On Reading in Arabic: The Evidence

[This is the second post in a series on the importance of reading when studying Arabic (or any other language). Read the first post here.]

It is notoriously difficult to study and show which are the most efficient methods to study second languages. For starters, everyone is slightly different, so it's hard to compare between individuals. Learning a language is also such an involved pursuit (taking place over all hours of the day, and in the mind, where microscope or dictaphone can't usefully reach) that it is impractical to follow the student for all twenty-four hours of the day.

Having given the pitch for why I think reading is so important for students of Arabic, today I wanted to summarise a study that was carried out from 1970-1977. This study, by ElSaid Badawi, is entitled "In the quest for the Level 4+ in Arabic: training Level 2–3 learners in independent reading" and can be found as an article in Betty Lou Leaver and Boris Shekhtman's fascinating (and underrated / underred) edited volume, Developing Professional-Level Language Proficiency. Given its somewhat obscure provenance, it's unlikely you'd come across this fascinating article in the normal course of your day, hence my interest in summarising it for you here.

Badawi offers an overview of his experience running the CASA (Center for Arabic Study Abroad) programme between 1970-1977. This programme was originally started in 1967 for advanced-level students and the idea of it was to give a year of intensive study in order to really catapult students into real competency in being able to read, speak and use Arabic in a professional capacity. (Badawi begins his article with a justification for reading, but I'll skip those details since their is a great deal of overlap with what I've already written).

The original CASA curriculum in the 1967-era programme was established around a 3000-word vocabulary list, reading of some short passages using those words in context, a grammar book and two long 'authentic' texts that would be covered over the course of the year. The students found this dull and unrewarding, however, so CASA's administrators decided to design a new course based around familiarising students with a 'language domain of their interests'. In other words: allowing them to read things that were related to their interests and professional trajectory.

Students taking part in the programme were assessed (prior to joining) as being at a high level, but their vocabulary was generally limited to political subjects. They had a poor understanding of morphology and little to no facility with semantics. They had, Badawi writes, bad reading habits in Arabic: too much focus on sentence structure, engaged in 'parsing-based reading' and with only a minimal grasp of the "semantic role of punctuation". In that last case, this is the way Arabic uses words, phrasing and sentence constructions to signify the meaning of a sentence, whereas in English a lot of those meaning structures are conveyed through punctuation. Most of all, students suffered from an 'excessive / crippling' use of the Arabic-English dictionary, which was identified as an obstacle to spontaneous and contextualised language learning; words were quickly forgotten.

The programme sought to encourage a switch in its students: "a change of attitude toward Arabic from that of a language they are being taught to one which they should start learning". The responsibility, at this level, generally should switch from the teacher to the students.

The programme was split up into three semesters / terms:

  • Semester 1: 8-week summer programme

This was made up of introductory cultural classes (based around Cairo, Egypt, where students were living. It offered classes to bring students up to a competent level in functional colloquial Arabic. (Students could solve all their problems and interact with Egyptians in a functional way, following the course). There was also a component of media Arabic where students would become familiar with the formalised language used in printed and spoken contexts.

  • Semester 2: 14-week autumn programme

This semester was for allowing students to gain a higher competence in MSA. Reading was one of the core elements here (news reading became effortless and there was some inclusion of classical language as well). Colloquial Arabic was encouraged through the reading of plays (which often used colloquial/dialect expressions and language). An intensive reading programme was added alongside this to boost confidence.

  • Semester 3: 14-week spring programme

The final semester included three graduate-level courses in subjects of the students' interest / choice. There was also some training in 'Educated Spoken Arabic' (i.e. the discussion of high-culture topics).

The Intensive Reading Course

The core belief behind the programme was that reading was important to the students' knowledge of Arabic in a fundamental way. All the other skills would benefit and develop alongside the reading done as part of the programme. There were different kinds of texts available and a selection criteria for what kinds of reading took place:

Finding materials for intensive / analytic reading was easy. The harder issue was finding materials suitable for extensive reading, i.e. the kind of wide-reading that students are able to do with some level of ease. Arabic poses a particular problem in this regard, given its 'wide range of active vocabulary in use', and the 'complexity of the morphs-semantic system'.

