Arabic language learning industry on the rise but apprenticeship is complex

Beyond the political drive and motives, interest had to do more altruism and cultural enrichment outlooks.
Sunday 02/02/2020
Foreign students attending an Arabic language lesson at Bourguiba Institute for Modern Languages. (Khaoula Ben Amara)
New trend. Foreign students attending an Arabic language lesson at Bourguiba Institute for Modern Languages. (Khaoula Ben Amara)

Learning the Arabic language is no longer solely the concern of parents in the Arab diaspora regarding their foreign-born children and a scattering of others around the world.

Hundreds of thousands of language learners worldwide are attracted to Arabic, making the language ever more relevant in the 21st century. That trend led leading language learning app Duolingo to add Arabic to its repertoire last June.

The Arab World Institute in Paris announced the first internationally recognised certification that assesses proficiency in modern standard Arabic, a much-acclaimed development among Arabic teachers and learning institutions.

“More than 415,000 people have started the course since our launch on June 26, 2019,” said Michaela Kron, Duolingo’s public relations manager. “To give a point of comparison, we launched our Hindi course, a highly requested course, in 2018. In the first month, the course had about 53,000 active learners, compared to the 1.47 million active learners (for the Arabic course).”

In the United States, following the 9/11 attacks, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings, universities could not open enough classes to satisfy demands of students. Many of those pursuing Middle Eastern studies, politics and global affairs study classical Arabic or modern standard Arabic.

“All these global events spurred a policy interest, more media coverage and high-paying jobs in the intelligence community in particular,” said Hossam Abouzahr, a Lebanese American who started the Living Arabic Project online initiative to support learning Arabic.

Beyond the political and job-prospect drive, interest centred on altruism and cultural enrichment.

“Many of our students are humanitarian aid workers travelling to the Middle East but also young corporate professionals based in the Middle East willing to converse with the locals,” said Aline Sara, CEO of NaTakallam, an award-winning start-up offering conversational learning programmes delivered by refugees.

Abouzahr said Arab-American communities have become more established and integrated, creating increased interest in learning about Arab culture in museums and through cultural and media events. “Even Netflix and Hulu have modern Arabic shows,” he said.

Native speakers often recognise the difficulty of learning Arabic.

“I can only salute their efforts. Myself, an Arabic ‘native’ speaker, I am in continuous language training through my daily reading activity,” said Farah, a young Jordanian banker in Dubai.

Informal surveys of students show difficulties of grammar, the different script and the vast logic difference between Arabic as a Semitic language and English as a Latin language. “The main challenge is to educate learners from the onset about the diglossic nature of Arabic, i.e., the split between classical and the dialects,” Abouzahr said.

Sara said: “Learners need to understand that there are several levels to the language. Not all dialects will make them understood everywhere.”

Most classes in accredited language-learning institutions focus rigidly on classical Arabic and its grammar, which represents only part of the picture of the language.

“I sometimes wished my professor linked the grammar, vocabulary and syntax of classical Arabic to one local dialect. I would have learnt more efficiently and relevantly to daily life,” said Amelia Blunt, a British student in Middle Eastern studies.

Key players in the industry are addressing the problems. The Duolingo app teaches the alphabet methodically, introduces grammar with context and provides phonetics exercises. A tour at language sections of libraries in Lebanon provides learners with introductory books about local dialects.

“We face a new generation of learners who juggle between modern standard Arabic to understand the media and fieldwork with local communities. We are becoming aware of this need and act accordingly during our lessons,” said Hameed Abdulrahman, a freelance teacher in Cairo.

The Arabic language learning industry is getting attention from all sides and what would serve learners even better is the creation of a methodical approach to how the language is used daily.

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