Teacher of baby Arabic Sawsan Al Azen, left, interacts with 22-month-old French baby Naomi Sofia Catto. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Teacher of baby Arabic Sawsan Al Azen, left, interacts with 22-month-old French baby Naomi Sofia Catto. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

The joy of Arabic

New play groups are helping toddlers associate key language skills with fun, Anna Zacharias writes

Earlier this week, a group of mothers and their active toddlers met at a children’s centre in Dubai’s Marina Mall to sit on colourful kaffiyeh blankets and sing Arabic nursery rhymes. A group of toddlers getting down to an Arabic rendition of “This is the way we wash our face ...” may not seem revolutionary but, as far as Arabic-language instruction goes, it’s pretty radical.

Baby Arabia, an Arabic-language play group founded by Nadia Wehbe, is one of several groups that is encouraging children to use and embrace Arabic from a young age through interactive learning.

The demand for interactive Arabic classes has increased as reports emerge about the struggles of the school system to teach literary Arabic. These extra-curricular groups offer interactive, contextual learning instead of rote learning preferred by school teachers.

Wehbe founded the play group two years ago when she could not find one for her young son. “I started it more out of a need for my own family,” says Wehbe, a British-Palestinian raised in Sharjah. “I wanted support in the community so that I wouldn’t be the only one speaking to my son in Arabic.”

Wehbe’s aunt, the late Maliha Wehbe, opened a language school for older children in Dubai based on this approach in 1988 when she grew tired of complaints about the language. Classes at her school, Dar El Ilm, had a simple premise: language is about communication.

“What happened is we heard people complaining about Arabic all the time and the difficulties they’re facing with their kids learning the language,” says Maha Jayyusi, the school’s director of studies, who developed the curriculum with Maliha. “And we thought, we have to do something about it.”

An increasing number of students from Arab households cannot understand Modern Standard Arabic, the standardised written language used in media and formal communications.

The literary language differs widely from the dialectic Arabic used in the streets and at home.

“Our main goal is to make Arabic fun, and we want the children to love the Arabic language,” says Jayyusi. “Arabic is not hard to learn. It’s a very systematic language, and we can introduce it in a very simple way, where people can understand the logic behind everything that we’re teaching.”

There is a growing market among Arab-speaking parents as schools continue to teach by rote learning and with historical Arabic texts introduced chronologically. This means that children often tackle the most difficult literature first. An increasing number of Emirati and Arab children are struggling with written Arabic.

“When we first started the school with Maliha, most of our students, 99 per cent of our students, were English students from mixed marriages,” says Jayyusi. “Nowadays, I’m sorry to say, most of our students are Arabs. They understand the language but they don’t speak it. This is the chance for them to speak the language, and the teacher will guide them.”

Children’s opportunities to use Arabic are limited by life in a cosmopolitan city, and there is less Arabic spoken at home due to TV and films, mixed marriages and a reliance on non-Arabic-speaking help. Despite compulsory daily lessons at public and private schools, many students graduate without a grasp of the literary language.

A report released this month, commissioned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, confirmed that Emirati youth are using less Arabic and more English in their daily lives. It called on schools to adopt a modernised, interactive teaching approach.Shaikha Al Ari, a Federal National Council member from Umm Al Qaiwain, labelled illiteracy in Arabic "a new disability in society". Hundreds of children are illiterate in Arabic, the council was told in June.

“We have so many students who are coming here who can read and write in a very good way, but they cannot speak the language,” says Jayyusi. “We want the children to understand; we don’t want the children to memorise what they’re learning, because unfortunately this is what is happening at schools. After summer break their knowledge of Arabic is, I’m sorry to say, zero.”

Interactive classes offer an alternative by giving students local context that keeps lessons memorable. Instead of reading about Egyptian farmers or snowy Lebanese mountains, children at Dar El Ilm will learn to use Arabic for the Dubai Metro or for a day at the beach.

“Yanni, we can’t talk about snow in Dubai,” says Jayyusi. “What’s snow to us if we don’t travel? Or why do we talk about working in a field and planting things and we don’t see this here? We need something we have here.”

In contrast to traditional techniques, students use role playing, crafts, games, songs and storytelling that bring Arabic to life.

“We want the child to be able to use this language, to love this language,” says Jayyusi.

Arabic may be a poetic language, but lessons are usually bogged down with meta-language, vocabulary that describes Arabic syntax and grammar.

“Grammar is not very attractive to students because you’re using language to explain language,” says Maher Bahloul, an associate professor of linguistics at the American University of Sharjah (AUS). “It’s never done with mother tongues. Everyone learns their acquired mother tongue just through meaningful exposure.”

Arabic grammatical instruction has been tedious since the eighth century, when the Persian grammarian Sibawayh compiled a grammar guide for the language’s instruction, says Bahloul.

Sibawayh’s work was extremely detailed and, to a child’s mind, extremely dull. Those who have bothered to learn Arabic’s complicated meta-languages are naturally invested in passing this knowledge on.

“They [Arabic instructors] don’t use current texts or current philosophies or current methodologies,” says Bahloul. “They have the Arabic grammar to focus on, and they feel they cannot go wrong with it and that children have to learn these rules simply because they themselves learnt these rules.”

This means children start to dislike Arabic at an age when they could acquire it most easily. “Children at an early age accommodate to whatever input they’re exposed to, and that makes the acquisition of the second and third languages easier at that age,” says Bahloul. “The earlier you learn a language the better and the faster. Learning a language at an early age compared to learning it later is an advantage.”

Bahloul established the Maher Language Institute in Paris to teach children literary and dialectic Arabic through singing, storytelling, acting, broadcasting and filmmaking and hosted courses at AUS for older students that teach Arabic through theatre.

The sooner immersion starts, the better. Consequently, more children are enrolled in language groups at a younger age.

Baby Arabia is the country’s first Arabic-language play group for children up to five years old. Interest initially came from non-native speakers, but it has become increasingly popular with native Arabic speakers.

“If you’re living in Dubai this is a chance to know the culture and learn something at the same time,” says Wehbe. “For the native [speaking] mums, it’s about spending quality time with your child in your native tongue. They would come and they would say, ‘What’s this? I can speak to my child in Arabic’.

“I would say, ‘But you don’t. You’re singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in English and Mary Had a Little Lamb in English’.”

Nour Atassi attends with her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Zina Baddad. “I want her to speak in Arabic, to sing in Arabic,” says Atassi, who is Syrian. “Dubai is an international city and you can find lots of people from all over the world. The nanny speaks to her in English, so I’m compromising on the language at home.

“It’s important for her to know her mother language and where she’s from, her history. I’m really encouraging friends to come here because they will enjoy it.”

The group meets at children’s centres and nurseries across Dubai from Sunday to Thursday and may soon expand to Abu Dhabi. Classes are now also offered in French.

Wehbe stresses that it is a play group, not a language class.

“The kids don’t care if it’s in Arabic or Chinese. The point is that you keep it active and interactive,” she says. “Your kid’s not going to walk out of Baby Arabia speaking Arabic, but what it will do is they will know their colours, they will know their numbers, they will love to sing songs. It’s just about preparation and making it fun for them.”


• Dar El Ilm offers three-hour classes for children ages 4 to 16 in at the World Trade Centre in Dubai every Saturday. There are three terms and holiday camps that correspond to the school year. Pupils are welcome to join at any point during the year. For more information, visit http://www.dar-el-ilm.com/

• Baby Arabia runs Arabic-language play groups for children up to age 5 in Dubai from Sunday to Thursday. For more information visit http://babyarabia.com/


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