Plays were believed to be the best for extensive reading. They carried a "high degree of word and sentence redundancy", usually had only a single theme and were of moderate length. (It was found that reading two 200-page books was much more satisfying than reading a single 400-page book). Plays also lend themselves to real-life activities. There is also the possibility of watching the plays being performed (or, now, on YouTube).

Novels were also considered useful, but the fact that dialogue is used only minimally means that they were kept for later in the semester. Short stories were denser in meaning and language use and thus harder. They were included in the programme, though, for the sake of variety.

Overall, texts were chosen for the language structures used rather than for their literary value / content.

Reading Texts

The course had students reading three items each week. Usually one novel or a play (a long item) and a short story and a 1-act play (i.e. two short items). These were generally from the same author, and difficulty would escalate over time. All texts were authentic and unabridged. Ideally they were selected from leading literary figures and they would all be texts for which no English translations already exist. Selecting these texts was hard at the beginning, but over the years they settled into a broad pattern, escalating in difficulty:

  • Group 1 (first three weeks)

Plays by Tawfiq al-Hakim (short and long). These were good because he uses a lot of redundant vocabulary, follow familiar thematic sources to those with which students would have been familiar, used a lively dialogue and generally contained "straightforward language".

  • Group 2 (5 weeks)

This consisted of works by Ihsan Abdul Quddus, a journalist, novelist and short story writer. These works tackled themes from social phenomena and thus were appropriate to a young audience. They referenced local customs and expressions. They included fewer dialogues in the novels and short stories. They had a lucid structure and controlled range of vocabulary.

  • Group 3

This was works by Yusuf Idris, blending MSA with colloquial idioms, Qur'anic citations and quotations from the hadith literature. These were at a higher difficulty level.

  • Group 4

This was a mix of items chosen for special topical interest or artistic value. For example, in the final week, students read Fathy Ghanem's 1958 novel Al-Gabal. They also tackled some of the non-famous novels by Nagib Mahfouz.

Mixed in these various groups were shorter items: one-act plays and short stories. There was generally a balance between length of a text and its linguistic difficulty.

Reading Instructions

I found this section of the article the most interesting / instructive. Students were told the following:

  • The beginning of a story / text is always the hardest. You don't know what's going on, who the characters are and what the context / scene is. Bear with it. A lot of this will be scene-setting. You can always return back to it later on.
  • Arabic has a lot of redundancy. Compare what you are stuck on with what follows and check if you can figure out the meaning that way.
  • Continue reading as long as you can make out a story or theme for yourself. Don't worry or second-guess yourself as to whether what you understand from the story is the same thing as what the author intended you to understand.
  • If you find a word or part of the structure you don't understand and stop, DON'T look the word up in the dictionary unless:
    • you have failed to guess the meaning
    • there is nobody around to ask the meaning
  • Mark / highlight the words you were able to guess in the text. Mark the words you were able to do without understanding.
  • Make a list of cultural features that you'd like to be addressed in class.
  • Mark and make a list of any expressions and grammatical features or constructions that you want addressed in class.

Classes

Class sessions were essentially there to ensure that students were keeping up with the reading volume. Students would narrate their understanding of the texts they had read, and would raise any issues they wanted to learn more about.

Classes were also a good time to increase students' semantic understanding -- allowing students to identify shared roots and usages in different contexts and forums.

Students submitted written responses / follow-ups to the text in the class with the teacher present. A weekly conference with students gathered feedback on the choices of texts, allowing teachers to adapt the programme depending on the ease/difficulty perceived by each individual cohort of students.

Results

By the end of the 14-week programme, students had read an average of 2500 pages of authentic Arabic texts. Graded text levels showed that their language was improving. They were encouraged by managing to review words and structures that had been marked as 'hard' earlier on in the semester. (Usually 25-40% of these words had become intelligible to them, despite no vocabulary learning strategy specifically targeted at learning these words.) The graduate-level courses (all taught in Arabic, obviously) of the final semester were also a proving ground for students.

This reading programme increase students' competence and was transferrable to their other skills. (Yes, even their spoken Arabic.) Reading helped with writing. Reading 'complete texts' did a lot for the morale of the students at the intermediate-level, too. And the literary focus of the content was useful for students even if their interests didn't lie in that particular area.

My next post about reading Arabic will detail some options that are available to the intermediate-level student of Arabic, and some practical considerations resulting from this article.

