The difficulties of teaching Arabs their own language
gOD, DIT the Koran, chose Arabic for its revelation because it is easy to understand. But many of the world’s 470 million Arabic speakers disagree. Almost 60% of ten-year-olds in Arabic-speaking countries (and Iran) have difficulty reading and understanding basic text, according to a World Bank report. Despite decades of investment in education, the Middle East and North Africa still suffer from what the report calls “learning poverty”. “School systems don’t see the importance of involving children in reading, or don’t know how,” says Hanada Taha-Thomure, one of the authors. “It creates a wedge between the children and their language. Many cannot read or write an essay.
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The root of the problem is bad teaching. Arabic lessons are boring and focus on tricky grammar. Classrooms often do not have printed material. Few schools have libraries. Teachers tend to lack “sufficient command of the language itself,” the report says. At universities in the region, Arabic departments, as well as those of religious studies, attract the lowest-rated students.
In Morocco, nearly 60% of teachers of ten-year-olds do not have higher education. Only Bahrain has a normal school specializing in the teaching of Arabic. Teachers tend to be traditionalists, sometimes resorting to beatings. Children “don’t like the Arabic language because not even 1% of teachers read stories to their students for fun,” said Ms. Taha-Thomure, professor at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates (United Arab Emirates).
Some blame the language itself. Students learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the official language of administration, but they grew up speaking an indigenous dialect. The dialect closest to MSA is spoken by Palestinians, but only about 60% of local jargon overlaps MSA. The Moroccan dialect diverges much more.
Adults often stumble over the written word too, so reading to children at bedtime is rare. Only about a quarter of Arabic-speaking parents often read to their children, compared to over 70% in much of the West. Reading for fun is widely viewed as essential to a child’s future success. But studies show that Arabic-speaking children do much less than Western children.
Arab education ministries are realizing the problem. Egypt has developed a wealth of online material to bypass traditionalists. The United Arab Emirates has started to equip classrooms with “reading corners”. In the Arab world, girls far outperform boys, in part because female teachers tend to be better. So Saudi Arabia defied the crisp clerics and let the women teach the boys (albeit separately from the girls). His Ministry of Education pierces the mystique of the sacred texts by distributing Japanese-style comics to all Saudi children over the age of ten, with superheroes speaking Arabic slang. “We are facing generations who do not speak the Arabic language,” says Essam Bukhary, the CEO from Manga Arabia, which produces the comics. “We want to promote reading as a hobby for the younger generations. “
Traditionalists tremble at such irreverent treatment of the sacred language. And Arab regimes fear the freedom of expression that a more liberal approach can inspire. Their censors are banning books as firmly as ever and making sure the papers all say the same thing. Many officials prefer to keep children disciplined by having them memorize what they are told, says Andrew Hammond, professor of Arabic culture at the University of Oxford. Otherwise, he said, they might start to think for themselves. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “No Book at Bedtime”