Given the limited choices of proposed foreign (living) languages in secondary schools, a sector largely dominated by English, Spanish, and German, students arriving to University are happy to discover other langauges such as Arabic (1). The question is thus proposed : How does one make up for lost time in studying ? Is it necesssary to minor/major (licence en France) in Arabic in addition to the principle discipline? Is it absolutely neccessary to spend time in an Arabic country? What is the most effective method and how long will it take?

The motivation is not the problem but rather to find the route that will best foster the motivation into something palpable. Although the time we live in promotes the ideas of the quickest and the easiest and with an abundance of institutions and methods available, nowhere can one expect to learn quickly and easy. Technological advances have rendered time and space much closer; borders are obsolete, and access is possible anywhere at any moment. The time spent with a professor has also radically changed, and thus it would be ineffective to continue to teach in the same way as it was done thirty years ago. Some university students even express a feeling of wasted time in a case where a language class becomes a commentary on a text or lexical analysis instead. Independent work then must make up for this time. Granted the intimite connection between language and culture, we must reflect that if each minute of class counts towards progression or stagnation, we must ask ourselves what are the priorities? And what are the activities that can be reserved for independent work?

It is essential today to rethink teaching languages especially for those labeled difficult. For a French or English speaker it is often much easier to "quickly" learn Italian or Spanish however one can be easily decieved in thinking this would be the same time and effort for Arabic, Chinese, or Japanese. This creates the need to establish an effective method, but how?

No matter the method, the student will need landmarks, practice, and tools to adapt to his or her rhythym and needs, all realistic thanks to technology. Methods can still peacefully coexist : professor's lectures can be accessible by video, homework can be reviewed at home using online corrections in written and spoken form, and the laboratory of long ago can be rediscovered in digital form. Documents could all be accompanied by sound clips even illustrations. No opportunity to present new vocabulary should be lost, and thematic lexicons should be available in sufficient variety from elementary lists to specialized glossaries. The interaction between student and professor does not have to be limited to the classroom; the professor, for example, could conduct and encourage a forum in Arabic to which students contribute. The time passed in the presence of the professor thus becomes a time of intense exchange on the methodology, specific questions of practical/real use, and corrections of the week's work. However, this would require bringing the materials up to date, at least internet and white boards. (Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication pour l’Enseignement)

In such a system with full access, the time needed to learn Arabic could be substantially reduced. Two hours of classtime per week would provide a sufficient base as long as an independent work regime was properly followed, meaning at least five or six hours of indepndent work per week. If the objective was level B1 in the European standard system, a motivated student could acheive this in one year. However this is not possible without precise pedagogic decisions, but which?

As far as learning written Arabic as a means of communication and to understand Arabic as it is spoken today, one must refer to Arabic media. The evidence is clear as far as vocalization, no vocalization in written form, no casual inflections during speech. Keeping this in mind, one must avoid using short vowels, and certainly learn using the Arabic alphabet (i.e. to believe that phonetic transcription helps is a common deception of learning Arabic). Common mistakes in declination made by Arabs are widespread; there is no need to be more royal than the king.

One should not be strictly attached to the classical Arabic while he or she is still a beginner. A solid base of grammatical rules will allow the student a smoother transition towards one of the dialects when/if he or she chooses. To my knowledge, such an experience is not the case in France. In the past, Arabic professors had to worked alone concentrated solely in the discipline because of a lack of integration of the language. How can we still allow this to happen? The community of academic professionals can reverse the view of Arabic in society, encouraging a perspective of the utility Arabic could provide to growing establishments. The only way to achieve this is through a modern, innovative pedagogic method, separated by groups according to their level. However, if one is looking to learn Arabic for communication purposes only, it is not neccessary to complete a licence (equivalent university major) which consists of upwards of fifteen hours per week and covers in depth all aspects of the discipline : grammar, classical and modern litterature, ancient and contemporary history, islamic studies, linguistics, politics, etc. Majoring (a licence) in Arabic is designed for specialization in the language, not neccessary for learning for the workplace.

It is no longer neccessary to assume that learning Arabic requires a stay in an Arabic country. Of course it would be of benefit to the student, but to be realistic let us be aware and take advantage of the fantastic knowledge we have immediate access to via the internet. A correspondence or language exchange with an arabo speaker could easily replace a stay in an Arabic country.
All the neccessary elements are present for one to gain a responsable understanding of the world. It is matter of will, and to take advantage of all there is, teachers, establishments, etc.

Ghalib Al-Hakkak, agrégé d’arabe à l’Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
March 25 2011, modified 3 Febuary 2013

(1) This is the case at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne where ten living languages are offered : German, English, Chinese (Mandarin), Spanish, FLE, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian. This is the largest offer of any French University.

translation : Alexander Sethi 2014

Is it possibile to learn Arabic quickly and well ?

By Ghalib Al-Hakkak