Thursday, December 4, 2008

One person's rationale for learning a foreign language: Why and how to teach & learn Arabic

The following article was originally submitted to a student-edited publication titled The Liberal Arts Review at Franklin & Marshall College, where I teach. The editors told me my format and style were "too informal" for their publication and decided not to print it. Here it is for your perusal.

What could be more boring than a professor writing about her or his field of study, research and teaching, in a publication catering primarily to an audience in that professor’s own institution? Hell, you’re probably yawning already, moistening your right index finger, contemplating to flip several pages ahead to the next article. Oh, and I teach Arabic. I admit; much has been said in the media over the past few years about how the events of September 11, 2001 have ignited a rise in the demand for Arabic courses in North America. The press, which rarely troubles itself with mundane issues such as education – let alone higher education – has given this “shocking” phenomenon quite some attention. Even a local Lancaster newspaper featured Franklin & Marshall College (and to a lesser extent, a few other area schools) in a recent article about the emerging interest in Arabic, Chinese and other presumably exotic languages. I read these articles, because I sort of have to. Sometimes (as is the case in the recent Intelligencer article), I’m even quoted in them (See for an article by Madelyn Pennino in the October 6, 2008 Lancaster Intelligencer Journal and for an article by Elizabeth Redden in Inside Higher Ed.). Yet for this and other reasons I wish to deviate from this routine course of writing, and offer you something different.

Hopefully, the phrase “something different” caught your eye and you’ve continued reading.

That the attack on the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon and on a plane in Western Pennsylvania by Saudi nationals, as well as the United States-led occupation of Iraq has reminded people in this region of the world that Arabs speak Arabic is of no surprise. One of my concerns, however, is that the United States might exploit recent violent events and the subsequent scholarly interest in the Middle East, in the same cynical way as my native Israel has been doing practically since its establishment as an independent state in 1948, and given the history of Zionism dating back to 1882, probably even earlier than that. This concern of mine has led me to write this essay, in which I attempt to explain why I believe it is important to learn languages of other peoples, as well as how I believe languages ought to be taught and learned. Some of my remarks will be of a broader, cosmopolitan nature, while others will reflect directly on the study of Arabic.

I began writing this essay a few weeks prior to the 2008 presidential elections in the United States. I wholeheartedly hope that by the time you pick up this issue, Sarah Palin will have become “Sarah who?” for most of you. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is important to etch into memory that a potential second-in-line to lead the so-called free world responded, when asked whether her refraining from obtaining a passport until after she was elected to be the governor of Alaska was an indication of her “lack of interest and curiosity in the world” with the following words:

“I'm not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say, ‘go off and travel the world.’ No, I've worked all my life. In fact, I usually had two jobs all my life until I had kids. I was not a part of, I guess, that culture. The way that I have understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world.”
(See for a transcript of Katie Couric’s interview with Gov. Palin on the CBS Evening News.)

Reluctantly, I must give the governor some credit. Learning through books and other educational media is definitely a goal worth pursuing, and probably no one in this institution would ever advocate against it. One may find Ms. Palin’s comment somewhat inconsistent with her attempt to ban books from a public library, in her capacity as mayor of Wasilla, but much has been written about that matter as well. What is troubling about the governor’s reaction to CBS’s Katie Couric’s question, was that she dismissed the very notion that a leader of a country that has prided itself on having some of the best and well-funded institutes of higher learning in the world may benefit from some degree of curiosity as to how other peoples lead their lives. She in essence tried to delegitimize Couric’s very legitimate concern.

Traveling abroad does not have to be a sole criterion for worldly curiosity. New sources report that as recently as 2006 fewer than thirty percent of Americans had a valid passport (See, e.g., for a report by KVOA in Tucson). This number may be on the rise since then, as travel to Canada, Mexico and some Caribbean nations that did not require passports for travel now do. In an ideal situation, we would all have both the intellectual curiosity and the financial means to travel around the globe and experience the cultures, foods, climates and of course languages of our fellow humans worldwide.

I recently asked a subset of my Elementary Arabic class at F&M to discuss why they chose to study Arabic. Some of the answers were typical and expected. One student wants to work for the FBI, another envisions a career in diplomacy, some see the financial opportunities in the oil market. Finally, one student had a different answer. “I don’t want to sound like some kind of hippie,” she said, “but I just want to know how other people live.” I was on the verge of ecstasy (the emotion, not the street-drug). I am in no position to dictate to my students what their motivation to study what they do should be, but I am entitled to some satisfaction when their rationales are consistent with mine.

