Recently, I was asked an interesting question about how excerpts from the Qur’an can be used to teach students studying Arabic as a Foreign Language using Communicative Language Teaching methods. This blog entry aims to address this question. First, I will present some thoughts for consideration prior to inclusion of Qur’anic verses into Arabic programs. Secondly, I will offer suggestions for activities and tasks.
Inclusion of Qur’anic excerpts in Arabic programs;
1. Objectives for Arabic and Islamic subjects need to be different.
Program developers should always keep their goals for the Arabic program distinct from their goals for Islamic subjects. More importantly, students, should be able to perceive that the goals of their Arabic subject are similar to the goals of their English language subjects and different to the goals of their Islamic subjects.
Therefore, an Arabic program should not focus on memorization of verses and/or their recitation but should focus on the comprehension of the content of the verses when read and heard.
Additionally, while Islamic subjects at schools introduce the Qur’an to young learners for recitation and memorization an Arabic program should not follow the same approach.
2. Careful selection of excerpts;
3. We should not teach to the excerpt but teach language and introduce an appropriate excerpt.
In the same way that we should not be teaching to the test, we should not be teaching to the excerpt. Excerpts should be introduced after incremental learning of the target language items has occurred over a period of teaching and deemed acquired through coursework activities and/or assessment. Material could be slightly above the students' level but comprehension should not be contingent on teachers' translation.
Possible classroom activities;
The connection between Arabic and Islam is clear, yet few Muslims have really learned Arabic and fewer Muslim children want to study Arabic as they get older. This reality is connected to the prevalence of beliefs about learning and teaching that are counterproductive at times.
One such belief is often expressed through statements such as; we don’t need to know how to communicate in Arabic or we just want to understand the Qur'an. Simply put, this belief defines Arabic as a tool of religious practice. Accordingly, this belief has led to Arabic often being equated with reading religious scripture and has caused teaching Arabic to become greatly based on translation and grammatical analysis of selections of religious text even when dealing with children.
In practical terms this often involves hours of analyzing the grammatical functions of words as well as memorizing lists of verbs and vocabulary. This approach contradicts knowledge of and research into; what language learning involves and how it may be achieved.
To better understand why this is problematic, please consider the following analogy. A refugee who has recently arrived in Australia and knows no English attempts to learn English by reading and grammatically analyzing Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Clearly, this refugee cannot achieve their goal by bypassing all stages of learning that would normally lead up to reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Similarly, if this refugee’s only goal was to read English with comprehension, starting with Shakespeare’s Macbeth and in this way would still be inappropriate. Firstly, due to the nature of the text and its difficulty. Secondly, because they would lack all of the prerequisite knowledge needed to understand or appreciate the work.
While this is an ineffective course of action for an adult refugee, please imagine the futility of this course of action if the refugee was in fact a child. Although, many of us would agree Macbeth would be unsuitable for a five or even a ten-year-old, we give our children scriptural text when we try to teach them Arabic.
Confining the learning of Arabic to; deciphering, translation and grammar study of scripture inadvertently causes more harm than good. This is especially true, when coupled with suggestions that we can bypass all stages of Arabic learning and dive into grammatical analysis, reading and translation of scripture, which is a linguistically complex example of the Arabic language.
Additionally, while isolating a sub-skill of language, in this case reading, and equating it with all learning of that language is counter-intuitive, I find that choosing this approach when teaching children Arabic is an even more questionable decision. Yet, Children's Arabic classrooms are heavily invested in this choice of practice as literature on the teaching of Arabic indicates.
Ultimately, these statements and associated learning and/or teaching behaviors point to a lack of understanding of two important facts. Firstly, that children and adults learn very differently. Secondly, that reading with comprehension is based on a communicative language ability.
In this regard, one of the points of confusion is often the term "communicative". Many assume that this means "conversational Arabic" only and that pursuing this learning is in some sense frivolous. More importantly, they make this assumption and forget that even conversational Arabic requires a great degree of prerequisite knowledge.
Communicative ability in a language typically includes “grammatical, discourse, strategic and socio-cultural” * knowledge that manifests aurally-orally and if the person is literate; in their reading and writing as well. Therefore, communicative competence in a language is:
However, more importantly these statements completely disregard the fact that the Islamic revelation was first and foremost an aural-oral revelation to and through the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ who is known to have been an “unlettered man”. If the Prophet had no knowledge of “reading and writing” it would be safe to say he was not a “grammarian” either (especially when we know that Sibawayh authored Al-Kitab, arguably the first written grammar codex, centuries after the Prophet’s passing).
