Students, faculty join nationwide debate over Arabic language curriculum

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 10:39pm

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Design by Sherry Chen

LSA sophomore Nisreen Khokhar is currently enrolled in Arabic 402 and has taken various Arabic courses at the 100 and 200-levels throughout her college experience. Like Arabic language students across the nation, Khokhar and others in the University of Michigan’s Department of Middle East Studies currently go back and forth about whether or not the University should be teaching Modern Standard Arabic or informal Arabic dialects, like Egyptian or Levantine.

“Honestly, I would love more exposure to dialect, but at the same time, because there’s so much difference (between MSA and dialect), that I think MSA tends to be what foreign language students learn in general,” Khokar said. “I think the fact that (the department teaches) both in the first two years is actually pretty great because it gives you an introduction.”

Arabic is characterized as a diglossic language, meaning that it has formal and informal registers that are used in different circumstances. MSA and Classical Arabic — known as Fush’a — are used in newspapers, books, official documents and other formal correspondences, while informal Arabic — known as Ammiya — is typically present in music, pop culture and spoken among family and friends. MSA is first learned in school, while Ammiya is most Arab speakers’ vernacular.

Between 2006 and 2009, enrollment in Arabic language programs grew by 47 percent across U.S. universities, sparking increased debate about whether to teach colloquial Arabic dialects in addition to MSA. Currently in the department, the first two years of coursework are focused on both MSA and dialect, but the curriculum shifts exclusively to MSA in the levels that follow.

LSA junior Owen Hughes enrolled in Elementary Arabic I his first semester at the University. As a new student pursuing mathematics, he said studying Arabic gave him the opportunity to think in ways his other classes didn’t allow. Currently, Hughes is taking Intermediate Arabic II, the fourth course in the sequence focused on the Egyptian dialect. Introductory Arabic classes, which are housed under the Department of Middle East Studies, teach formal Arabic in conjunction with either Levantine or Egyptian dialects.

Hughes said while it is useful to know MSA — Arabic’s formal register — the department’s structuring of dialects occasionally makes it difficult to converse with native speakers.

“During the first year, I spoke like four words of colloquial Arabic,” Hughes said. “I didn’t know the grammar, I knew almost none of the vocabulary and we never used it in class. So when you go and speak it with a native speaker, there are no native speakers of formal Arabic— they don’t exist.”

Wijdan Alsayegh, a lecturer in the Department of Middle East Studies, said the debate over whether to teach colloquial in addition to formal is central to Arabic language programs across the country.

“This is the essential debate in American universities,” Alsayegh said. “You are going to find this debate in every Arabic program. So which one do our students prefer— dialect or standard? So it is normal and even in (different) countries we have this debate. Which one is the most important — the dialect or the standard?”

Gottfried Hagen, department chair of Middle East Studies, explained the goal of integrating MSA with dialect in the curriculum is to help students achieve proficiency in the Arabic language. According to Hagen, the mixed curriculum began at the University in 2012, with the hopes that students would gain the skills necessary to speak Arabic in real-world environments, where speakers often switch between MSA and dialect during a single conversation.

“Most Arabic speaking people mix dialect and standard in various ways, they’re switching sometimes in the middle of a sentence,” Hagen said. “We switched to what is called a mixed, or integrated, curriculum and adopted a pedagogy and a textbook that prioritizes active proficiency. We want our students to be able to speak and interact and therefore start with real-live settings that are typically conducted in dialect and sort of build on from there.”

The textbook, entitled Al-Kitaab, has sparked debate among students and faculty in regards to its content. The textbook is used widely across the country because it is one of the only English-Arabic textbooks on the market, according to students and faculty. University classes use Volume III of the textbook, which was published in 2011 and includes vocabulary and grammar exercises in Egyptian, Levantine and MSA.

Georgetown University, which publishes all volumes of Al-Kitaab, still uses Volume II in its Arabic classes. Yale University and Harvard University also use Volume II, which focuses mainly on MSA and written skills.

Khokhar echoed the concern among students surrounding the textbook, especially in the ways it prioritizes Western terminology and culture.

“The book itself is problematic because it’s very Orientalist, but there isn’t a viable alternative created that includes the reading, the culture, the listening and the speaking the way this book does, so that’s just an unfortunate reality,” Khokhar said.

Hughes said the textbook does a good job of teaching basic vocabulary and grammar, even if the other assignments in the courses don’t always feel completely effective.

“They’re using a pretty good textbook so you come out of it and it could be a lot worse, but it definitely has some limitations,” Hughes said.

In February 2017, LSA Student Government voted unanimously on a resolution to change the textbook used in the Arabic language department. The book’s highly politicized nature, as well as the stereotypes perpetuated in the textbook, were issues mentioned as reasons to pass the resolution and change the textbook.

A petition was also created by students in January 2017 to support the need for this change in the curriculum and suggested the University write their own textbook if a more credible option isn’t available.

The University’s dual focus on dialect and MSA is shown by their requirement that each first-year Arabic student find a “conversation partner,” or native Arabic speaker, to speak with during the year. After the conversation, students have to write a reflection on their experience. Hughes said although this helps students learn more about Arabic culture and patterns of speaking, it is often difficult when students are learning both MSA and dialect at the same time.

“The fact that we are in our first year and all we really know is that formal Arabic means that when we go and speak with a conversation partner — for one thing, they may not be particularly confident in their speaking abilities in formal Arabic, and so that can make the conversation a little bit stilted — and, if you’re talking to a native speaker, the most useful thing would be to talk to them in their colloquial dialect,” Hughes said. “However, if you know none of the colloquial dialect, that’s not going to be useful and you’re not going to be able to hold a conversation.”

Alsayegh stressed the importance of the “conversation partner” requirement, even if students find the sessions difficult or confusing. She noted how practicing dialect in conversation is just as important as writing MSA.

“In this program, the most important part (is) the conversation partner,” Alsayegh said. “We ask our students to communicate with the native speakers and we ask them to write and report about that… But when we ask them to write a specific thing in Fush’a, they have to write it in Fush’a because it should be balanced. Other people or natives, they don’t use dialect in writing, they use Fush’a. They don’t use Fush’a in their daily conversation, they use dialect. So we want to give (this to) our students and prepare them for their future career.”

Although some students have fought for a stronger focus on dialect within the department, Khokhar still acknowledged the importance of learning MSA within the Arabic department curriculum.

“I would love more dialect, but not at the cost of MSA because it’s so important,” Khokhar said. “I don’t actually know how I would solve this problem or request anything, just because of the fact that even though I want more dialect, I don’t want that to be at the expense of the MSA.”