RECENT correspondence to Saudi Gazette on the subject of learning Arabic shows that the will is there among some foreigners in the Kingdom, as well as the service, to an extent.
Yet many don’t feel they are making much progress or give up in frustration. There are several unusual factors preventing foreigners from learning Arabic, particularly in the Gulf, but the most important lies in a fundamental flaw in the teaching of Arabic itself, a flaw which derives from the Arabs’ own attitude to their language and misconceptions in how language is used and learnt.
Most learners of Arabic will have been told that they should learn “FusHa” – classical Arabic - the Arabic of the Qur’an, or a modernized version, “standard Arabic”, as used in the media. They are told that this is “correct” Arabic. They are further told that they can use this Arabic from Tangiers to Muscat and everyone will understand them.
Yet classical Arabic, or modern standard Arabic, is the native tongue of not a single person. It is not used in daily discourse, it is not used in a great many television programs and films, it is not used in a great deal of poetry and song, and it is not used when a group of Arabs sit around in a café chatting. It is not even used when a group of Arabs of different nationalities sit around in a café chatting.
The mother tongue of Arabs is the dialect of their region. Arabs start to learn classical Arabic – much like a foreign learner - when they go to school.
Foreign learners, therefore, are willfully cut off, both socially and linguistically, from all those areas where standard Arabic is not used, with their language-learning experience limited to a series of contrived or controlled situations. And that is no way to learn a language.
If one expects to learn the language of Arabs by being in an Arab country and being surrounded by the language, then studying standard Arabic there becomes redundant, for one could just as well learn it with a pile of books and a wi-fi connection on a beach in Hawaii, which could also save the student a lot of money, especially if he’s from Hawaii.
Language is an interactive creature. The learner needs to be reading it, writing it, speaking it and hearing it in all contexts of life, with all the varieties of language use that entails.
The teaching of Arabic tries its very best to ignore these “varieties”, for once we move into their realm, we move into the world of Arabic dialects, and without the teaching of dialect those vast areas of society that function in it will remain out-of-bounds to learners of Arabic.
The reality is that standard Arabic and dialects coexist in Arab society. To focus on one at the expense of the other – for whatever motive – only impedes the learning process of both, and in truth, any learner who manages to achieve a degree of competency in one will have found it virtually impossible to avoid achieving a similar degree of competency in the other, because while learning either one competently the learner will have to have had considerable exposure to situations where both are used.
Endless academic studies have been carried out on the differences between dialects and standard Arabic, but it is sufficient to say here that they share a lot of vocabulary and grammar, enough usable material, to make the learning of one an aid to learning the other.
And by being exposed to both, the learner will have greater exposure to either one of them than they would have by being restricted exclusively to situations where only one is used.
Yet despite the wealth of common linguistic matter to dialects and standard Arabic, and the possibility of increasing the learner’s exposure to both by taking part in wider varieties of language use, almost all teaching of Arabic ignores – indeed, forbids - dialects and focuses exclusively on standard Arabic. And to do so, it insists that learners actively avoid aspects of Arab life where it is not used.
In fact, Arabic must be one of the very few cases where the local language teacher tells his foreign students at the end of the class: “Now go out and don’t use it!”
So why aren’t dialects taught as extensively as they should be? The perception remains among Arabs that classical Arabic is “correct” Arabic, and that the forms of speech that the whole of the Arab world uses in its daily discourse are a corrupt form of classical Arabic, and somehow “wrong”, despite their apparent effectiveness in communication.
Others point to the fact that dialects are never written in formal communications, despite their significant presence in some forms of poetry, and their increased public use in internet chat rooms and forums.
However, if we are to neglect one form of language because it is not written, why not, by the same token, neglect another form of language because it is not spoken?
Another argument says that with so many Arab dialects it’s impossible to learn them all, and that’s probably true. But it’s as true for native Arabs as it is for everyone else. Do Arabs themselves know them all? Does an Arab student in America have to know all the variations of British speech to be able to talk to an Australian?
The reality is that, just as someone from Portugal can get together with someone from Mozambique and Brazil and have a jolly chat without going to artificial lengths to change their speech, so too do Moroccans and Egyptians and Yemenis and Iraqis happily converse in dialect in daily life and, for the skeptics, on television.
Some Arab teachers argue that teaching a dialect and standard Arabic side-by-side would confuse the student. That may happen when learners only know several words, but any more than that and learners who participate in different areas of language use will most likely distinguish between when, where, how and with whom different types of language are used, just as he does in his native tongue.
Learners of English will rapidly discover when not to use language they’ve recently picked up from a Shakespearian sonnet, and when not to use certain slang expressions they’ve picked up on a night on the tiles.
It might, however, also be suggested that if they can successfully read and use the language of Shakespeare in the first place then they’re unlikely to need to be told when it is and isn’t appropriate.
In other words, use of language is part of the learning process, and the aim should be to facilitate it as much use as possible.
In any case, language, and the learning process, is naturally confusing for the native speaker as well as for a foreign learner.
Children are known for picking up new expressions in their native tongues and then using them inappropriately to the wrath or the amusement of their audience. Foreign learners go – inevitably have to go - through the same process if they are to succeed. By denying them the opportunity to enter into that process, they are being denied the chance to learn.
Students’ language needs are straightforward. Put simply, language learners want, as their ultimate goal, to learn what native speakers have learnt in order to be able to communicate effectively with them.
They want to speak like them, read like them, understand like them, and write like them. By insisting exclusively on standard Arabic, the teaching of Arabic deliberately only provides half this service, and as a result makes it twice as ineffective.
Language teaching should reflect the reality of the language, not an ideal which serves only to turn it into a scholarly pursuit, affording only a relationship between student and paper.
It should not lead to a situation where the learner can study the language for years and then go out into the street where the language is spoken and barely understand a word people are saying, and it should certainly not do that by design.