Naturally, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was granted special knowledge and understanding of the message he was to convey, through his “communication” with Gabriel and because he was under the tutelage of the Almighty ﷻ. However, most of the people living in his time were not literate grammarians either, but still came to appreciate and glorify the “Quran” as “perfection” to a “miraculous” degree of; the linguistic, poetic, rhetorical and story-telling skills appreciated at the time of revelation.
This appreciation, with which many of the public received the Qur'an, was built on comprehension that was firmly embedded in their “communicative competence” *. This communicative ability and competence was in effect; an inherent understanding of how Arabic worked grammatically, how this grammar manifested and should manifest in their daily discourse, a knowledge of word and phrase meanings and a socio-cultural understanding of appropriateness, idiomatic use, registers as well as a strategic ability to adapt verbal language and contextualize it so as to compensate for deficiencies in other areas should the need arise. This competence and associated prerequisite knowledge was gained through having undergone the natural developmental stages of attaining their; communicative Arabic.
Even today, many illiterate Arabs in the Middle East , can tap into the surface level meanings of the words they hear in scripture through an understanding of communicative Arabic. They are consequently able to make connections with explanations of the text as well as appreciate the beauty of what they hear.
However, unfortunately, many learners of Arabic as a Foreign Language (FL) and indeed many teachers of Arabic as a Foreign Language (FL) feel that they can bypass learning communicative Arabic and go straight to literary and grammatical translation of the text to attain an understanding of a heavily nuanced conversation between the Almighty ﷻ and his faithful that is embellished with literary jewels only knowledge of Arabic can reveal. This is unfortunately a myth that needs to be dispelled.
* Savignon, S. J. (1987). Communicative language teaching. Theory into Practice, 26(4), 235-242.
* Savignon, S. J. (2002). Interpreting Communicative Language Teaching: Contexts and Concerns in Teacher Education. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press.
The struggle with remembering vocabulary is the big elephant in any language classroom. One of the most important things to note in this regard is that: you are not alone. All students find mastering vocabulary a challenge. This is not a surprise given that the core vocabulary of any language is around 3000 words.
Mastering vocabulary is essential so it is important to find ways that can help you remember the words better.
Here are a few tips and tricks:
1. Songs / Music: wherever possible try to find a song that covers the target language and sing along to that although it sounds like a silly thing to do when you are a grown up. There is scientific evidence that suggests that even individuals suffering from dementia can recall words set to songs better.
If there are no songs available it is really worth it to you to try making up your own. Set the words you aim to learn to a tune you know. That’s what advertisers on TV do… isn’t it?
2. Associations: we remember better when we connect what we are learning to things we already remember. There are many ways of doing this, so you have to find what works best for you and is best suited to what you are learning.
You can associate new vocabulary with words you already know in the language you are learning, similar words in your native language or things you have seen, smelt, heard or experienced. Sometimes you may need to make silly associations. I find that this trick works best for me if I am tackling lists.
Here are some examples:
- Sulphur is yellowish in colour and sounds like the Arabic word aSfar / yellow.
- Azure means blue and has an Az sound in it like the Arabic word azraQ / blue.
- واحد / one : has one aleph in it (highlighted in red).
- The letter ف (fa) looks like a fellow lying flat on his back.
- Tuesday الثلاثاء sounds like the number three ثلاثة the middle chunk of Tuesday looks similar too.
- قطة / cat sounds similar to the English word cat.
- The letter ك looks like Aladdin’s shoe.
3. High traffic Lists: It is not a bad idea to make a short list of about 5 words using a big bright font and pin it up in the high traffics areas of your home like your fridge door for example. Look through the list very quickly when you go to get your next glass of water. Don’t stand and memorize the list, just look through it very quickly as you would a post-it note.
4. Repetition: here I am NOT referring to rote memorization. For example, when you repeat a telephone number over and over in your head to remember it. I mean repeat the learning in different ways. Try to see, read, listen, speak, write and play whenever you tackle any new vocabulary set.
5. Multi-task: Do your Arabic vocabulary alongside something else you do on auto-pilot.
Here are some examples:
- Using Arabic to workout.
o If you are running on the treadmill put your list in front of you. Read your words as your run.
o If you are doing sit-ups use your Arabic words to count.
