Persistence in Arabic

Expatriate children might find Arabic difficult to learn, given that they are not immersed in the language. Are after-school lessons the solution?

Dhiyab Al Darmaki has benefited from private, one-on-one instruction in Arabic. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
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Although Arabic is a compulsory subject in UAE schools, most children who are not native speakers pass through the school system without learning enough to be able to converse in the language.

Children are often confused by the different types of Arabic – the spoken form with dialects that depend on where the speaker is from, and the written form, or “Modern Standard Arabic”, which is taught in schools. There is also a version of Modern Standard Arabic known as “classical” Arabic, which is the language of the Quran.

According to Maher Bahloul, an associate professor of linguistics at the American University of Sharjah, non-native speakers have been finding Modern Standard Arabic difficult. “Because of this it makes children think ‘Arabic is so hard, I cannot understand it’,” he says.

“Modern Standard Arabic is not a language you would use in day-to-day conversation with anyone. So what happens is all the greetings and instructions are done in the teacher’s own dialect, for example Egyptian or Lebanese, and sometimes the children can’t understand it. That puts an additional pressure on learners, because they also need to be familiar with the dialect of the instructor.”

A recent report commissioned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, called on schools to adopt a modernised, interactive teaching approach to Arabic.

Some non-Arab families are not put off by the complexities of Arabic, and are still determined for their children to learn the national language. The American Karen Kennedy has four children, three of whom take private Arabic classes after school.

“The best time to learn languages is when kids are young and we are here in an Arab country, so why not?” says Kennedy. “We as parents don’t speak Arabic at all so having a tutor after school is really good practice for them. I love the idea of having four children who all speak Arabic. I tell them it can be their secret language, so mummy and daddy won’t know what they are saying at the dinner table.”

Another mum determined for her children to speak Arabic is Stacey Al Darmaki from the United Kingdom, the wife of the Emirati Saeed Al Darmaki. She felt their 7-year-old son, Dhiyab, was not progressing in Arabic at his private British school in Abu Dhabi, so she enrolled him in private one-on-one coaching.

“I found that no one seemed willing to tutor a kid who couldn’t learn Arabic the prescribed way, with a focus on reading and writing. So by the time Dhiyab was old enough for this, he was really behind with spoken Arabic. His father works long hours and classes are expensive – we spend around Dh650 a week on private lessons.

“At school, Dhiyab was obliged to learn Arabic as a native speaker because his dad is Emirati, even though he was far below the standard of other kids who spoke Arabic at home,” Kennedy explains. “He can read and write Arabic but has poor comprehension and struggles to hold a basic conversation even after more than two years of private tutoring.

“Everyone encourages Arabs to speak English, so it’s difficult for them to immerse themselves in the language. Even when I ask people to speak to him in Arabic they will often switch to English if he doesn’t understand straight away. And kids with imperfect Arabic get teased, which puts him off speaking it.”

Al Darmaki says she is also taking Arabic classes to help her son struggle less with the language.