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Teaching Arabic Culture in Language Classes

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Teaching Arabic Culture in Language Classes
by Dr. Mohammed Sharafuddin,
George Washington University

I arrived in Washington D. C. in 2001 as a Fulbright Scholar and the following year I accepted a job at George Washington University as a Visiting Professor and Coordinator of the Arabic Program. Although my interest focuses more on literature and cultural issues, I have been working over the last two years with issues dealing with Arabic language and culture and using literature, films, videos and videotaping as a means to enhance language acquisition and the understanding of the Arabic culture. I have also given a series of public and academic lectures in the field of cultural understanding and the relation between the East and West.

Teaching Culture in language classes has been proven to be a useful method to enhance language acquisition. Especially with such relatively hard languages as Arabic, teaching the culture can contribute to making it an easier task for teachers and students alike. Hence, it is important that cultural topics, such as history, geography and social mores, are incorporated into lessons from day one of Arabic classes.

History and Background of the Arabic Language

The Arabic culture is one of the oldest and richest in the world. It dates from approximately the first century of the Common Era but its origins go as far as the time of Abraham the Patriarch. According to Arab historians, the people who settled the Arabian Peninsula spoke various languages and dialects, but when Abraham took his son Ishmael to Mecca and left him there with his mother Hagar, the boy learned how to interact with the neighboring nomadic tribes. He was able to devise a new language that was based on Hebrew grammar and vocabulary, and that, according to Arab historians, is how Arabic became a Semitic language.

Arabic is now spoken in 22 countries extending from Morocco and Mauritania in the west of Africa to Iraq in the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arab Gulf countries and those which border the east and west of the Red Sea also speak Arabic. Many Arabs agree that language is what unites them. During the peak of Islamic civilization, Arabic was spoken by people from different races like the Persians, Indians and Turks but they did not lose their original identities. Arabic is not a race but is a quality to characterize those who speak the language. It is reported that Prophet Mohammed once said "Arabic is but the tongue," meaning that anyone who speaks the language becomes an Arab regardless of his/her ethnic background.

Arabic is one of the few languages that has the potential to hinder its learners due to its diaglossic nature. "Diaglossia" occurs when a language has a spoken dialect that is different from the one taught in schools and used for formal occasions. American students of Arabic witness this disparity when they travel to an Arab country only to realize that the formal Arabic they learned in the classroom is only used to listen to the news on the radio or listen to a public lecture, while dialectical Arabic is used for daily activities and occurrences. For many Arabs, this disparity does not present a problem because they can communicate for everyday affairs in their dialects whether Egyptian, Syrian or Lebanese, etc., whereas for their formal communication they can use the "Fuss-ha", or what is now designated as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). MSA is more akin to the classical Arabic spoken in Arabia from the 5th till the 15th century, and was spoken by Arabs before the advent of Islam. It was the official language of all the areas conquered by Islam until the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258. Until then, there had been no such thing as diaglossia - people communicated in classical Arabic whether in the court or in the marketplace. Despite its obscure grammatical structure, people took it as a challenge upon themselves to maintain the highest standards of Arabic, which they could employ for the most mundane activities in their life.

Fuss-ha was maintained and developed after the emergence of Islam and the influence exercised by the Koran over the public and private lives of the expanding Muslim community. Even Christian and Jewish Arabs were exposed directly or indirectly to the eloquent language of the Koran and the many sciences which evolved from it, such as the science of jurisprudence, logic, discourse and the more practical science of language and grammar. After all, the Arabs and Muslims view the Koran as the most sublime form of literary composition and is still regarded as the highest level of Arabic eloquence and expression.

Teaching Arabic Language & Culture in Today’s Language Classroom

Today, classical Arabic is understood by all Arabs but those who can speak it with perfection are the educated people. News reports, for example, are delivered in Modern Standard Arabic and so are conferences and official meetings. An Arab who travels from Morocco in the West to Kuwait in the East can understand the news in the same language he would hear at home. Those who fear diaglossia should therefore be encouraged by considering the advantages of speaking the same language in more than 22 countries in an area equivalent to the size of Europe. Learners of Arabic should also not be disoriented by how many dialects they may have to learn if they plan to travel or live in these countries. Learning a couple of these dialects will not cause much of an obstacle given the fact that the basics have already been studied and mastered in Modern Standard Arabic. What the student may need to learn in a dialect is a set of expressions and some vocabulary (which are mostly classical but corrupted by dialectical usages). Grammar remains exactly the same with some variations that can easily be practiced before visiting a specific country.

Speaking the Arabic language is a key to discovering the depth and richness of the Arabic culture. Access to culture provides students with a valuable tool to appreciate and experiment with the linguistic material acquired. Indeed it has been proven that familiarity with some aspects of the culture equips students with a much deeper understanding of the Arabic world that supports the otherwise difficult process of learning and mastering the complex application of the Arabic language.

Learning about the differences between classical and dialectical Arabic can be a lively topic for Arabic cultural classes. Students will need to be made aware of these issues before they stumble into it by themselves and encounter confusion. Discussing linguistic variations as well as differences in cultural habits and practices across countries can create interest in the students and enhance their learning. They can say for example that "Arab women wear abayah (a long black cover) in Kuwait, fustan (dress) in Egypt, and qiftan (gown) in Morocco." Pictures of dresses as well as various types of traditional food and other customs can bring life to the class and provide useful opportunities for linguistic drills and applications.

Culture should indeed be an embedded component of the syllabus. It is not only a relief from the dry grammatical structures but an excellent way to apply the rules learnt. No matter how "different" a culture may appear to students, learning about the culture will gradually lead to the creation of an imaginative realm in which learners are able to appreciate the targeted culture without undermining their own. Such a complex process cannot be achieved without the help and full participation of the teacher whose role cannot be limited to teaching rules of grammar alone. The teacher must also bring into class all the liveliness he enjoys in his own culture. Of course, not only native speakers make great teachers. There are abundant examples of excellent teachers of Arabic who themselves learnt Arabic as a second language.

The main aim of teaching culture in language classrooms is to encourage learners’ natural curiosity towards the culture of the language they are learning. From personal experience, I have frequently witnessed students who initially felt frustrated with the complexity of Arabic grammar but became more at ease after watching a couple of movies that featured Arabic traditional customs and social practices. There is obviously a direct relationship between language and the society that produces it.

Despite the challenges students encounter in Arabic, students should take heart in the knowledge that learning Arabic is an accumulative process. What is learned is built on to master other structures and vocabulary. Like Hebrew, Arabic depends on the root system for the generation of vocabulary. One simple example teachers can use in class to elucidate this aspect of Arabic is to show how one word can be used to derive a noun, a verb , a gerund and an adverb from one common root. Let us take the following example which teachers can illustrate visibly on the board. KTB is the past simple for "He wrote." Let us consider the following derivations:

KTB (He wrote)-KITAB (Book)-KATIB (Writer) -MAKTABAH (Library)

Now students can be asked to apply the same derivation system for the root DRS, which means "He studied." The result should be something like this:

DRS (He studied)-DIRASAH (Studying)-DARIS (student)-MADRASAH (School)

From these patterns one could use all the above in one sentence as in:

(A student studied a study in a school)

Working with cultural components in class can help turn language learning into an enjoyable experience rather than a burden to be executed at all costs. By learning about the Arabic culture, students are not only empathizing with the culture but are learning to understand and respond more effectively in the language itself.

[If you would like to read about the origins, development and the different styles of Arabic calligraphy, I recommend visiting the Arabic Calligraphy page ( of the Islamic Arts and Architecture Organization.]

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