- If you are showering sing your Arabic song of the day.
- If you are cooking listen to a recording you made/or have of the words.
6. Stay positive: the emotional roller-coaster associated with language learning is a reality. You have days when all is dandy and others when you’ve had enough. On the days when you are struggling to manage your chores, work, kids and vocabulary remember that it is not you and that language learning is a very hard thing to do.
Make a conscious effort to approach the vocabulary set as a fun challenge rather than a horrible burden. However, do not force yourself too much. Maybe this is a day that you should dedicate to watching a film or listening to contemporary music in the target language.
Language is the most important bridge to another person’s heart. One of my favourite quotes on this matter is by Nelson Mandela. Mandela explains that “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head” whereas “ If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”
Learning language breaks down some cultural barriers, as language and culture are so intertwined that one could say that learning the language of a people is in fact a window into their culture. For when you learn another language, you gain some insight into the perspectives and spirit of the people who speak it. This will ultimately only add to you as a person and to your understanding of life. For as Federico Fellini says, “a different language is a different view of life”.
These two points are essential because cultures are bound to meet through business, sharing of technology and knowledge, tourism and political endeavors. It is also a reality that when cultures meet; they are also bound to clash. This cultural interaction is necessary for as Ghandi says, “no culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive”. This cannot ring any more true than in this age of globalized communication that has made interaction with the other effortless but has also increased chances of cultural misunderstanding and cultural misrepresentation.
Essentially, whether you are traveling for business or leisure you will most probably meet people that are different to you and that speak another language and knowing the language of your destination can only enhance the experience for all other parties involved. As you will be able to appreciate the people, their arts and way of life a lot more. You will also have a better chance of making meaningful friendships and increasing business as well as work or overseas study opportunities.
However, interestingly enough, learning another language hones your skills at your own language. For as you look at another language critically you are inevitably going to compare it to your own. What happens is you suddenly realize that you are learning things about your own language that you did not notice before because you have taken it for granted all along. In addition to becoming better acquainted with your own language and culture, as they are a packaged deal, you also keep your brain working and access areas that you may not have accessed earlier.
In fact, research indicates that learning language helps with offsetting dementia by four or five years (refer to Thomas Bak and Suvarna Alladi’s work on bilingualism and dementia). Additionally, research in the areas of language acquisition shows that when you learn language you will also implicitly learn how to learn a language because your metalinguistic awareness increases.
Ultimately, when you learn a language you add to your repertoire of cognitive and life skills a skill that cannot be isolated and taught at a school or university. Although research results in the area are mixed, there is evidence to suggest that competence in two languages increases chances of acquiring a third language. So what are you waiting for?
One of the first things to keep in mind is that less is more. So do not overwhelm yourself with long lists of vocabulary, many sheets of grammar or long hours of study. It is much better to work at learning a few words or concepts at any one time. Additionally, keep your study sessions short. I often tell my students that 5-10 minutes are enough if done regularly.
Let us look at some practical examples:
- If you are studying assigned words then choose the five most important ones and that will be your quota for the session.
- If you are studying grammar (at any proficiency level) then focus on one concept only. So for example, if you are a beginner learning to use the attached pronoun my then that is your quota for the session.
- If you are looking at verbs. Then first break up the task by either focusing on pure grammatical conjugations or meaning.
a) If you are learning meanings, then take on only what you can chew and stick with the five-word quota.
b) If you are studying conjugations then DO NOT attempt to learn all conjugations in one sitting. Focus on two at most. Do either the present and past tenses that correspond to a single pronoun or study two pronouns in a single tense.
The second thing to keep in mind is that we all learn differently. Always bear in mind that what works for other people will not necessarily work for you and that this applies to both the technique and pace of learning.
In terms of technique: think about how you learn other things best and then apply that technique to your quota. For example, rote memorization does not work for me. I find that I remember best if pin the words up where I can see them constantly without having to actively study them.
In terms of pace: there is no speed limit associated with learning language. You can go as fast or as slow as you need to in order to succeed. You alone can be the judge of this aspect. Do not feel bad if you are slower than someone else is and do not get overly excited if you are better than someone else is. The question you should always ask yourself is: did I do everything I needed to, to get this far? If the answer is , yes, then the time you took to acquire what you did, is your pace.