Language Learner's Journal: Independent Study

[This is a continuation of Taylor's blog series where she details some of the week-in-week-out lessons that she learns through her Arabic studies and coaching work together with me. For other posts in the series, click here.]

For some Arabic students (myself, certainly), when we first start to learn about the diglossia in Arabic, we feel somewhat cheated, like, "I signed up to learn a language, and now you're telling me that I need to learn some second, shadow language if I'm actually to use it?" It's like the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet, like we'd be studying Shakespeare and are frustrated to find that real people actually speak Singlish. Colleagues who work in journalism/research repeatedly encouraged me to study dialect, which led me to leave my last fusha course for an ammiya one at Sijal. 

Happily, it doesn't feel nearly so intimidating as I once imagined when I turned on some ammiya YouTube videos and despaired that a year in MSA classes seemed to do me no good. Indeed, the listening comprehension and vocabulary I learned at Qasid feels like a swiss army knife I now use to pick a new lock. Also, another useful tool from my MSA classes – an extreme comfort with not understanding many of the words I'm hearing but still staying engaged and hanging on for the ones I do.

On a related note, Alex has encouraged me to keep up independent reading even as I'm in a course that largely focuses on speaking and listening. That's another skill that I appreciate from my time at Qasid – the willingness to dive into a text, even when many of the words are ones I don't recognize, and look for the keys that will give me some clue about it. I'm a pen-and-paper learner, so I've been printing out media articles and reading them through twice, no dictionary, then underlining words I don't know and making my best guess at what they mean. 

For example, this week I read one in the Huffington Post about scientists questioning whether we need to drink eight cups of water a day. The piece mentioned drinking a sufficient amount of water so that "البول" is "واضح اللون أو خفيف الصفرة." I didn't know that first word, but I was delighted to know exactly what it was as soon as I read the rest of the sentence. I'm convinced that process of discovery is a powerful learning tool, more so than having translations readily at hand to answer our doubts as soon as we have them. 

Also, having a bit more free time, I've been able to take advantage of events going on around me to get extra-classroom contact with the language. I sat in on a Sunday morning lecture from an Al Jazeera filmmaker who produced an extraordinary documentary, "The Boy Who Started the Syrian War." His discussion afterwards was well above my level, and I only got the outlines of what he was saying, which is still far more than I would have gotten just three months ago when I came to Amman. It was still, of course, a very useful experience. For example, he used the word نظام always when I was expecting him to say حكومة, which led me to ask and confirm with my teacher that it seems to be used like we say "regime" in English, or, a disdainful/pejorative word for a government. 

Being someone who spends plenty of time in the kitchen (because organic vegetarian food doesn't make itself, at least not anywhere walking distance from me =) I'm a big podcast fan. Alex's on Jordanian ammiya is great listening for me at my current level – when I tried this just a few months ago, it was beyond my grasp. I also like the BBC Arabic service and DW's current events discussion panel. 

And repeating what I wrote in my last post – an upcoming post will be some reflections on accents and errors and embarrassment and the ways we as language learners judge ourselves (and others? I hope not. I indeed only judge myself when it comes to foreign language ability, which may point to, as Alex says, how much language is a confidence game). I'm on a scale between sheepish and chatterbox depending on what situation I'm in, and I've been chewing over what it is about a given situation that makes me feel either of those ways.

[To learn more about coaching with Alex, click here. To learn more about 'Master Arabic', a guide for intermediate-level Arabic students, click here.]

Language Learner's Journal: Leaving Qasid

[This is a continuation of Taylor's blog series where she details some of the week-in-week-out lessons that she learns through her Arabic studies and coaching work together with me. For other posts in the series, click here.]

After two-and-a-half intense months, I've finished my course at Qasid. Though this didn't always feel easy to see on a day-to-day basis, it's extraordinary how much students there learn over a short period of time. On my first day, I couldn't produce full sentences other than my go-to greetings and "I'm an American journalist in Brazil," and over the weeks there, comprehended and participated in discussions about women's rights, marriage customs in different cultures, literature, colonialism and occupation.

