Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Learning or Teaching Arabic?

Alif, Baa, Taa, Saa, no, Thaa...

Learning Arabic to understand the Qur'an didn't seem like that big of a deal to me until I attended the 10-day Bayyinah grammar course (Fundamentals of Arabic, I think) a few years ago back in North Carolina. And afterwards I didn't really see how anyone could think otherwise about learning Arabic.

Consequently, it surprised me when I found new Muslims who wanted to learn conversational Arabic--local dialects to speak with their Arab friends--instead of focusing on just the Qur'an. But why should they, if they don't even know what kind of a treasure trove the Qur'an is for students of classical Arabic?

So when I started a class for new Muslims myself, a lot of the early feedback was that they wanted to learn Arabic. Nothing fancy at first, but they needed somewhere to start--how to read the language at least. And while teaching Arabic, my focus was learning the alphabet with the sole purpose of learning to read the Qur'an.

Over the past few weeks my attempts to teach have been plagued with various hurdles, including inconsistent attendance and lack of any practice or study between meetings. I'm thinking that the first problem should be fixed by having a class devoted to Arabic for a shorter duration (in terms of weeks of meetings) but with greater frequency, instead of having it appended to a class teaching Islamic studies. Students should know that they have to go a little bit "beyond" to learn Arabic--they need to study it, I can't give it to them.

The second problem could possibly be fixed by having weekly assignments, somewhat like back in second grade. Draw the letter, match it with the name, match it with the connected form of the letter, for instance. That might encourage students to pull out their notes between class times and review--the only way they'll learn it.

Since my in-laws are staying at my home right now (alhamdulillah, it's such a blessing) I've had the opportunity to work on Arabic with my nephew, who is about 5 years old. He's using a standard book that just teaches kid to look at each letter, say it, identify any markings on it (like a madd, fatha--zabur in Urdu, tanween) and then sound it out accordingly. And he's doing a pretty good job of reading and identifying. All he struggles with is proper pronunciation of some of the sounds, especially since many of the letters appear in the Urdu alphabet he's more familiar with but have a different sound in Arabic than in Urdu.

The new Muslim students I've been teaching Arabic are at a completely different place, but I wonder if it wouldn't be best to teach them the same way? Just looking at blocks and reading: alif-fatha "a," alif-kasra "e," alif-dammah "u," and so on. I really worry that I'm just confusing them more than helping them. I've expected that they will review during the week but when we meet again some students are missing, the rest haven't practice, and I feel like I'm back at the beginning. And the next week, it's a different batch of students and I have to repeat, without moving forward (or else leaving almost everyone behind.)

So it's become abundantly clear to me that I'm not qualified to teach Arabic, at least not yet anyway. I can help my nephew review but really I'm not teaching him very much, just reading with him and making him practice. I was teaching a student privately for a few weeks, and by meeting more frequently with her she was able to progress rather quickly as compared to the class. But the only reason she was able to at first was because she practiced everything we went over together during the days we didn't meet.

Any students of Arabic who are just getting started should keep that in mind--they'll only get out of it what they put in, and putting in an hour of class time once a week isn't nearly enough. But practicing and reviewing regularly, that will make the lessons stick so the student can progress to reading and eventually understanding inshaaAllaah.

Anyone have any tips for me for teaching Arabic to adults? The class is pretty much over, but suggestions are welcome.


Umm Aaminah said...

A'salaamu alaikum sister. One thing you have to remember is that unfortunately, despite their best intentions, most people aren't going to be as committed as you would like. I don't know the make-up of your class but I know from past experience some of the issues that keep people from attending. Family responsibilities, childcare, etc.

I think your idea for a more basic format is great. Stress lots of repetition and don't think it will be too basic. In classes like these, there are varying abilities and skill levels.

Try to meet at lease twice a week. Once weekly makes a difficulty if someone has to miss and also progress is really slow. In addition to homework, hand out printed worksheets. I think it makes people feel the class is more structured.

Lastly, just encourage them. Oh and with Ramadhan coming up, alot of people get so busy with planning iftars, attending taraweeh, etc. they don't have time for classes. So you might wanna take a break for that month.

Wa Allahu alim.

Saladin said...

I've studied quite a few languages and the one thing that worked over and over is making it fun. Flash cards, word games--anything that teaches the basics. Until they have that, many people can't make progress on their own. They get frustrated and quit/slack off.

This is a great endeavor and I applaud your generosity. Teaching is hard work.

Amy said...

Umm Aaminah--thanks for the advice. I think you're totally right, and actually commitment isn't really the main problem. But with a weekly class, meeting only on Saturdays, things just come up over 12 weeks, and people just can't make it every week. It's not realistic. But meeting twice a week at least, for a month or two, that would be more productive.

And I won't be keeping the class in Ramadan, actually. I'm moving right on Eid or the day after inshaaAllaah and the class was only 12 weeks to begin with, so our last class is Aug 7th, right before Ramadan inshaaAllaah. I wouldn't expect people to come to a daytime class so much in Ramadan.

On the other hand, I will be having weekly iftars to discuss one of four chapters of the Qur'an for new Muslims--Al-Fatihah, Al-Ikhlaas, Al-Falaq, and An-Naas.

Yusuf Smith said...

As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

I'm not sure why there's any contradiction between learning conversational Arabic and learning Arabic for the purposes of reading the Qur'an. Surely that's the way we teach any language - we teach sentences, for conversation purposes and so that the student can get a feel of the language and do basic things with the language, alongside aspects of grammar. After all, native speakers of a language don't learn the grammar or to read first.

Of course, with Arabic you have to learn the script as well, and there's the added burden of the formal and spoken versions of the language being quite different, but learning to actually speak Arabic is still important, particularly in a Muslim community dominated by Arabs.

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Amy said...


Thanks for your comment, but I disagree. The Qur'an uses only a small portion of total Arabic vocabulary. Learning how to carry on a conversation might involve a very different vocabulary than what we find in the Qur'an.

Moreover, actually composing Arabic isn't necessary in order to be able to understand the Qur'an in Arabic at a basic level.

So studying those things is superfluous to actually understanding the Qur'an--which should be the goal, right?

I also haven't found the Muslim community to be "dominated" by Arabs. Non-Arabs make up the majority, at least a third of which are from the subcontinent and don't even speak Arabic.

Scholarly discourse requires Arabic but interacting with the community might not.

So I think learning to speak Arabic isn't nearly as important as being able to understand the Qur'an, which is actually quite a bit easier.