Teaching Arabic

Homeschooling Part 6: Teaching Arabic

By Anisa Abeytia

The Arabic language holds a special place in the hearts of Muslims around the world.  Even if they are not Arabs, parents would like to give their children the gift of Arabic, but the task seem insurmountable to the non Arab. It is a doable task, when you have the right program and the discipline to implement it and stick to it. Just like with learning any other foreign language, you have to practice, practice and practice. However, unlike other languages, Standard Arabic or Fusha, is not spoken anywhere in the world. Arabs speak dialects or corrupted versions of  Standard Arabic. This can be a real drawback to any student of Arabic because you can not go somewhere and learn by immersing yourself in the language. This would be the easiest way to learn. I took years of Spanish, but it was not until I went to a Spanish speaking country that I learned to speak. I could not do this with Arabic.

The added difficulty is when you hear a language spoken incorrectly it becomes more of a challenge to learn the language correctly.  This is why heritage speakers of a language find it more difficult to learn the proper grammar of their parent’s native language than a non-native speaker. They grew up learning all of the mistakes and it is difficult to stop making those mistakes (we will discuss this further in a bit). This is not to say that the dialects do not have their place, they just are not useful when learning Arabic. 

I have been disappointed in the willingness of native Arabic speakers to exclusively speak their dialect at home. There are very few places where Arabic is spoken, not even in schools  are children learning Standard Arabic. This is a pity and now Fusha is listed as a dying language. Many people believe that they can speak it, but most can not.  As the saying goes, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” As such, it is so important for those who are interested and love the Arabic language, to use it and teach it to their children or find a way for their children to learn it.

In this article I will share with you the many ways that have and have not worked for my family and I.  We are not a completely non native Arabic speaking family, my husband is an Arab and a professor of the Arabic language. So he speaks Standard Arabic to the children. He has been our greatest resource. My one suggestion here would be, if you do not have an Arabic speaker in the family, you might want to find someone willing to answer questions. Here is an example why you might want to do that. One day I decided to look up the word plant. I wanted to say “look at all the lovely plants,” meaning green things that grow out of the ground. When my husband came home I decided to impress him with my new found vocabulary. After I said it, he look outside very confused. So I said it again, he still looked confused. Then he said ,” I don’t see any factories.”

Hear It

Believe it or not, the first step in learning a language, especially for children, is hearing it. Priming the ear for the way words are pronounced and the way sentences are put together is stage one. When a child repeatedly hears a word mispronounced (galboon for heart instead of qalboon), the child will then learn that as the propper pronunciation. As that child grows, it will be more of a challenge for him or her to pronounce words correctly. The other added hurdle is that the child does not hear the propper way a sentence is put together. Listening to people speak is a child’s first grammar lesson. This becomes very important when the child is introduced to formal grammar. They will not hear the mistakes, they will first have to unlearn their mistakes and then learn the correct way. They will have to do double work and it is a formula that is currently not working because Arab youth, world wide, are speaking more English.

This first step is the easiest. There are well made Arabic movies for children, CD’s for the computer and books on tape-not to mention the Quran. These all can be used to prepare the child’s ear.  The bookseller Noor Art (www.noorart.com) carries various sets of books on tapes and children’s songs in Arabic. We used these as well as the Jump Start series in Arabic. When purchasing videos and DVDS, the rule is, the older it is, the better the language will be. All the Disney movies are in Egyptian with the exception of Bionicle 1.  The makers of Al Jara also have wonderful movies.

We have a friend who wanted his son to learn Arabic. They are from India. My husband gave them a tape and told him to watch it as a family for 15 minutes each day. The father then bought the whole series and after five years, that little boy was speaking perfect Arabic. What is the name of the series you ask- Al Ibnu Bar. However, the important thing was the consistency. Children love to watch TV, why not make it a gateway to learning Arabic. We did not do this with our five year old daughter and as a result, she understands, but does not speak Arabic. It was a crucial step-so now we have to go back a redo it.

For those of you that can read Arabic, read to your children. Read to them for 20 minutes a day. If you have older children that read Arabic, have them read to their younger siblings. There are so many wonderful children’s Arabic books available. Even if you do not read Arabic, have those books at home for your child to look at.

Say It

When learning Arabic, this is the most difficult step for many adults, not so with children. They learn so much faster than we do.  I learned along with my children from birth, so my vocabulary was always at their level. I had to push myself to speak, but children will do this on their own if they are exposed to enough of the language. If you can find a group to do this with great, if not, do not worry. You just need to provide ways for your child’s vocabulary to expand (this is where reading comes in). You do not need a big group to learn with, as a mater of fact, it may be a hindrance.

When we were first learning Arabic, we lived on a farm in California. The Muslim community was small. We spoke Arabic at home and the children were learning very well. After seven years, we decided that it would be a good idea to move to a larger community where we could find more Arabic speakers. That way our children would have other people to speak to. Well, it did not turn out that way. There is no better way to end a conversation than to speak to someone in Fusha, it is like they are in school taking a test. We lost so much vocabulary. Then we decided to move to the Middle East and lost some more. It is sad to say that we had more opportunities to learn and speak Standard Arabic on a farm in rural America.

As your child speaks more and if you can not find a group, you may want to consider a tutor. If you have other children in the house learning, this may not be necessary.

Read It

I have found that the best age to start to teach a child to read in Arabic is between the ages of 6-7.  You can do it at a younger age, but at ages 6 or 7, it becomes so much easier. The book that I use to teach reading is out of print, unfortunately. It is similar to the book I use for English, Teach Your Child To Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I learned to read from this book, as did my children.  Fortunately, this teaching style is available on line from Al- Assas Institute (www.alassas.net).  My seven year old is using this program. I found it is the easiest and most cost effective way to teach reading and writing. I have no idea how many workbooks I have bought and never used.  Al-Assas uses a very simple approach that works.

Whatever method you select, your child will need to practice reading to get the hang of it. Make sure that they have a library of books that interest them. If you have one other family to work with, you can share a library to reduce the cost and have more books available.

Write It

Unlike English, Arabic sound like it is spelt, so if a child listened to correctly spoken Arabic, it will be much easier for them to write. The child will just need to learn how the letters are connected to make simple sentences. If you do not want to go the rout of Al Assas, then you can use workbooks or a tutor.  Noor Art carries many workbooks. Also, this homeschooling site also carries many ideas and tips on learning Arabic: http://talibiddeenjr.wordpress.com/category/arabic/worksheets/

Just like in English, learning to write in any language requires practice.


Adding Spice to Language

Once your child has mastered Standard Arabic, let them branch out into the various dialects. Dialects are the living, breathing language and add spice to a language. There are so many dialects. You might even ask your child to do a study of different regional dialects. Dialects have a place, but have your child learn them after or if that is what you speak at home, use the techniques I described in Hear It.