A colleague of mine, Ali Issa, who happens to be fluent in the Arabic dialect of Baghdad, was asked not too long ago to assist a student. The student was studying Arabic at the University of Texas at Austin, and Ali was a teaching assistant in one of her classes. The curriculum at UT, as well as here at F&M, includes Modern Standard Arabic, a largely artificial variety of Arabic used mostly in formal situations, as well as a good deal of more naturally-occurring dialectal features of Arabic, mostly based on the dialects of Cairo and the Syrian/Lebanese/Palestinian region (also known as the Levant). However, the student in question was a member of the US Armed Forces and was about to be deployed to Iraq. Given her TA’s command of Iraqi Arabic, the student found him to be a perfect candidate to tutor her in the dialect. Given his strong opposition to the student’s prospective role in Iraq as part of a foreign army invading an Arab country, he refused to tutor her.

I subscribe to the Sunday edition of The New Tork Times. I rarely find myself reading most sections of the paper, but I try never to skip two sections of The New York Times Magazine: “On Language” by William Safire (with whose conservative notions about linguistic norms I rarely concur) and “The Ethicist” by Randy Cohen. The latter entertains, week after week, readers’ questions about, well, ethics. Is it okay for a teacher to lower a student’s grade because she lost the student’s assignment (or did she?)? May a physician reveal confidential medical information about a patient who lied to her school about having a terminal disease she doesn’t have? Must a language instructor teach a soldier how to speak a foreign language in order to assist the soldiers in committing war crimes? Of course, I made the last one up (the former two were paraphrased from recent columns).

I believe my colleague was right to act according to his conscious. The chance that his actions would lead to the loss of life of an innocent Iraqi civilian was – at least in his mind – greater than the chance of the student-soldier being deprived of the benefits of knowledge. The student can seek other tutors, or conversely obtain the knowledge she seeks while pledging not to use it in a way that would harm anyone (e.g., by assisting a group like Doctors Without Borders rather than going to fight a futile war).

Here at F&M we are in the process of establishing an Arabic language program. It is your humble servant, in particular, who bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for this emerging program. In our case, we do not have the luxury of choosing our students based on their ideologies, career goals or other non-academic standards. Nor do we want to. If I were Randy Cohen, and a student were to write to me asking whether the College or a professor were acting within their purview in denying her participation in an Arabic class because she had “the wrong motivation” for studying the language, I would resoundingly send her to hire a civil rights lawyer to represent her.

The ethics of disseminating knowledge are therefore not as neatly definable as one would like them to be. I am fairly positive that my attempt to illustrate some aspect of them will not fair well with many of this publication’s readership. Good. That’s what the educational experience is – or should be – all about: dialogue. And I don’t mean provocative, ill-spirited, presidential debate-like “dialogue”. I mean thought-provoking, respectful exchange of ideas, while expanding one’s horizons.

Now that we’ve toyed around with being pseudo-intellectual and throwing in the fashionably obligatory Sarah Palin mockery (under the guise of poignant academopolitical constructive criticism, of course), it is probably time to bring ourselves down to earth. And like on Google Earth, we are gradually descending onto the planet, zooming in on Lancaster, the F&M campus, my office in Keiper Hall and the classrooms that surround it.

My philosophy about teaching Arabic is simple. Implementing it can be trickier. Justifying it to others is part of that complexity. By “simple”, I mean something like this (this will look a bit like a handout for a linguistics class; that’s how I was trained):
(1) All persons are equal to one another.
(2) All persons speak a language or languages.
a. Speaking can be oral (e.g., English, Arabic).
b. Speaking can be manual (e.g., American Sign Language, Mozambican Sign Language).

From (1) and (2) we can draw the following conclusions:

(3) All languages (including dialects and other linguistic varieties) are equally legitimate.
(4) By learning a language or languages other than oneself’s one learns about the speakers of the other language or languages.
If we add to that a couple of axioms about learning, e.g.:
(5) Learning about other peoples renders the learner a better person.
(6) Learning expands one’s horizons.
we can draw a conclusion as follows:
(7) Learning languages leads to better people with expanded horizons.

But since I promised you simplicity, here’s the philosophy in a nutshell:

(7') Learning languages is a good thing.

The conclusion I presented above in (7') is both good and bad for my efforts to establish and expand the Arabic Language Program at F&M. Needless to say, Arabic is a language. So from (7') we may conclude the following:

(8) Learning Arabic is a good thing.

However, the following conclusions also must be true:

(9) Learning German is a good thing.
(10) Learning Spanish is a good thing.
(11) Learning French is a good thing.
(12) Learning Hebrew is a good thing.
(13) Learning Russian is a good thing.
(14) Learning Italian is a good thing.
(15) Learning Greek is a good thing.
(16) Learning Latin is a good thing.
(17) Learning Chinese is a good thing.
(18) Learning Japanese is a good thing.

