Arabic Language Instruction Goes Online

A Global Classroom

By Kate Rix

Sharon Chadha wanted to learn to speak Arabic badly enough to try several different programs. Each time she found that the approach just wasn’t right for a working adult with limited time.

That was before she discovered Berkeley’s award-winning Arabic Without Walls program, a unique and rigorous distance-learning course designed by Sonia S’hiri, a lecturer in Berkeley’s Department of Near Eastern Studies. The online program, designed primarily for students on other UC campuses, incorporates all the elements of a traditional classroom course: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

But in a traditional course, students typically cannot attend class in their pajamas.

“During our chat sessions we could hear each other, and see what each other were writing — in English and Arabic script of course — but we did not see each other,” recalls Chadha, who took the course last fall through UC Berkeley Extension. “Thank God for that. I can’t tell you how seldom I showed up in something other than pajamas. It wasn't just sloth on my part. For part of the course, I was taking it truly long-distance: from all the way in India, where my husband works most of the time.”

The course took three years to develop. S’hiri based the course on the textbook Al-Kitaab and included a wealth of new material not in the textbook. Appointed as a lecturer and Arabic Program Coordinator at Berkeley in 2000, S’hiri became interested in the potential of distance learning for Arabic, which some of the other U.C. campuses are unable to offer.  Online courses, she believed, could make it easier for Arabic language programs across the U.C. system to share resources and reach more students.

With help from the U.C. Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching, S’hiri applied for and received federal funds to build the course. The course web site won a major award this year, the Esperanto “Access to Language Education” award given by the Computer-Aided Language Instruction Consortium.

“Arabic Without Walls really is a milestone among distance-learning language courses and it will no doubt inspire similar work in other languages,” says Rick Kern, director of the Berkeley Language Center. “One feature I particularly like is the filmed interviews with people from different areas of the Arabic-speaking world, so students can be exposed to different varieties of the language.”

In addition to the interactive features, the course is innovative in other ways.  For example, students learn early on to type in Arabic. This means they have access to online dictionaries, translation tools, Arabic newspapers, Arab music and chat rooms. S’hiri also designed an extensive cultural component for the course, organized thematically to teach students about the Arab world and put their language learning in context.

“As today’s headlines make clear, our nation’s need for instruction in Arabic is acute,” says Janet Broughton, dean of arts and humanities in the College of Letters and Science. “Thanks to Dr. S’hiri’s vision and hard work, Berkeley is now delivering vitally important education beyond our campus borders. And I’m very proud of our innovative Berkeley Language Center, which is partnering with her in this initiative. The Center supports instruction in over 55 different languages every year, providing twenty-first century tools for language teaching and learning. The Center’s mission is critical. By learning new languages, students prepare themselves to become informed and humane citizens of a multicultural world.”

“When I was designing the course I was focused on creating an environment that’s rich enough to motivate students to learn and that lets us guide them invisibly day by day, lesson by lesson,” says S’hiri. “The question I was left with was, how am I going to reach beyond the distance? How will I bond with these students and give them feedback in a supportive manner without the help of body language?”

The answer was a synchronous sound/text program called Wimba. Meeting twice a week in their virtual classroom environment, students and instructors can type and speak, practicing forms of greeting and goodbyes and weaving in more and more complex conversation topics as they progressed in the course.

In a traditional classroom, these exercises would be very easy to organize. Students are typically asked to prepare to meet someone for the first time, have five statements to make about themselves and five questions to ask the other person, and then to depart — all in an appropriate way, keeping the age and gender of the other person in mind.

For the first Arabic Without Walls (AWW) course last fall, S’hiri had 15 students signed up (11 from UC campuses and four through UC Extension). She was unsure about how the chat would go. In person, teachers and students automatically form a bond and connection that facilitates learning.

“I was nervous,” S’hiri says. “Then I figured out some tricks. I smiled when I spoke, as I would if I saw the student in person, and injected a positive note into the tone of my voice. They naturally reciprocated and we overcame the medium that is so cold and distant.”

Sharon Chadha had such a positive experience that she went on to take a traditional intermediate Arabic course at UCLA. She says she would sign up for third-year Arabic, but she has to travel back to India. However it appears that AWW has provided her with a model to continue her learning.

“Using the principles I learned in the AWW program, I've mapped out a similar program so I can finish the entire Al-Kitaab series of three books,” Chadra says.

Marc Hintzman is working on his Ph.D. in anthropology at U.C. Riverside. Arabic is not taught at his campus and Hintzman looked for several years to find an Arabic class that would assist him with his archeology research in Jordan.

“Some classes teach regional dialects, but if these dialects are not relatively close to Jordan, such a class can be a total waste of time and energy,” Hintzman says. “The AWW course was appealing because it focused on Modern Standard Arabic, a version of Arabic that is widely recognized across the Middle East. Also, because I am a Ph.D. student and a dad with two kids, there are a lot of demands on my time. This class was truly a life saver.”

Already, Arabic language instructors in classrooms at Berkeley have found ways to incorporate elements of the online course. Some graduate student instructors, for example, use AWW’s lessons about the symbolism of colors in Arabic flags to teach history and vocabulary. Students in traditional courses are also now able to learn how to type in Arabic.

The course’s success makes S’hiri hopeful that the course may be able to expand to include intermediate and advanced Arabic someday, and that other languages might follow suit.

“For the less commonly taught languages, we can use our resources better,” she says. “We can then reach for higher levels of language and teach literature, history and art, which are all complementary to languages.”

For more information, see the web page for Arabic Without Walls.

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| Updated: May 29, 2009