For Arabic classes, growing pains

Arabic students complain about limited focus on actual language skills in some of their classes. Nevertheless, enrollment in Arabic classes is rising.
Arabic students complain about limited focus on actual language skills in some of their classes. Nevertheless, enrollment in Arabic classes is rising. Photo by Eva Galvan.

Although enrollment in Arabic classes is rising, some students say the program is disorganized and does not teach them practical skills for speaking the language, which the State Department considers critical to national security.

Most of Yale’s courses teach Modern Standard Arabic, which Arabs use for reading, writing and formal speaking. Yale offers only one course on colloquial Arabic (the Levantine dialect spoken in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories), first offered last spring semester by Shady Nasser, director of the Arabic program. Eight out of 10 students interviewed said they decided to take Arabic to communicate with native speakers, but formal Arabic does not enable them to do so.

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In addition, this year Nasser has reduced his use of the standard textbook in favor of other material and also introduced a new system adapted from Yale’s Japanese and Chinese language programs, in which teachers rotate classes to expose students to different accents and to standardize the syllabus across sections. Some students said this new approach leads to discontinuity and makes it difficult to follow the material. But Beatrice Gruendler, the director of undergraduate studies for Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, said the new approach is a better teaching model.

“Our job is not to make people happy,” said Gruendler. “It’s to teach students.”

Luke Beland ’12, who is in L4, said he enjoys the rotation because it allows him to get to know more teachers. But three of five students interviewed said they dislike it because of the inconsistency between teachers.

Nasser has also modified and intensified the Arabic curriculum. During the first year, students now learn 80 percent of the grammar they will eventually learn in the Yale Arabic program and read a variety of Arabic short stories alongside the textbook. Although the textbook is the best available, Nasser said, it pales in comparison to texts for other languages and so he hopes to create his own textbook for Yale students to use in the future. Nasser has also increased the use of listening exercises, cartoons and skits.

But Yemile Bucay ’13 said she does not see how the additional material fits in with the textbook, calling it “disorganized.”

Nasser and Gruendler said they agree that the curriculum has room for improvement.

“It is still messy because it is the first year [of the new curriculum],” Nasser said, adding that change inevitably brings some degree of discomfort.

But eight of 10 students interviewed said there are also broader issues with the Arabic program as a whole, explaining that they want to interact with native speakers but cannot do so proficiently after learning only formal Arabic, which Nasser said is “a dead language.”

“People will understand you,” Sarika Arya ’11 said of her trip to the Middle East. “But you sound like a cartoon.”

Nasser said students need formal Arabic to understand the Arabic media or read a newspaper, adding that it is easier to learn formal Arabic before acquiring a colloquial dialect. Nasser said a student in L2 — the level required to attend the Yale summer program in Jordan — can hold simple conversations in formal Arabic, such as asking for directions.

At Cornell, the Arabic program integrates colloquial and formal Arabic from the first day in order to emulate a native speaker’s learning experience, said Kim Heins-Eitzen, chair of Cornell’s Near Eastern Studies department. Students learn to read and write in formal Arabic but speak the Levantine colloquial dialect, she explained. If students master any colloquial Arabic dialect, they can function in other dialects, according to Munther Younes, Cornell’s Arabic language program director.

Heins-Eitzen said she expects that other universities will adopt a similar, more integrated approach to teaching Arabic in the near future.

“We are on the brink of major changes in the way Arabic is taught,” Heins-Eitzen said.

Nasser and Gruendler said they would like to offer more colloquial courses but that the department lacks professors and funding.

“The moment we can spare someone, we will offer it,” Gruendler said. “We just don’t have the staff capacity.”

Arabic has the seventh highest enrollment — 129 students — out of the 29 languages taught at Yale.

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