These conclusions only include the languages currently taught at Franklin & Marshall College but the reader is free to insert the name of any language she or he pleases between the words “Learning” and “is” in (8) through (18). In fact, I am not just paying lip service to my colleagues who teach other languages. It is my true belief that as a general rule, there is no one language whose mastery is preferred. Furthermore, it is far from the purpose of this paper to serve as propaganda for the program under my direction. What I do want to do is to clarify why I think students who are considering to study Arabic ought to bear in mind when making their decision, and what I believe current students of Arabic should consider and look forward to in their studies.

The egalitarian view – of people as well as languages – as stated above, lends itself to an understanding that learning Arabic in my mind is a means to open a window into the Arabic-speaking world, spanning from Northwest Africa to the Persian Gulf. Very much like everything else we learn, I would urge students of Arabic to bring to the table (or in this case, desk) three crucial ingredients:

1. Curiosity
2. Appreciation of the subject matter
3. Critical thinking

Curiosity goes without saying. Appreciation of the subject matter, in this case, can be multifaceted. One can appreciate the beauty of the sounds of Arabic, the elaborate nature of the Arabic script, the glory of Arabic literature and poetry, and – most importantly – the complexity of the people whose native language Arabic is. Yet appreciating the language and its people does not preclude thinking of them critically. Nor does critical thinking preclude appreciation. As a matter of fact, it is part of the democratic tradition in which we take so much pride, to combine the two. We respect one another despite our differences, and we do not shy away from criticizing even our closest allies.

While I believe these guidelines for learning Arabic are universal, both for language learners and for learners in general, they seem to warrant some degree of justification in our post-9/11 world. I must admit I am somewhat reluctant to justify what I believe must be obvious to any enlightened, educated person, and I will therefore constrain my comments to a certain degree of brevity.

Most of us rely on mainstream media outlets for information on foreign lands. You may watch CNN, or read The New York Times or The Washington Post, or listen to NPR. For some of you the international pages of a local newspaper will suffice. But unless you familiarize yourself with independent media sources (usually on the World Wide Web) or read foreign newspapers – be it in the original language or in translation – you are typically deprived from obtaining information and learning of points of view, which can only become available through this kind of diversification of sources.

In the modern-day classroom, we go beyond the old-fashioned vocabulary–grammar–translation paradigm, which was the essence of language pedagogy for generations. While you may not be able to learn to read an editorial in Al-Ahram, Egypt’s largest and most significant daily newspaper, until you reach your third or fourth year of Arabic classes, you will have acquired familiarity with some of the basic notions in such an article by the end of your first semester. Your ability to watch a story from the popular Qatar-based Arabic-language satellite channel Aljazeera will be limited for a year or two, yet very early on you will be able to distinguish between a formal narrative in Modern Standard Arabic and a “person on the street” segment spoken in one of the many and diverse Arabic dialects.
Language and culture are intrinsically related. If you learn Arabic, you must learn about the foods, holidays, movies, music, art and hobbies of people who speak Arabic. It is also imperative that you learn something about the politics of the Middle East and its connections to the West, and the United States in particular. You may think you already know much about the latter, but how much do you know about the Arab perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or about the war on Iraq or about the economic policies that govern the trade in crude oil and ultimately affect the prices at the local Turkey Hill gas station?

I am eager to reach the bottom line of this paper, and – admit it – so are you. Of course, each student and each teacher of Arabic will have their own bottom line or series of bottom lines. And that is the beauty of it all. We are not confined to one conclusion for all of us. If you choose to learn Arabic in order to “know thy enemy”, that saddens me, but also gives me hope that the enemy would eventually turn into a human, who may or may not remain an enemy after you learn about her or his customs, religion, songs and ideologies. Those of you who are more inclined to see the good in everybody may end up applying some of the critique you have for your own society to the societies whose languages you are studying.
Initially, I was going to devote several long paragraphs on emphasizing why Arabic should be taught as a complex linguistic entity, which includes a standard variety (sometimes known as Classical Arabic, or, as noted above, Modern Standard Arabic) and a multitude of regional dialects. I then would have explained how we teach the standard variety alongside “squirts” of dialectal forms, which eventually grow and form an inherent part of our discourse in the language. I’d tell you that we try to emulate how Arabic is used in the Arab World, where speakers intuitively know when to use the more formal manifestation of the language and when their native dialect is more suitable. Finally, I would have mentioned that several colleagues of mine (from various colleges and universities) and I have been discussing lately how to enhance our teaching resources to accomplish all of the above.

I think I ended up illuminating some of the more interesting, important underlying considerations in Arabic pedagogy. It also seems that dialect diversity in teaching follows from the philosophy I have presented in this paper. And since I am reaching my limit of 3,000 words, your curiosity will just have to wait.

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