An Abu Dhabi professor's quest to make Arabic literature more accessible

Laila Familiar's frequency dictionary will help readers make the leap from children's books into Arabic literature

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 6, 2020. 
NYUAD professor, Leila Familiar, has compiled a frequency dictionary in Arabic to help readers make the leap into literature. 
Victor Besa /The National
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Reporter:  Anna Zacharias
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Growing up in Kuwait, Laila Familiar always had her nose in a book. Simplified versions of Dracula, Wuthering Heights and A Christmas Carol were the first steps into English literature for Dr Familiar, the daughter of a Palestinian father and Spanish mother.

Now, the Arabic-language professor wants to bring that same wonder to Arabic readers, be they students of the language or native speakers.

Dr Familiar identified the top 2,000 most common words in contemporary Arabic fiction for her PhD in 2017 and compiled them into a frequency dictionary.

She hopes it will be a reference for students and a guide for teachers writing simplified readers in Arabic that reinforce vocabulary and bridge the gap between children’s books and literature.

“My PhD ended up converted into a dictionary,” said Dr Familiar, a senior lecturer in Arabic at New York University Abu Dhabi.

“Now begins the real project, which is developing graded readers for students of Arabic who are just beginning to learn the language so they can be exposed to the culture, read something that is fun and encounter the words over and over.”

Arabic has been exported or portrayed as a language of conflict or politics

Reading in Arabic can be challenging even for native speakers, because the spoken language differs significantly in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation from the formal, written language.

Arabic literacy is low. According to Unesco, an estimated 50 million adults in the region are illiterate.

Within the UAE, the Abu Dhabi government has recognised the need to 'enhance mastery' of the language, which it identified as a key goal in a five-year strategy to boost the Arabic language announced last week.

One of the challenges in Arabic literacy is that there are not a lot of options for readers at an intermediate level. Bookworms must leap from children’s books into full-blown literature, a chasm readers in other languages don’t face.

Learning through literature

Non-native speakers face problems because they are taught a politicised vocabulary. Students typically learn to read news articles long before they leaf through the pages of a book.

Dr Familiar found many advanced non-native Arabic students lacked the vocabulary to express feelings or name household objects.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - April 8: Khaled Al-Saai’i, Arabic calligrapher and painter, giving a calligraphy demonstration in the Calligraphers' Studio at the Sharjah Museum for the Art of Arabic Calligraphy, in Sharjah on April 8, 2008. (Randi Sokoloff / The National) *** Local Caption *** RS020-Calligraphy.jpg

She is part of a growing cohort of Arabic teachers using literature for language acquisition instead of teaching through politics and media.

“In typical Arabic classes today, infamously, students learn to say ‘interpreter at the United Nations’ long before they learn the words for ‘hands’ or ‘face’ or ‘blue’ or ‘he went to the bathroom’,” said Margaret Litvin, a professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Boston University.

“Laila’s work supports Arabic teachers’ increasing effort to relax our incessant focus on ‘media Arabic’ and instead work on the vocabulary of contemporary literature, which, as it happens, also covers a lot of the vocabulary of daily life.

“Best of all, her dictionary coincides with a real flowering of contemporary Arabic-language fiction, whose diversity and vibrancy it works hard to represent.”

Literature teaches pupils shared humanity, as well as the cultural diversity within the Arabic-speaking world, said Dr Familiar.

“Arabic has been exported or portrayed as a language of conflict or politics," she said. "Some people have the idea that there’s nothing in the Arab world but war and conflict and problems, and people only talk about politics.

“We tend to forget the other side of the coin, which is that people are normal, like everywhere else, and they talk about every day issues, like love and friendship and food.”

Novels present a modern but standardised vocabulary, said Rasha Kadry Soliman, an Arabic and linguistics lecturer at the University of Leeds.

“What Laila’s bringing to us is more reality,” said Dr Soliman. “Any linguist would agree that language changes all the time and the pace of change has become faster. When we teach Arabic and stick to the formal language of the news and religious texts, we are not really coping with that pace of change. But if you look at the language used in novels and literature, they continuously capture change.”

Dictionary of Contemporary Arabic Fiction

Dr Familiar selected passages from 144 contemporary Arabic novels nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The novels were penned from 1996 to 2006 and represent 14 Arab countries.

The dictionary is divided into thematic boxes that fill in the gaps for the everyday vocabulary. It is due for release in December.

It's completion gives Dr Familiar time to write abridged readers for other teachers and students.

So far, she has completed two, The Bamboo Stalk by Saud AlSanousi and Sayyadi wa Habibi by Hoda Barakat.

The Bamboo Stalk is about a young Kuwaiti-Filipino who travels to Kuwait to join his father's family.

Sayyadi wa Habibi tells the story of Wadie, a young man who leaves school during the Lebanese Civil War.

Throughout the six-year project, Ms Familiar remembered what novels meant to her as a child.

“I’m really hoping something comes out of this not only for non-native speakers but native speakers as well,” she said. “Hopefully, this is going to making reading more fun.”

A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary Arabic Fiction: Core Vocabulary for Learners and Material Developers will be released by Routledge in December and available for purchase from the publisher and on Amazon