Al-Batal speaks at the College on the future of Arabic pedagogy

On Thursday, Mahmoud Al-Batal visited the College and spoke on the pedagogical challenges of teaching Arabic as the language has shifted since 2001.

Al-Batal is a professor of Arabic at University of Texas in Austin and former long-time director of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) who has authored many textbooks and scholarly works.

Al-Batal opened with a story to show the extent to which Arabic’s visibility as an academic discipline has changed over the past three decades. In his first year teaching the language at Middlebury, he went to get a haircut. When he told the woman cutting his hair what he taught, she looks over at her friend. “He teaches aerobics,” she said.

“Oh,” her friend replied. “Like Jane Fonda!”

Arabic has seen significant change as a language, in both the U.S. and the Arabic-speaking world. Interest in learning Arabic soared after 2001, causing a tremendous growth in departments and programs around the country. That growth posed significant challenges to educators, and it changed the way the language was taught and perceived.

The profile of an Arabic learner, he said, has also changed. In 1995, about 4000 students were taking Arabic, primarily graduate students in academic careers. They primarily learned the language by reading texts and translating into English, similar to the way one learned Latin.

“The vast majority of students are not interested because they want to read manuscripts or study linguistic analysis,” Al-Batal said. “They want to speak to people, and they want to travel abroad.”

Arabic learners now are primarily undergraduates, and it is the eighth most popular language to learn in the U.S., with 32,000 students. Twenty percent of students are heritage learners, Arab-Americans or students with Muslim heritage. Al-Batal thinks it is also important, however, to consider those who are not.

“Eighty percent of the learners,” said Al-Batal, “by and large, are people who are interested in Arabic because they are interested in learning about the Other.”

Meanwhile, technology and social media have caused a fundamental shift in the language itself. The version of Arabic taught in most classrooms is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a formal language used in newscasts, descended from the Quran.However, no one speaks MSA. Native speakers have their own dialects, which differ from one another in vocabulary, pronunciation and even grammar. “If you use modern standard Arabic to order a falafel sandwich, they’ll send you to the hospital,” Al-Batal said.

The diffusion of satellite television, however, is breaking down the firewall between MSA and the dialects. In light of this change, Al-Batal thinks, the MSA instruction in schools is not working anymore.

“We have this new discourse, Arabic is in danger!” he said. “You hear about it all over the Arab world.” The problem, he said, is that MSA is taught almost as if it were another language, with no application in the real world.

Al-Batal said the solution, both in the Arab world and in the U.S., is to fix the pedagogy. He said that it is absurd to expel dialect from the classroom or demand a complete separation of formal and colloquial Arabic; they should contain a mix of both, what he calls an “encompassing approach.”

Teaching both MSA and dialect, and making students comfortable communicating in Arabic, calls for well-trained, smart Arabic professors, who are still in high demand. After 2001, Al-Batal said, the U.S. government more than doubled CASA’s funding in an effort to “throw money at the problem.” This effort resulted in a large number of native Arabic speakers without proper teaching training being placed at the front of classrooms.

When the teachers are convinced that Arabic is a challenging language, when they are not fully prepared to teach it, Al-Batal said, only then does Arabic actually become hard to learn. With proper instruction, he thinks, Arabic is no insurmountable challenge. He hopes that the government acknowledges how important Arabic instruction continues to be, even with fewer boots on the ground in the Middle East, just as he hopes it remembers the importance of every other language.

“Languages should not be linked to national strategies and security,” he said. “Languages have to be our intellectual security.”