Thursday, April 24, 2014

Arabic Education for Our Children

More and more Muslim parents in the west are now voicing their desire to give their kids a quality Arabic education; something they themselves didn’t have. I am one such parent. I want my kids to have sound knowledge of the language so that there is no language barrier between themselves and their Book, the sunnah of their prophet and their own prayers.
Islamic schools all over the country are doing their best to address the issue of Arabic studies. Having visited nearly fifty of them, I’ve come to some conclusions about how things are and how they should be in this area of study for our full time and weekend/ after school institutions. This series will be an attempt to organize these thoughts in a coherent and hopefully beneficial fashion. In the spirit of pragmatism, expect no radical changes at your local Islamic school because of these articles. It is my hope that at the very least (a) this will serve as food for thought at the local level in your community and (b) bring like minds together for a robust collaborative effort in bringing together a powerful, new and innovative curriculum with realistic, scalable goals.
PART 1: Do our kids want to learn Arabic?
Generally, why do adults learn a new language? Most often because the goal is to communicate in that language. Generally speaking then, why do children learn a new language? Most often because their teacher told them to. It isn’t curiosity that drives a child’s Arabic learning, it is an academic obligation. Arabic education isn’t only aimed at achieving certain academic milestones, but also injecting enthusiasm, curiosity and a love of learning the language into children. I never get tired of saying that the most important thing you’re going to need to study Arabic is motivation and the first thing to fade away into nothingness when you embark upon Arabic studies is also motivation. This is a major concern even for adults so we shouldn’t overlook its paramount importance in the context of our children.
My personal vision for installing this motivation as a fixture in our children’s lives is the connection we can build between them and the Qur’an, more precisely Qur’anic stories. At early grade levels, we have to devise an educational strategy not just made up of illustrated books that tell them what the people said to their messenger and what the messenger said to his people. I’m talking about a training program for our Arabic and Islamic studies teachers where they learn to turn into animated, imaginative characters making stories jump off the page in the class room giving our children the feeling that they’re standing at the edge of a cliff watching water part as they can hear enemy horses charging towards them and a cloud of dust rising behind them! The teacher tells this AMAAAAZING story, builds this incredible suspense and then says, “and you know what happened next….”. At this point the children have their eyes bulging out of their sockets, the look of concern and curiosity invading their facial expressions. Some can’t help themselves and cry out “tell us teacher!” The teacher recites the ayah in an animated fashion bringing its words to life in the classroom without translating. “The End.” “What?” the children exclaim. “What does that mean?” “You mean you guys don’t know what that means? OHOHOHHHO…Let me tell you!” The teacher takes a word from the ayah and builds a story around it and every few seconds asks, “What was that word again?” The class screams out the answer making the principal nervous about what’s going on in the class.
Animating the story is a great way to spark curiosity and a fantastic covert method of vocabulary introduction. Word lists on a page are boring and students only remember them as long as they are studying for a test. Words, even phrases that are given a meaningful, memorable context embed themselves in the student’s mind. This, mind you, is an alternative approach to the early years of Arabic learning, say 2nd grade. This is just one means of building excitement around the subject. In a later part of this series, I’ll talk a little bit more about the grade level by grade level academic targets we should look to achieve.

The following simplification is needed before we engage in a healthy dialogue about the proper scope, strategy and execution of Arabic educational ventures regardless of the target audience being adults or children.   Please note that my writing style is un-academic, popular science-ish by design.   So be not offended if it doesn’t cater your suave intellectual taste for good writing.
Colloquial Arabic is basically street Arabic.  It is spoken in casual settings in contemporary Arab society.  It varies from country to country (much like English does from the U.S. to Scotland).  Learning colloquial Arabic is great if you are seeking to become a member of a particular Arab society, tourism, breaking the ice between yourself and some Arab acquaintances etc.  On occasion, colloquial Arabic is so drastically different from standard Arabic that قلم QALAM can be pronounced ALAM or even LAM.  Another simple example of this variation is the standard phrase كيف حالك KAYFA HAALUKA transformed into CHAYF HAALICH in a particular colloquial Arabic dialect (Palestinian Fallahi to be precise).
(a)   Modern Standard Arabic is basically your proper Arabic. It is the language of choice for Arab newspapers, news broadcasts and formal settings.  It is grammatically much more sensitive and far more annunciated than colloquial.  Its use in most casual Arab settings like the home or restaurants is considered pretentious.  I’ve even seen it used in comic relief in Arab media plays.  This is the Arabic you will learn when you study books like the Elementary Modern Standard Arabic (Cambridge), Al-Kitaab Fi Ta’allumi Al-Arabiyyan (Georgetown) etc.  In my understanding, it would be fair to say that Modern Standard Arabic (commonly termed Fus-Ha in Muslim discourse) is a simplified, skimmed version of Classical Arabic. Most contemporary Arabic lectures, articles and books today are written in this, Al-Arabiyyah Al Fus-Ha.
(b)   Classical / Ancient Arabic is basically the Arabic of the pre-Islamic era up until no more than the first century of Islam.  This is the highly nuanced, intricate, sophisticated and imaginative Arabic with which the Arab before Islam prided himself.  Its grammar is complex and involved, its vocabulary is layered and sensitively contextualized, its literary beauty is arguably unmatched by any other language.  The peak of Ancient Arabic is the Qur’an.  As incredible as the language was to begin with, the Qur’an took it to a completely unrealized level; one that had never been reached & one that will never be reached again.
Why did Classical Arabic deteriorate in its relevance and application in the Muslim world? The answer really is quite simple.  The Arabs before Islam were isolated socially for the most part. They hung out in the desert of Arabia and only some traders went around to the Persian, Roman and other empires.  Their language developed in this sheltered environment.  The Arabs also didn’t have much to look at in the desert and perhaps this contributed to the picturesque and imaginative nature of Arabic words.  Their entertainment, their pride and joy (instead of great monuments or a glorious past) and their greatest means of self identification was Arabic.
After successive victories, Muslim civilization came into contact with numerous non-Arab cultures and languages.  As a result the sheltered Arabic of ages was now experiencing the contamination of foreign influence.  Just think of the drastic evolution of English over the last few centuries.  So many words in English come from other languages and even its grammar has experienced significant transformation.  Anyhow, Islamic scholarship quickly realized that this contamination is making even the Arabs less sensitive to the beauty of the language and as a result the great danger is that we will be less sensitive, perhaps even oblivious to the beauty and intricacy of the Qur’an.  Islamic scholarship from very early on formalized the efforts of preserving ancient Arabic.  Lexicons, grammatical works and archiving of poetry were as important as preserving the teachings of the religion because after all, the medium IS the message.
This basically explains why an ancient Arab would hear the magnificent Qur’an and be blown away by its supernatural beauty while an Arab today can hear the Qur’an and wonder what the big deal is.
In our next installment insha Allah, we will be truly ready to tackle the question of which Arabic we want our children studying.