Tips on teaching English to Arabic speakers

The main stay of English language teaching for many years seemed to be Western Europeans, with the continentals filling the classroom with the occassional more exotic pupil from the orient or eastern Europe, but things have moved on and the make up of the modern English language classroom may be very diverse indeed, with people from all over the world and including a growing number of Arabic speakers from the Middle East and North Africa and we, as their potential teachers need to be able to understand their needs if we are to teach them effectively. This article is aimed to give a background and overview of your Arabic speaking students with some insights into helping them access the language as fully as possible.

The Arabic language spread widely through the Arab conquests in the middle ages and it’s association with Islam and the Quran have helped establish it as the principle language of dozens of modern states. The process of adoption however, took place at differerent times in different regions and often with heavy influences from the original indiginous languages it came to replace or from later colonisation, and has produced a modern language that varies greatly from district to district. There are some 280 million + native Arabic speakers from 25+ countries, ranging widely in ethnic origins, culture, religious belief and dialect. To put it simply, there are many different kinds of Arabic in use today, but I will broadly, if clumsily attempt to classify these into five main forms of the language. This is brief and simplisitic break-down and there are exceptions to every rule.

– Modern Standard Arabic is a formal and officious language which is in theory a modernised version of the language written in the Quran. One might consider its English equivient to be that of the language of the King James Bible or the BBC English of days gone by. In theory, everybody in the Arabic speaking world should understand this form of the language, but in practice, very few native speakers of the language actually use it.

– Egyptian Arabic is spoken in the populous countries of Egypt and the Sudan and has arguably the largest ammount of native speakers of any of the Arabic dialects. The language is commonly understood across the Arabic world due to the wide influence of the Egyptian media. There are many phonological differences with Egyptian Arabic, perhaps more so than with other dialects, with the replacements of the phonemes /dj/ with /g/ and /th/ and /th/ with /z/, in particular.

– Levant Arabic (Iraq/Israel/Jordan/Lebannon/Palestine/Syria) A diverse range of dialects spoken by a wide ranging group of people with significant language minorities and heavy influences from other tingues, in particular, French, Turkish and Persian. There can often be a greater recognition of vowel sounds, in particular the short vowels, which were either retained during tbe process of adopting Arabic in antquity, or from later colonisations.

– Gulf Arabic or Khaliji (Bahrain/Kuwait/Oman/Qatar/Saudia Arabia/United Arab Emirates/Yemen), includes many loan words from Persian, the states being just across the Gulf from Iran. There can be localised pronunciation differences, in particular the replacement of the consonant sound /k/ with /tS/ and some soft pronunciations of the semi-vowels.

– Moroccan Arabic or Maghrebi Arabic, (known locally as Derija and spoken in Algeria, Lybia, Morocco and Tunisia) perhaps more accurately referred to as North African Arabic and has an arguably less complicated grammar and vocabulary. Heavily influenced by the indeginous Berber languages before the Islamic conquest and individual states may have substantial influences from later colonial languages such as French and Italian.

Culturally, Arabic speakers may be very different from one another. North African and Lebanese Arabs have had a heavy influence from France, hence Beirut’s old nickname ‘The Paris of the middle East’, and one could be forgiven form mistaking it’s chique cafe culture, casino and nightclubs as the the French riviera. In fact, it is worthy of note, that in the case of Francaphone Arabia, (chiefly Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tuisia) the learners will likely have been exposed to and are usually fluent in one Indo-European language already, as well as having a good grasp of the Roman script so draw heavily on your experiences of teaching speakers of Italic languages and your job suddenly becomes a lot easiers.

One must remember that this is a general overview. Within a relatively small area, there may be numerous dialects, accents and pronunciation differences. In is true to say that these forms of language differ more widely than do the English dialects in use today. A more accurate reflection may be drawing a parrallel between the differences in languages such as Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan, but a common route in Classical Arabic and a cultural desire to associate with the the roots of Islam, the revelation of the Quran, and a common written form has kept a unity between the various dialects. Having said this, it is important to remember that people are proud of their language and, inparticular with Arabic speakers, a percieved attack on their language could be be seen as an attack on their culture and even religion as most Arabic speakers will draw a degree of pride from the fact that their language decends from the Quran, so a healthy esteem in the light of any difficulties will be appreciated.

General Phonlogical issues

According to most manuals (See learner English, Swann & Smith for example) Arabic has only eight vowel sounds, but the recognition of these can be hampered by the particularities of the Arabic script. The script is called an abjad, which means, like the Hebrew script, the written form of the language is primarily penned in consonants without vowels. The basic script itself has only one vowel, called Aliph, which can represent in theory any vowel sound and also, with the inclusion of a dicratic symbol, a glottal stop as well. There are also two semivowles /j/ and /w/ which can be used to represent vowel sounds as well and pronunciation is aided in some part by the addition of diacritic symbols which are usually included only in formal or religious literature. Most Arabs will have a full understanding of these and there are three which roughly represent the long vowels /a:/, /i:/ and /u:/. These can be added to the aliph or semi-vowels to create diphthongs, but there is essentially no way to annotate short vowels. The short vowel sounds /ae/, /u/ and /I/ can be pronounced, but because they are unable to be written, there is little consciousness of them. Because of this, they are quite difficult to hear for many Arabic speakers, especially in differentiating them from equivilent long vowel sounds, hence the regularity of Arabic students telling me of recent travels to the continent, to which they travelled by sheep. Drilling and practice is thus essential and heading off the forseeable problems whith solid phonological input whilst teaching.

As far as consonants are concerned there are some cases when English consonant sounds are abscent or a dialect may percieves them as allophonic. This can be the case with /g/ and /k/ or with /dj/ and /g/, due to dialectal perception of the phonemes from the Arabic script. This is essential L1 literacy interference as they cannot hear what they cannot write. There is also no recognition of the consonant sound /p/ in Arabic, and this is usually confused with the voiced version of the plosive /b/ instead, although marking the difference with a puff of air to blow out a cigarette lighter can be used to demonstrate the difference. The consonant sound /tS/ is also absent in Arabic, but the two phonemes /t/ and /S/ are and can be merged together to demonstrate the pronunciation effectively. /v/ is seen as allophonic with /f/ but drilling can usually overcome this without too much difficulty if one is suitably prepared.

The Script

The Arabic script, as alluded to is radically different from the Roman script that we use in the West. As discussed, along with all abjad writing systems, it has little accommodation for vowels but also gives significant room in its 27 characters to hard sounds that we would see as allophonic with its soft sound variants. The script includes hard and soft /t/, /s/ /d/ and /th/, as well as a glottal stop, glottalised /g/ and voiced, unvoiced and gutteral /h/. There is also differentiation made between /th/ and /th/, but /p/, /ts/ and /v/ are not present as discussed above. The script also reads from right to left, which is obviously a major consideration in teaching the English script and with using literature. The script is essentially written in a flowing line of joined up characters and contains no upper case characters.

These considerations mean special attention is needed in particular if teaching Arabic speakers in a mixed class. It is highly likely that they will have a lower level of English literacy skills than their classmates, which, for learners from highly educated backgrounds in particular, may result in a reluctance to engage in reading or writing exercises due to lack of confidence or loss of prestige. Plenty of hard work is needed, initially even character forming to help them to progress at a pace with their peers.

The purpose fo this article has been to give an overview of the background and needs of Arabic leaners of English. Although some equipping is helpful, it is as usual down to the skills of the individual teacher to address the issues of the multinational English classroom and I hope that this can go someway to reassure teachers out there and to give them a little preparation in teaching Arabic speaking learners.


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