By Erica Dirou

22 July 2016 - 10:25

'[I]t's a good idea to get some background on Arabic learners before starting out on a new teaching adventure.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

Erica Dirou, a teacher trainer at the British Council in Egypt, outlines the challenges and offers some tips and suggestions.

Teaching English to Arabic speakers offers you the chance to learn about the Arabic language and understand first-hand some of the linguistic and cultural differences between Arabic and English speakers. But it's a good idea to get some background on Arabic learners before starting out on a new teaching adventure.

Learning English is important for Arabic speakers

English-language learning is hugely important in most Arabic-speaking countries, and most people begin English classes at some point in primary school, although increasingly it is being introduced to pre-schoolers. Private schools often offer bilingual or English-medium programmes and many universities use English as the language of instruction, or at least have English as an entry requirement.

English is an absolute necessity in the multinational working environments of many Arabic-speaking countries. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, only about ten per cent of the population is Emirati. The rest is a mix of other nationalities, who use English as a common language and as the international business language. Many adults and children also attend additional English-language courses to supplement their formal schooling, or to prepare for English-language proficiency tests like IELTS.

English presents a number of challenges for Arabic speakers

When teaching English to Arabic speakers, teachers need to take on several challenges, starting from the completely different writing system and including problems caused by differences in the grammatical systems of English and Arabic. There can also be problems stemming from previous learning experiences and expectations about the role of the teacher.

English teachers new to teaching in the region may also get caught out by cultural differences that affect lesson-planning and the classroom environment.

Let's take a look at some of the most common problems in a bit more detail.

1. A different alphabet makes reading and writing difficult

As Arabic is written from right to left, English looks backwards to Arabic speakers, meaning they can find course books overwhelming. Adults, in particular, may be slower in the initial stages of studying English than learners whose first language uses the same alphabet as English. Moreover, Arabic does not have upper- and lower-case letters and, although punctuation is introduced at school as part of the writing system, it is given less attention. It's therefore common to find Arabic learners mixing big and small letters within sentences and not using enough full stops.

Regarding punctuation, some Arabic learners apply Arabic rules to English and, as a result, often use commas instead of full stops.

Arabic speakers who come from a country that also uses French, like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia or Lebanon, are likely to struggle less with writing in English because they are already familiar with the Roman alphabet. An additional problem for teachers can be that learners feel writing is not important compared to speaking, and so they are reluctant to spend time on it.

Tips and suggestions

One way of giving students more time to practise their writing in class, without taking the focus away from speaking and listening activities, is to ask learners to produce more of the materials they will use in class rather than working only from the course book or giving a lot of handouts. For example, students can write their own questions for a ‘find-someone-who’ activity or for a class survey.

Take a look at some articles on teaching reading and writing on the British Council's Teaching English website and check and for classroom resources. There is also a huge variety of fun dictation activities for use with different ages and levels. Scott Thornbury’s blog on dictation is worth a look.

2. A different grammar makes English confusing

Two grammatical points Arabic speakers often struggle with are the verb ‘to be’ and the present perfect aspect. The verb ‘to be’ is not used as frequently in Arabic as in English. It can be used when talking about the past but is not necessary when describing things in the present, which leads to errors like *'He happy', and *'He coming'.

The present perfect causes confusion for Arabic speakers (as it does for speakers of many other languages). It is very common to hear even very competent speakers of English using the present perfect to talk about things that happened at a specific time in the past. For example, *'I have seen him yesterday'. Other errors in English caused by Arabic interference are overuse of the present continuous and incorrect word order, for example of adjectives and nouns.

Tips and suggestions

If you are planning to teach a new grammar point in class or have noticed a common error, it is worth finding out from an Arabic speaker in your teachers’ room how the language point differs in Arabic. This will help you anticipate students’ difficulties and to know what to spend more time introducing and practising. This website gives a brief overview of some of the main differences between English and Arabic.

