Dubai school incorporates Arabic into all classes

The Jumeirah Baccalaureate School sets itself apart from other schools in the UAE by putting a unique focus on Arabic.

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Educational approach puts language at heart of learning process Hala Khalaf Dubai // The school day over, Humza Qureshi, 8, and his brother Ilyas, 6, can barely wait to tell their mother about their experiences. Archana Sharma says the change in her sons' attitudes since the previous term is dramatic. "I could never get them to talk about school before, and now they fight to tell me their stories," she said.

The boys were among the first students at the Jumeirah Baccalaureate School (JBS) in Dubai, which opened its doors on September 14, and which sets itself apart from many other schools in the UAE by putting a unique focus on Arabic at the heart of its pedagogical approach. "We are focusing on functional Arabic, rather than just using the book," said Dr Samia al Farra, the chief education officer at Taaleem, the company that operates the school.

That means continually putting the language in context in all lessons, as opposed to restricting the teaching of Arabic to a single class. "Every word they learn in English, they will also learn in Arabic, whether in their fine art class, during drama performances, or when they are in the middle of the unique greenery in their outside classes." Surrounded by the lush lawns and mature foliage inherited from the American School of Dubai, which previously occupied the site, JBS is aggressively integrating Arabic culture with awareness of the student body's surroundings.

"When they are learning Arabic, it's not just a language," said Andrew Homden, the executive principal. "Why not have them understand the elements of old Arabic architecture, so they see the language as one of knowledge and interest?" For example, JBS students might study the designs of old Emirati homes, the thick walls, the wind towers that pull in outside air to create a natural breeze for the humans living inside. Field trips to Dubai's Bastakiya district would be perfect for such learning, said Mr Homden.

"Arabic is a classical language of knowledge, but also gives insight into the tradition and culture of the country where these children reside, regardless of their native language," he said. School officials hope this method of learning will teach children to respect the myriad languages spoken by their classmates, as well as help them gain the ability to express themselves in Arabic. Nationally, said Dr al Farra, Arabic has suffered; it has been drowned out by English, the universal language. This has, he said, challenged all schools to teach the national tongue in ways that motivates students to want to learn it.

"What I think helps us at JBS is really the environment around the children; it inspires them," he said. "Whenever we want to highlight something more, we say, OK, look at the environment, at the recycled wood in the lobby or the interesting and different layout of your classrooms or the greenery outside; talk about that in Arabic." After only week in class, the students at JBS have certainly been talking. Alia al Rais, in her second year of kindergarten at JBS, comes home with the Arabic equivalent of every English word she has learnt throughout the day.

"In Alia's previous school, the Arabic was shocking and she went backwards," said her mother, Ranya Doleh, an Emirati who has a strong British accent. "I moved her to JBS because they were going to contexualise the Arabic teaching, and genuinely teach Arabic as a language of value." Only a few days after the start of school, Alia came home singing Arabic songs, and reciting the parts of the body in English before mirroring them in Arabic.

Mrs Sharma's boys, Humza and Ilyas, are exhibiting the same habits, and their mother hopes their Arabic will soon be as strong as their English. "When I ask them how's the Arabic at school, they say it's really interesting and a lot more fun," she said. "I know it's early days yet, and only been a week, but whatever that school is doing, it's working."