Captain Majed & the Arabic Language: Tackling the Most Important Learning Challenge in MENA

Nafez Dakkak 16 Mar, 2022

Nafez Dakkak

16 Mar, 2022

Nafez Dakkak 16 مارس 2022

Nafez Dakkak

16 مارس 2022

How do we make learning Arabic more enjoyable and natural for children? Moving away from the strict views of obstinate grammarians, policy makers and entrepreneurs have been working on a number of initiatives. Our guest writer is one such entrepreneur: Nafez Al Dakkak is the founder of Idrak, an initiative of the Queen Rania Foundation for which he directs the London office. Here, he discusses the importance of seeking out non-traditional methods to develop Arabic language education more effectively. He also distinguishes between teaching standard Arabic as an independent language from teaching local dialects that can be seen by learners as entirely different languages. Considering that there are no currently established models for teaching standard Arabic with any strong, demonstrable effect, he recalls how he found inspiration for his initiative through the Arabic dubbing of the regionally beloved Captain Majed (originally Captain Tsubasa in Japanese), which had a positive impact on the language abilities of those children, including himself, who watched the show’s original run.

"The Arabic language is an interesting case. There are over 400 million “native” speakers of Arabic around the world - this statement is both false and true. It is true because over 400 million people speak a dialect of Arabic, but the codified form of Arabic (commonly called Modern Standard Arabic – MSA) does not have any true native speakers - and arguably never has."  

While many efforts move on to address new-age literacies, the reality is that many in the region are not functionally literate. In March 2000, children across the Arab world rejoiced at the launch of the first home-grown TV channel dedicated to cartoons. Spacetoon started off by taking over airtime from Bahrain’s national TV channel. In less than two years, surging demand meant that Spacetoon had outgrown its 8-hour slot and broke away to form its own independent station.


Spacetoon primarily broadcasts dubbed, foreign (usually Japanese) cartoons, imbued with more locally appropriate cultural themes. However, it was not only the cartoons that were new to the children but also, in a manner of “speaking”, the language in which the cartoons were dubbed. Millions of children across the region, including myself at the time, got their first prolonged exposure to “Arabic” through Spacetoon. Almost all cartoons were dubbed in formal Arabic before of course, but you couldn’t get hours and hours of it. Arguably, many of us learned more Arabic in the early years from Spacetoon’s rendition of the Japanese Captain Tsubasa (“Captain Majed”) than in our Arabic classrooms.


The Arabic language is an interesting case. There are over 400 million “native” speakers of Arabic around the world - this statement is both false and true. It is true because over 400 million people speak a dialect of Arabic, but the codified form of Arabic (commonly called Modern Standard Arabic – MSA) does not have any true native speakers - and arguably never has. In that vein, Arabic speakers operate in a linguistic duality with two distinct but related language varieties. Arabic speakers use the spoken language variety at home (and today on social media) but revert to MSA for reading and writing in more formal settings. 


The study of the dual nature of Arabic (what sociolinguists call diglossia) is almost 100 years old, but new insights are emerging. The critical insight from the emerging neuroscience data shows that spoken Arabic and MSA are cognitively processed by native speakers as two distinct languages. Arabic speakers are in effect born into an unrecognized bilingual environment. Particularly pertinent from an educational context is that nobody really teaches them MSA as a non-native language. We expect our children to show up to school speaking it as if it was their home language.


The impact of this unaddressed duality has been apparent in the region for some time. Despite growing levels of literacy across the Arab states, reading comprehension (true functional literacy), which powers students’ ability to read to learn, is still shockingly low. Across the region, almost 50% of children (on average) do not reach reading proficiency by age 10. In fact, all Arabic-speaking countries come at “the bottom of the relevant distributions in reading, math, and science in grade 4” which persists to clear performance gaps in later grades.


We are asking Arab children to read and learn in a language they have not mastered and will not master unless we change our approach to teaching Arabic. This gap represents a clear opportunity for all relevant stakeholders from entrepreneurs to policymakers.


Leveraging the Language Gap

First, if the Arab world is to elevate competence in MSA (and I believe it should) the duality between MSA and dialect needs to be openly and clearly acknowledged. This acknowledgment needs to translate directly into the home and classroom. MSA should be taught to students as a non-native (if not foreign) language, and the stigma around dialect should be addressed. Curricula and pedagogies need to be updated and reformed. There are budding research efforts by the likes of the Al Qassimi Foundation and the Queen Rania Foundation but much more needs to be done.


Second, non-traditional scalable routes of teaching Arabic should also be explored more effectively. Harking back to the accidental Spacetoon experiment that started in 2000, the investment in the production of more pedagogically driven Arabic MSA content, especially with same-language-subtitling, could prove a highly cost-effective way of promoting literacy. The return of the Arabic version of Open Sesame a few years ago was a welcome development -but the decision to introduce more dialect Arabic needs to be balanced and aligned with education reform efforts.


Third, we need to bring more of the science of learning - especially around literacy - into the edtech space. We need to incentivize startups to leverage the science of literacy and encourage consumers to support the ones that do so. Startups such as KamKalima, Little Thinking Minds, and Lamsa are good examples in this vein. Yet, more needs to be done to be able to reach the hundreds of millions of students across the region. 

"Arabic speakers may be among a few people globally that have the advantage of growing up with “two first languages”. At present, this advantage appears to be a double-edged sword but that need not be the case. Austrian composer Gustav Mahler famously noted that tradition was not the preservation of ashes but the act of passing on the flame. While MSA might be no specific Arabic country’s first language, with the support of modern neuroscience, careful planning, and an entrepreneurial spirit it could be every Arabic country’s language."

Arabic speakers may be among a few people globally that have the advantage of growing up with “two first languages”. At present, this advantage appears to be a double-edged sword but that need not be the case. Austrian composer Gustav Mahler famously noted that tradition was not the preservation of ashes but the act of passing on the flame. While MSA might be no specific Arabic country’s first language, with the support of modern neuroscience, careful planning, and an entrepreneurial spirit it could be every Arabic country’s language.

Nafez Dakkak

CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation’s London office

Nafez is the CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation’s London office where he oversees the foundations strategic partnerships and talent development. He also leads the foundations engagement with the education entrepreneurship sector across MENA and globally.