Activities where students have to discuss and agree in groups whether sentences are right or wrong in English – for example a grammar auction or correcting a spoken or written text – can help draw attention to common problem areas like use of the present perfect or ‘to be’. Take a look at the Teaching English website for an idea on how to set up a grammar auction, but keep in mind you may need to modify the task to keep it competitive. And take out the gambling element, which may be seen as inappropriate.

3: Some English sounds are difficult to pronounce

There are some differences between the ways sounds are pronounced in various Arabic-speaking countries. In Egypt, 'p' is usually pronounced as 'b' and 'th' as 's' or 'z'. In the Gulf, the pronunciation of 'th' is less of a problem as it is used more in Gulf Arabic, but 'v' and 'f' are often confused. Silent letters are often pronounced, as in the 's' in 'island', because there are no silent letters in written Arabic.

Another common difficulty is consonant clusters where two or more consonants occur together without a vowel sound in between. Arabic speakers tend to add in an extra small vowel sound (a 'schwa'); for example, *'espeak' instead of 'speak'. These pronunciation errors don't tend to cause major communication problems, however. Misunderstandings can sometimes arise from intonation patterns that can come across to native speakers as rude.

Tips and suggestions

For pronunciation difficulties that affect most of the class, use drilling techniques and regular, lighthearted correction. It's also helpful to show the mouth shape needed for certain sounds. Most learners can notice the difference between correct and incorrect pronunciation, but may need time to break a habit formed at school.

Getting students to record and listen to themselves doing speaking activities can help students become more aware of their own habits. When doing drilling activities and roleplays, draw attention to intonation by imitating different moods – for example, happy, grumpy, or tired – and keep it fun. And with roleplays, you can get students to assign moods or characteristics to the people they are playing. If the roleplays are to be performed in front the group or class, ask students to guess the characteristics.

Here is a staffroom poster on teaching pronunciation (PDF download – 1.4 MB) and this website offers lots of explanations, examples and teaching ideas for a wide range of pronunciation issues, ranging from individual sounds to working on connected speech.

4. Different expectations about the language-learning environment

Many Arabic speakers don’t have experience of communicative learning environments and may expect the teacher to spend a lot of time explaining language and correcting mistakes. They may be reluctant to work in pairs or groups and fear picking up on others’ mistakes. They may also find discovery-type activities frustrating.

Tips and suggestions

When you have a new class of students, it is worth finding out about their expectations for the course; you can include questions about how they have learned English before, and how they feel about group work and error correction, for example.

Also, especially with teens and adults, make sure they are clear about the aims of the lesson and of individual activities. Have a little round-up at the end of a class to highlight progress, and get quick feedback from students about what they liked or didn’t in a class. This is a good way of taking your students’ preferences into account when planning future classes.

You may need to include more whole-class stages earlier in a course until your students get to know each other and get more familiar with doing communicative tasks in groups, although bear in mind that it may also be strange for students to give feedback to a teacher.

5. Cultural differences affecting the classroom

These will vary depending on the country and cultural background of the student. Some students will not be comfortable using music, discussing particular topics or seeing particular images. In some countries, it may be inappropriate for males and females to attend classes together – Saudi Arabia, for example, where men may not even include female family members on a family tree, because it would be seen as disrespectful. In Egypt, on the other hand, men and women may sit separately at the start of class, but if you want to re-group students for a task, men and women will usually happily work together and will interact boisterously.

Tips and suggestions

While it is essential that you find out what is and isn’t appropriate in any country you choose to teach in – stay well away from discussing politics and religion in Arabic-speaking countries. You should also see your lack of knowledge of local culture as an advantage, as it gives you an opportunity to find out things from your students; in other words, it's a cue for genuine, authentic communication.

If you are using published course materials, you may need to adapt certain sections to make them more acceptable for your group. If you are unsure about something, ask your students. Alternatively, speak to other teachers with more experience in this area – the school staffroom is an essential resource for finding out what works with your students.

Find out about teaching opportunities with the British Council in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Read an interview with one of the co-authors of our new report, Languages for Resilience, which explains how language learning has helped refugees cope with their situations.

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