This paper aims to provide a reflection on my teaching experience of Arabic as a Foreign Language of 2017-18 cohort at the University of Leeds. This experience was a combination of observing Dr Soliman’s lectures and seminars as well as replicating her approach. It is also the aim of this reflection to provide comparisons between my former experience on teaching Arabic and English as foreign languages with my last experience as a module assistant of Arabic for beginners. In addition, the paper aims to clarify some useful teaching tools that would help many language teachers.
At first, when I was asked to write a reflection on my teaching experience, I was very excited but also unsure of where to start or what to include. Yet, when I began to plan my response, so many important points came to me that I thought would be worth mentioning. So, let me start from the very beginning. Having already taught Arabic as a foreign language in a high school in Leeds in 2016, I was very keen to gain more experience by teaching in Higher Education, especially at the University of Leeds, one of the UK’s best universities.
TEACHING ARABIC IN CONTEXT
In our first meeting, the module leader, Dr Rasha Soliman, provided me with the curriculum that we were going to cover for the whole year. I was impressed by the sequence of lessons as it was so different from what I had seen in the past. From my previous experience as a teacher of Arabic and English (and before that as a student of French and English), I was used to the initial lessons starting by introducing letters and numbers, before progressing on to vocabulary and grammar. Instead, Dr Soliman divides the letters into different groups and each group is taught alongside some vocabulary which helps the students benefit by memorising the letters in the context of vocabulary. I found this approach of teaching the Arabic alphabet in a meaningful context to be beneficial, since students had enough time to memorise the vocabulary and to practise the group of four letters each time before moving on to a new group. The focus on meaningful contexts and tasks was also observed in a particular lesson that I really enjoyed which aimed to teach complex grammar in a meaningful context was the lesson about ‘hollow verbs’. This was taught in towards the middle of semester 2 at Level 1. In Arabic, learning how to use the hollow verbs is typically one of the most boring grammar lessons that students usually find very hard to grasp. On the contrary, this lesson plan was different from any grammar lesson that I had previously attended or delivered. It involved a short story comprised mostly of hollow verbs. Students were given the task of rewriting the story in the past, and the present, all while practicing the conjugation of the hollow verbs without a prior explicit instruction of the grammar rules – they really enjoyed it! This task-based teaching approach is in fact of major importance in the foreign language classroom because it ‘reveals to learners systematic interrelationships between form, meaning and use’ (Nunan, 2004, p. 22).
THE USE OF L1 AS THE LANGUAGE OF INSTRUCTION
Generally, I have always held the conviction that native language plays an important role in facilitating the learning of a target language. This was confirmed through this experience. The early stages of the course were taught in English and then gradually reduced as the students’ vocabulary in Arabic expanded. This use of English, as the native language of most of the learners, played an integral role in their progress in Arabic. Unfortunately, in most of foreign language classes across the world, there is a conviction that the native language should not be used. However, in my experience, the use of the native language as the language of instruction really did improve many other students’ progress. Understanding almost nothing in the lessons, in addition to learning many abstract grammar rules, reduce students’ motivation and make them reluctant to communicate in the target language. Research has empirically proved that the native language can be the student’s ‘strongest ally and can be systematically used to a great effect’ (Butzkamm & Caldwell, 2009, p. 24). In contrast, understanding every single word they learn in class helps to increase the students’ self-confidence as well as their motivation to communicate in the target language.
THE USE OF SEMIOTIC MATERIALS
In the course of the year, I learned several techniques which provide good examples of how to motivate students’ learning. Most of the lessons began with a group of street signs, taking the language out of its abstract system. The students were provided with images of street signs or instructional signs used in the airport for example and were asked to guess the meanings. Seeing how the language is used in context is a very simple way to motivate student’s learning and make it relevant to their learning needs. This, I think, is a very useful initiative because it enables students to use the vocabulary and benefit from it according to real life situations rather than being stuck to the content of a textbook only (Erton, 2006).
FOCUS ON THE ARABIC ROOT AND PATTERN SYSTEM
Another strategy that I really liked involved having students guess the meaning of the words by extracting the roots of the word, which accelerated their understanding of new and unfamiliar words. This strategy is of particular relevance to Arabic language as well as other Semitic languages which are based on a morpho-semantic system of roots and patterns. Once the students learnt about this system, they have been encouraged to always infer the meaning of new vocabulary by relying on familiar roots of three consonants.
RAISING AWARENESS OF ARABIC DIALECTAL VARIATION
When teaching Arabic language, a major reflection should be on the role of the different Arabic dialects in the classroom. I witnessed this at Leeds for the first time and it was really one of the best initiatives that I think should be encouraged in all Arabic classes across the world (I imagine it would be really useful for other languages as well). In Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is taught in schools but is only used in formal situations, and rarely employed in daily conversations. Therefore, the aforementioned cohort had the exciting opportunity to be exposed to how native Arabic speakers of different dialects communicate in daily conversations. In most lectures, students were informed about the phonological, lexical and grammatical variations among the main urban Arabic dialects. Although, this may sound like too much, the students and I realised that there are far more linguistic similarities than differences between the Arabic dialects and MSA. After this enriching experience, I would suggest the five groups of Arabic dialects (Versteegh, 2014, p. 189) to be taught in the Arabic language classroom. It would really be beneficial if these groups of Arabic dialects could be provided with equal importance in the teaching of Arabic as a second/foreign language. This would be of great benefit not only to learners of Arabic as a foreign language but also to those who learn Arabic as a first language, since this would enable them to understand and communicate in Arabic in all Arab countries. This initiative would help other teachers who aim to teach Arabic in a comprehensive way giving their students a more realistic picture of Arabic being ‘one’ language with some variations rather than perceived distinct forms.
Overall, teaching Arabic as a foreign language at the University of Leeds was one of the most fulfilling experiences that I have ever had. Of course, it was a challenge to juggle my commitments to my doctoral research, and to progress in my PhD as a final year student, while being a successful teacher in such respectful University. This year, I have discovered that I am passionate about teaching a foreign language especially after learning the art of teaching and gaining pedagogical experience with the support of a well-experienced teacher and mentor.
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Butzkamm, W. and Caldwell, J. A. W. 2009. The bilingual reform: A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching. Tübingen: GNV.
Erton, I. 2006. Semiotic nature of language teaching methods in foreign language learning and teaching. Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies, 2(1), pp. 73-86.
Nunan, D. 2004. Task-based language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Versteegh, K. 2014. The Arabic language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.