One of the impressions we frequently receive from Arab students and teachers is that Arabic is one of the most difficult languages in the world, but also one of the most beautiful, and for some, even the most beautiful. These two beliefs are clearly reflected in The Report on the Status and Future of the Arabic Language issued by the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth in 2021, which surveyed 5,268 female and male university students in sixteen Arab countries through a questionnaire on issues related to Arabic and its reality. The results of the survey showed that 74% "strongly agree" or "agree" that Arabic is difficult compared to other languages they know, but on the other hand, 87% believe that Arabic is the most beautiful language in the world. The findings of this questionnaire were supported by the results of a recent study conducted in Lebanon, where 760 female and male students at two Lebanese universities were surveyed. According to the survey, 85% of respondents consider Arabic a difficult language compared to other languages they know, while 78% of them believe it is “the most beautiful language".
The results of the questionnaire lead us to inquire about the reasons that cause the majority of our university students to face difficulties with Arabic, the language they have learned for many years at school, and to which they are continuously exposed in their environments and societies, and which they use, in all its dialects, at home to communicate with their families and coworkers. They also lead me, as a teacher of Arabic to non-native speakers, to compare this belief in the difficulty of Arabic with what I and my colleagues in the field have noticed, especially in the last two decades, that many non-native Arabic learners reach a high level of proficiency in the language at formal and spoken levels after a few years of study at university, accompanied by a one-year study in an Arab country, and use Arabic fluently and confidently in their academic and professional fields of work, although most of them have not grown up in the environment and culture of the language.
One's perception of the difficulty of a language is subjective as it differs from one person to another. It is shaped by several factors, including the learner's inner motivation, the time invested, the learner's level of active involvement, the environment of the learning process, the level of the learner's psychological comfort, and the confidence placed in them by their teachers. If some learners' perceptions of the difficulty of Arabic are to be expected—after all, like any academic subject, some students may find it easy while others may find it difficult—then the fact that so many Arab students hold such a strong belief in the difficulty of Arabic is both surprising and astounding.
This feeling among learners did not appear out of thin air; it is not an emergency phenomenon due to the time we live in; it is not limited to Arab countries, as the report indicated; and it is not caused by the youth of this generation, as some who blame these youth claim, under the pretext that they dislike Arabic but show passion for other languages and more interest in learning and using them. In fact, this claim is false and does not apply to the majority of the students, as included in the Report on the Status and Future of the Arabic Language, in which most of the participants expressed their love and pride in Arabic as an expression of their personality and identity, as well as their desire to teach Arabic to their children in the future.
In my opinion, it is a logical consequence of many approaches and practises related to the teaching methods of Arabic that have led Arabic curricula in many countries, consciously or unconsciously, to present Arabic in an “obsolete” manner for learners, adhering to approaches that have failed significantly to keep pace with modern theories of language learning, to transform them into pedagogical practises that focus on learners, their realities and interests, and to provide experiences and educational materials that are closely related to their lives. This failure results from the fact that these curricula have been “crammed” with the vast Arabic literary heritage and linguistic knowledge of its grammar, morphology, and the complexities of inflextion in all stages of school education without amendment or refinement according to the changes and developments that have occurred in contemporary Arabic, and without paying attention to connect this heritage and knowledge to the learners' lives. Likewise, these approaches have failed to present grammar in a functional manner that focuses on the linguistic tasks and functions and provide the necessary vocabulary and structures that learners need to perform them. These curricula still adhere to presenting grammar within its traditional sections and forms in a way that turns it into a frightening "bogeyman" in the eyes of many learners.
The emphasis on the memorisation method, the lack of interest in creating collaborative work spaces among students in the classroom, and the emphasis on the concept of "errors" and catching them in a way that makes students reduce their speech for fear of making mistakes all contribute to enhancing a student's perception of the difficulty of learning Arabic. Furthermore, we observe the erection of walls between the linguistic knowledge that students acquire from their conversations and the approach of teaching Classical Arabic as if it is a foreign language, disconnected from the spoken Arabic that students master, and that can be used and invested as an important pedagogical scaffold in the process of building students’ skills in Al-Fusha, provided that we focus on what is common between Al-Fusha and the Arabic dialects within a framework that considers the Arabic language with its diversities and branches as one language that represents a beautiful mosaic of its diversity and plurality.
Parental practises in some Arab societies, where parents are eager to speak to their children in foreign languages because "Arabic is not useful", to quote Ziad Rahbani, help reinforce the belief that Arabic is difficult by encouraging their children to develop competencies in foreign languages. Children do not notice their parents taking an interest in the language, using it to communicate with them, reading with them or enjoying watching programmes in Arabic outside the classroom, which contributes to the children feeling alienated and distanced from the language.
Many students have developed a negative attitude toward the language as a result of these methods and practises, thinking of it as difficult and hopeless, as well as out of touch with their lives and their futures in academia and the workforce. A language we love and consider it the most beautiful language in the world, and we look at it as a beautiful masterpiece that we put in salons and contemplate its beauty and richness without using it because we fear that it will break if we use it.
This feeling of the difficulty of Arabic generated a fear of it and a sense of lack of confidence and comfort in using it for a significant percentage of the students. This fear drives them, upon enrollment in the university, to try to evade Arabic language courses --if they can-- because they do not want to restore the experience of studying Arabic in school, especially since many Arabic courses in university education reproduce school models, templates, and indoctrination without focusing on Develop exploration skills and reflective critical thinking through the language and without working to link the Arabic language to the contexts of scientific research and functional and professional tasks, many of which are related to the Arabic language in practical life.
Due to their perception of Arabic's difficulty, many students avoided it and felt uneasy and unconfident when using it. These negative feelings drive them to try to avoid Arabic courses - if they can- when they matriculate at university, because they do not want to repeat the experience of learning Arabic at school, especially since many Arabic courses in university education reproduce school models, templates and indoctrination methods, without focusing on developing exploratory skills and reflective critical thinking through the language, and without working to link Arabic to the contexts of academic research and functional and professional tasks, many of which are associated with Arabic in practical life
There is no doubt that learning a language like Arabic, which has a long history and a rich heritage, will be difficult if we try to squeeze its history and heritage into curricula in the way we experience now, an outdated system that is no longer suitable for developing the skills of learners in the twenty-first century. What we need today is a new vision for Arabic curricula that focuses on connecting language to life in order to achieve learners' goals. This will not succeed unless we work diligently to train new generations of Arabic teachers who believe in the ability of students to learn Arabic and who are able to create a positive atmosphere and develop interesting and entertaining materials that will enable Arabic to compete with foreign languages in attracting students to it. The fact that Arabic is competing on its own turf with no other languages around it gives it a distinct advantage.
At this point, we must highlight and praise the efforts being made in a number of Arab countries to develop enlightened curricula and visions for teaching Arabic and the positive results that have been achieved as a result of these efforts. What is needed today is a greater push to disseminate these visions and curricula in an effort to bring about change and produce a new generation of students who are confident in their language and their abilities.