Stop Telling Your Students That Arabic Isn’t Difficult

When learning a new language, chances are that reaching a decent proficiency will require a well-designed learning environment, and a significant dose of commitment and discipline; at least over several years. We know this from experience and from research.

But somehow, in the field of Teaching Arabic as a Second/Foreign Language, the mantra that sets the tone for both students and teachers is one of two opposing opinions: (1) students should know upfront that Arabic is a difficult language, OR (2) don’t tell your students that Arabic is difficult.

The first claim operates from the assumption that reaching a native-like proficiency is almost impossible, given the multiglossic nature of Arabic and its rich vocabulary. Sometimes, those who claim that Arabic is one of the hardest languages on Earth have an extremely refined version of MSA in mind as the ideal form that should be mastered by everyone. It’s the typical discourse that makes many educators roll their eyes.

The second opinion – “stop telling your students that Arabic is difficult” – is an interesting one, because it’s a naive reaction to the first claim. At a surface level, it seems to be rooted in the belief that by disregarding the challenges that students will encounter while learning the language, the psychological barriers brought into the classroom will dissolve, and language acquisition will happen smoothly or by osmosis. At a deeper level, what this opinion manifests is a lack of understanding or personal experience with what is entailed in learning a L2 during adulthood.

The truth is, unless the learner is a polyglot or has an extraordinary working memory, becoming proficient in Arabic (or any other language that is significantly different from our L1) and reaching a level where one can use it comfortably in a variety of contexts, will require time, hard work, and sometimes money.

So if you’re teaching Arabic, stay away from making sweeping statements about the language, because they can sound suspicious. Instead, (1) provide realistic expectations for reaching different levels of proficiency, (2) make sure you design plenty of high-quality learning opportunities where students can practice their language skills, and (3) have them interact -whenever possible-with native speakers.

After all, becoming proficient in any language is entirely possible, provided the right attitudes and conditions are met.