As I enter the classroom, I have to look twice to make sure I have, indeed, walked into a class. I see relaxed children, sitting on floor cushions, with the teacher passing a brightly coloured ball around and speaking in Arabic. I try to blend in (not so easy considering I’m cramming my adult frame into a chair built for a 10 year old) as I observe that, along with the ball, the kids are also flung a question in the national language. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of laughter, but I’m amazed that kids from all over the world are able to answer in flawless Arabic. One clever little madam even asks, in a perfect accent, if she can be excused to go to the bathroom.
Ball catching, flash cards and games – this is how Arabic classes are conducted at Uptown Primary School in Mirdif. These creative methods to help kids learn what is, let’s face it, not the easiest language in the world, certainly impressed the assessors from the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau (DSIB). When it carried out its inspections on behalf of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), it ranked the school’s Arabic performance as ‘outstanding’.
That’s especially remarkable given many schools – even those who fared well in the overall inspection process – were criticised for their shoddy performance in Arabic. ‘In one in every five private schools, students’ progress and attainment are unsatisfactory and, in most private schools, students’ attainment is often lower in Arabic than in other subjects,’ the DSIB said in its annual report. It cited a number of factors that contributed towards students’ underachievement, including boring lessons and an over-reliance on tedious textbooks. ‘Too many lessons are dull and repetitive and are taught by poorly skilled teachers who fail to excite students’ interests and appreciation,’ it said.
Indeed, Arabic is often neglected by foreigners living and working in the UAE. With Dubai so cosmopolitan, many think learning the local language is simply not that important. But it’s a mark of respect to try to pick up some phrases and show a willingness to adapt to your surroundings. At the same time, we know that young kids are sponges for new information, so if they’re going to learn a new language, now is most definitely the time to start.
Riham Kamal, the wonderful Arabic teacher who allows me to be a part of her rather entertaining class for Arabic ‘B’ (second-language Arabic), makes it look effortless. The kids are learning without really realising it. In fact, as any linguist will tell you, making learning fun is perhaps the key to picking up another language. Riham won’t walk into the classroom, throw out all the facts and expect (or hope) that the kids grab on to one or two. Her lessons are all about using the language and having fun. ‘We do lots of different activities – for example, traditional Arabic cooking and dancing – so the students start to use Arabic in an everyday context. It’s all very well teaching children how to write in another language – but learning by rote does not encourage them to speak and use the new words every day,’ she stresses.
While the classes are split into three groups based on ability, it’s important to note that there isn’t a sense of being left behind. Such streaming gives the children a chance to explore their own ability and learn by being true to themselves.
‘For first-time Arabic learners, there are challenges,’ Riham explains. ‘Learning the written characters doesn’t present a problem, but learning how to pronounce them is another matter. It is challenging, because the students are being asked to speak in a different way. To tackle this, we concentrate a lot on phonetics – the language sounds.’
Homework can also be tricky, she admits, as parents are often unable to help their children. ‘It’s tough because what students need more than anything, is to learn how to speak the language first,’ explains Riham. ‘Unfortunately, there aren’t many instances where they get the opportunity to practise orally at home as most parents have no knowledge of Arabic. Perhaps this is something the government could address.’
Riham also believes children should ideally be taught a minimum of five hours Arabic lessons per week – one more than the four recommended by the Ministry of Education. ‘They need a lesson every day to affirm it and learn it properly,’ she adds.
Language lessons at Uptown Mirdif are, according to Victoria Sutton, deputy coordinator of the school’s primary years programme, ‘engaging and stimulating’, but learning Arabic is a challenge for both pupils and teachers. ‘When you go into a classroom you will see the children engaged in activities to make them think for themselves and to do it for themselves,’ explains Victoria. ‘You can tell a child something but it’s more important for them to actually use it.’ Nor, she adds, should culture take a back seat. ‘Children can elect extra curricular activities like Arabic cooking, Arabic dancing. We also make sure we celebrate the kids’ cultures as well as their friends’ culture – especially the Arabic aspect because it’s our host country.’
To find out more about Uptown Primary School, call 04 288 6270 or visit www.uptownprimary.ae.