-Kitaab — as a main text. “That’s the textbook that I knew the best,” says Uri Horesh, the new director of the Arabic language program at Franklin & Marshall College, in Pennsylvania. Horesh paid Younes two visits this summer, first to observe his Cornell classes and then to attend a workshop on Younes’ methods.

“On the one hand, I came with a very open mind. But I did know a priori that I would probably – how would I put it? – probably view his approach favorably. Because I too believe that the Arabic language in particular has to be taught as a whole.”

“It’s a sad situation that in some cases the only qualification you need to teach Arabic is that you speak Arabic. And it’s true of other languages as well. But in those institutions where teaching Arabic is more professionalized, and more than just having a bunch of people who happen to speak Arabic, I think more and more people, probably silently – and it might even be a silent majority that we don’t even know of – are trying to do what we are trying to make more public,” Horesh says.

Younes says he generally agrees with the assessment that integration is becoming more common in Arabic classrooms. But he also says he doesn’t know of anyone else that’s doing it like Cornell does. Among faculty interested in the approach, many, he says, “feel that they really cannot go all the way yet.”

Maher Awad, a lecturer of Arabic at Rice University’s Center for the Study of Languages who also participated in Younes’ summer workshop, characterizes it as a matter of degree.

“His is really an extreme version of integration, which I think it should be done that way,” says Awad. “He combines and integrates colloquial and standard [Arabic] to a higher degree than Al-Kitaab does.”

“I think it’s going to become mainstream. I am sure of it. I can see the movement towards it, but right now we are in the middle of it.”

Karin Ryding, president of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic and professor emerita at Georgetown University, puts it in a different way.

“In the past five years, about, it is now possible to raise the issue, and not be shouted down.”

Speaking Arabic at Home and Abroad

Heralding another shift in this direction, at Western Michigan University last year, Mustafa Mughazy attracted attention when he started teaching solely colloquial Arabic in the first semester of study, with an integration between Modern Standard and the colloquial thereafter. So far, continuation in Arabic from year one to year two has climbed from 50 to 75 percent.

“Well, because it’s fun,” says Mughazy, an associate professor of Arabic. He explains the impetus for the change was observing students’ frustration. In studying abroad, “Even if they studied Standard Arabic for five years, once they deal with native speakers of Arabic they realize that they cannot communicate. Native speakers of Arabic are very uncomfortable speaking in Standard Arabic.”

Again, though, changes are happening in pockets. Arguably, the professors with the most influence on Arabic instruction as a whole are the authors of the field’s most popular textbook. So what’s their vision?

“Our vision of integrating colloquial into the Arabic classroom began with the first edition, and every edition has gone further with the introduction of the colloquial,” says Kristen Brustad, an associate professor of Arabic studies at the University of Texas at Austin and one of three authors of Al-Kitaab. The series is billed as developing skills in Modern Standard Arabic while “gradually” introducing colloquial content. Rice’s Awad describes the book as 90-10 in its Modern Standard versus colloquial mix, a description Brustad agrees is generally fair.

“The second edition was really focused on exposure, exposure, exposure,” says Brustad, who adds that the third edition, forthcoming next year, will feature a heavier colloquial language component, in both the Egyptian and Levantine dialects (the current edition only includes Egyptian).

“We definitely see this as the direction. I think more and more programs are realizing that not doing colloquial in the classroom, whatever the excuse or reason, is sort of tantamount to putting your head in the sand,” Brustad says.

She points out that more students are studying abroad in Arab countries (the Institute of International Education last year reported that American study abroad in the Middle East was up 31 percent).

“The students are the ones who really see the need and want more colloquial,” Brustad says. “They don’t want to hit the ground and say, ‘Oh, now, what was that language that I studied in that classroom back there? I don’t understand a thing that’s going on around me.’”

— Elizabeth Redde for Inside Higher Education