Even if it kicked my butt (or because it did), I leave with a great opinion of the school. Qasid's teachers are extremely well trained in how to instruct students in an immersive method – we only occasionally resorted to English words when, say, our teacher wanted to make sure we really understood a grammatical point at hand. My listening comprehension soared, as did my ability to read texts (each week's lesson in our textbook revolved around one or two native texts). Also, I had the great fortune of my class whittling down to only two students, which meant that for three hours each morning, my classmate and I were responsible for answering every question and participating fully in every discussion. So much opportunity to speak in a comfortable, mistakes-are-fine-and-expected environment turned me into something of a chatterbox, though my enthusiasm is several steps ahead of my accuracy.

Also, a delightful unexpected benefit about Qasid is that a group of students and teachers stay the afternoon there in their study halls. That meant that while I worked on my computer after class, I was often surrounded by chatter in Arabic, both teachers engaging their students in fusha and many students who were native dialect speakers chatting amongst themselves.

That said, after speaking with several other language students and journalist colleagues, consulting Alex, and thinking about my goals, I decided to switch tracks from my original plan to study two terms at Qasid and then move back to the U.S. for a summer language institute to instead focus on ammiya here in Amman. I work a part-time job to support my studies, while most Qasid students are full-time exchange students. If all students there were exhausted from their homework load, I was 150 percent so. Journalist after journalist tells me they wish they had better dialect skills and, not being someone who has a "good ear," i.e., I don't pick up much language without studying it in a methodical way, I think it will be important to focus on a dialect in a structured setting.

Still, I'd consider going to Qasid again in the future. In fact, I was part of a test group to try out a new study tool the are developing that would supply easy-to-access audio and videos to accompany texts and vocabulary we study in Qasid's textbooks. It looks like a promising way to bridge the gap between reading comprehension and pronunciation of the words in the text, i.e., I often recognize words in a text based on their consonants and long vowels but am mentally (and inappropriately) filling in a fatha each time I don't know the short vowels.

As for my next steps: I've enrolled in a twice-a-week ammiya course at Sijal and am already enamoured with the class. I tested into the advanced level, though the other students in the class are far ahead of me in dialect. That said, unlike with Qasid the first time around (when I asked to be placed down a level because I was having difficulty following the class), I felt comfortable sticking to this level since I indeed understand the majority of the lesson. I'll also be taking private lessons to complement the group course.

Another choice I've been happy with is that I've also moved to a far more happening place than my last home in Shmeisani, which has meant a world of difference in terms of just having daily interactions. I try to look up the words of things I'm looking for before I hit the streets (most recently, شمعة، سبانخ، و لوز بدون ملح). I find most people are very willing to speak with a foreigner in Arabic, though this sometimes involves my telling strangers who respond to me in English "بحكي الإنكليزية شيء، انا برازلية). I will reflect on the merits of this and some broader thoughts on expat language learning/daily usage in a future post.

I've also become a social media and technology ascetic, logging out of my accounts and using them only when something necessary is at hand. In addition to being an old soul who believes that technology is eating away at humanity and rewiring our brains like substance addiction, seeing the Facebook I see every day anywhere else in the world is not one of the reasons I came to Amman. It's pleasant to let my eyes wander while I sit in a taxi or service and try to speed read the signs around me before they're out of sight. I don't think I risk جهالة anytime soon – I read plenty of news (it's part of my job), but it's confined to a couple of hours of work a day, and then I'm free.

And as for that free time, another upcoming blog will be about independent study methods post-Qasid that I will develop with Alex to make sure I keep up the reading skills I learned there even as I switch into a dialect course.

Three Podcast Recommendations

I've been walking around more this past week, and have added some new listening material into my podcast quiver. So if you're interested in something outside your usual information diet, give these three a try:

  • Slate's Stranger Than Fiction. Conversations with science-fiction authors about the intersection of their writing with technology and the contemporary world. This podcast is no longer produced and there are only 6 episodes (dating back to 2013).
  • Pod Save the World. Conversations with people who were involved in American foreign policy decisions. This is part of a series of new podcasts put out by some former Obama-government staff members (aka Crooked Media). The foreign policy discussions are often interesting and they offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of how certain deals were made. So far we've heard about the Cuba and Iran deals made under Obama.
  • Arms Control Wonk. A discussion podcast about nuclear weapons. It's a fairly opinionated glance at some pretty down-in-the-weeds topics relating to nuclear security, particularly from the US perspective, but given that North Korean nuclear weapons are likely to be a big deal in 2017 this is a useful one to follow.