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:
- more comprehensive than knowledge of grammar
- broader than just mastery of one language skill such as reading
- deeper than knowing many lists of words
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.