Push to make learning Arabic fun for children

Arabic must be taught in a fun and engaging manner to encourage the next generation of speakers, an education conference has heard. Parents can also play a proactive role by encouraging their children to speak the language more.

Dubai International Academy pupils Zain Shangiti, left, and Leila Gemei practise Arabic calligraphy at the KHDA conference held at the Mohammed bin Rashid Academic Medical Academy. Antonie Robertson / The National
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DUBAI // Arabic must be taught in a fun and engaging manner to encourage the next generation of speakers, an education conference heard on Monday.

Parents can also play a proactive role by encouraging their children to speak the language more.

To help highlight the issue of poor Arabic-language skills, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) brought together hundreds of teachers, experts and pupils for a day of workshops.

“We need to move beyond treating Arabic as just another language and look at it from the point of view of topics that children will be interested in,” said Dr Abdullah Al Karam, director general of the KHDA, Dubai’s education regulator.

“Some people think that Dubai’s multicultural mix is a hindrance to learning Arabic, but I believe the emirate is the easiest place to learn.

“Roads signs, for example, are both in Arabic and English and restaurants usually have menus in the two languages, so there are many opportunities for children to be exposed to the language.”

He noted, however, that it was sometimes too easy for young people, particularly native Arabic speakers, to fall into speaking English.

“When young Emiratis or other native Arabic speakers go to a private school they are usually surrounded by pupils from around the world, so it’s only natural that they communicate with one another in English.”

He said he understood the desire of parents to encourage their children to learn English as it was vital that they have the language if they planned to pursue higher education abroad.

Research that the KHDA and others have conducted has shown that if children learn two languages by the age of six then they will find it easier to learn more languages.

“It’s vital we get children at this important time in their lives because it has huge benefits for them,” Dr Al Karam said.

Fatma Al Marri, chief executive of the KHDA’s Dubai School Agency, said traditional methods of teaching Arabic were outdated and did not inspire children to learn.

“With the resources and the technology available, the learning experience should be much more fun and engaging for young people,” she said.

Teaching of Arabic, not just to native speakers but also non-Arabs, was a cornerstone of the KHDA’s education policy, she added.

The authority introduced an assessment system for Arabic language teachers two years ago and, it said, the standard of teachers and the teaching had steadily improved since then.

“When we first started, the level wasn’t as good and for every 100 candidates we had only 20 who would pass. But things have got much better since then,” Ms Al Marri said.

She stressed that parents had an important role to play and it was important they conversed with their children in Arabic.

“Unfortunately, I do not see many Arab parents doing this and it’s counterproductive,” she said.

“What happens is that the only exposure children get to the language is in Arabic class and that isn’t enough.”

Delegates at the KHDA’s What Works Arabic Plus event at Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Medical Academy, held at Dubai Healthcare City, attended a number of workshops.

Ahmed Fathi Rateb, head of Arabic at Gems Modern Academy in Nad Al Sheba, presented a workshop on using technology to make Arabic more fun and accessible.

“The vast majority of our students are Indian so aren’t native speakers,” he said.

“To get pupils and their parents more involved in Arabic the school developed a smartphone app, and [introduced] an electronic magazine about the subject, last year.

“It really makes it fun to learn the language because it allows the pupils to select different topics and they can listen to the pronunciation of the words,” he said.

Modern Academy pupil Sameer Ahmed, 17, said using the technology had brought learning Arabic to life for him.

“It’s been wonderful and I’ve learnt a lot,” he said.

“I’ve been learning Arabic for about nine years and can read and write it easily.

“The app is a big help because you can listen to the words being spoken and it’s helping to improve my spoken Arabic.”