How Arabic language learning survived Covid-19

How Arabic language learning survived Covid-19
Arabic language learning has thrived online during the pandemic, as lessons move from the classroom to the living room.
6 min read
06 August, 2020
Arabic teachers have spent much of this year adjusting to online teaching formats. [Getty]
Until the outbreak of Covid-19, thousands of Arabic language students around the world had plans for an immersive learning experience. Now they're stuck at home. 

For James McLellan, the switch from the classroom to the living room started before the pandemic, with the outbreak of protests in Lebanon in October over the government's economic policies.

He continued with his classes online at his apartment in Beirut for what was meant to be a temporary solution. Then in March, education around the world went online indefinitely. After two weeks of lockdown, he left Lebanon.  

"I don't think any of my classmates thought we'd be here sitting in the US. This wasn't my summer plan," says McLellan, an American master's student from Chicago, who had been studying Arabic at the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES) the American University of Beirut since last August. 

He initially considered riding out the pandemic in Lebanon, which some students in his program chose to do, hesitating to repatriate because he didn't think the US government was taking the pandemic seriously. Given the continued uncertainty of the pandemic, he feels he made the right decision. But the adjustment has been a challenge.

Until the outbreak of Covid-19, thousands of Arabic language students around the world had plans for an immersive learning experience

Speaking from his family's home in the US, he says he misses his daily life in Lebanon – the spontaneity of hearing Arabic on the street, using the language to run daily errands and talking with his Syrian flatmate in Beirut. Moreover, he has not been in the habit of studying at home until now – always at libraries and cafes. Like much of the rest of the world, he has had to readjust his routine.

"These are times of global uncertainty which naturally lead to confusion, anxiety, and feelings of loss in personal power. Setting up daily routines brings back some sense of power in that we can still choose and control how to spend our days, as opposed to waiting for things to happen," says Beirut-based psychologist Dania Dbaibo Darwish. 

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"Online education is a great substitute for students to stay engaged. The alternative is to wait around, perhaps for a long time, for things to go back to the previous normal," she adds. 

"Learning a language requires practice. I think I've been distracted. Because I'm not in Lebanon, I don't hear Arabic as much. I don't have to use Arabic in the same way. To really stay in good shape, I have to put more focus into learning than I normally would. I think that focus isn't there," says McLellan.

While he is disappointed at having to stay home, he's thankful for having spent time in Lebanon and for having a dedicated teacher.

"Especially at a time like this, I feel grateful to have Youmna in charge. It takes a lot of perseverance, not just to learn but also to teach. I feel extra grateful. It's easy to lose focus at a time like this. To keep people engaged takes more work than it normally would."

Indeed, like most everywhere else, Arabic teachers have spent much of this year adjusting to online teaching formats and working from home. In Lebanon, this has been compounded by daily power cuts, as well as expensive, unreliable and slow internet – all amid a deepening financial crisis. 

Setting up daily routines brings back some sense of power in that we can still choose and control how to spend our days, as opposed to waiting for things to happen

Nevertheless, they made it through the spring semester almost entirely online, and they're now in the midst of their summer program with a high enrollment, despite the challenges. 

CAMES instructor Salwa Wardeh has been making the most out of a difficult situation – incorporating pandemic vocabulary to her lessons, adding new internet capacity as she works from home, and adjusting to her students' new surroundings.

"We kept the same schedule as Lebanon. It's challenging for students with the time difference. Sometimes they'll be up at 3am with cup of coffee. You have to put yourself in their shoes in order to produce." 

While far from ideal, it's a testament to the dedication of both students and teachers.

"I'm very happy that we're surviving what's happening around the world," says Wardeh. "We said let's do what we can do. We're going forward with the program. It's a big achievement for all of the instructors. We didn't just get depressed and stay at home. I like this spirit and that we're challenging the situation." 

Meanwhile, in the US, an Arabic language program for children has also gone completely online during the pandemic. 

Michelle Tager, founder of Alefb, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, has spent the last 25 years providing Arabic language classes to the children of Lebanese expatriates, a service she says that wasn't available (outside of religious programs) when she had her first child. These days, her mission is twofold: teaching students Arabic and recruiting teachers who need the work during the financial crisis in Lebanon and Syria.

With all of Alefb's classes now online, engagement and tech fluency are more important than ever. 

"We work with the student as if we're working face to face," she says. "We do screenshots of their work, we record voices, we use google translate. We share documents through Google drive. The tutors need to master tools before they start."

I'm very happy that we're surviving what's happening around the world. We said let's do what we can do

So far, her young students are staying engaged. Even through the distance of the screen she has seen students' "aha moments." 

For Nadine Boksmati-Fattouh, a museum consultant who moved from Beirut to the US with her husband and two young children seven years ago, having Alefb available online during the pandemic has been a lifeline for her children to keep up with their language skills at a time when they've had to cancel their summer travel plans to Lebanon.  

"They love Arabic. Before they did it for me. They called it Mommy's culture," says Boksmati-Fattouh, adding that her children have resisted Zoom for school, but not for Arabic. 

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Indeed, handling school and extra-curricular activities from home – often hours on end from the same couch – can be tiring for students and teachers of all ages.

"It's easier going from work to another building down the street than going from working on the couch all day to getting ready for an online class that requires all of your attention," says Shabnam Jafari deputy director at the Center for Education at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. 

On the other hand, she points out that moving classes online has created the opportunity for just about anybody in the world to learn a language, noting they have students in Jerusalem learning Persian, while students in France are learning Arabic.  

Could this become the norm? Probably not, given the importance of immersion in language learning. But with the quick adoption of online learning tools by teachers and students during the pandemic, it possibly means better tech literacy for teachers and students moving forward. 

"I still believe language should be face-to-face. It has to be immersive," says Middlebury Arabic instructor Mahmoud Abdalla.

"We're more aware of the benefits of online learning. We know we can do it. We've broken the fear barrier."

Brooke Anderson is a freelance journalist covering international politics, business and culture

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews