Building Arabic Programs in Ohio

The Most Commonly Taught of the Less Commonly Taught Languages

Jennifer Nichols, Kenyon College

In the mid-1980s, I began studying Arabic with Dr. Mahdi Alosh in my high school at Worthington (now Worthington-Kilborne). The program only lasted a couple of years. As students we bonded and went on with our lives. However, it is a testament to the exposure we had that out of the 10 of us, 7 of us have chosen career paths which have kept us in the Middle East and Arabic speaking world. At the present time, most of the state schools in Ohio and many of the smaller colleges have developed Arabic language programs. It has become a “popular” language.

Though it has been a struggle to define exactly what “popular” means. It is considered a high demand language, meaning there is a demand for Arabic language courses and enrollment increases in basic and intermediate level courses. This demand does not seem extend to the advanced level courses.

While interest in learning Arabic grows exponentially, funding for programs does not. As an Arabic teacher, I’ve had to become creative in curriculum and program development. Though there is, on the whole, academic and scholarly support for the study of Arabic, the support rarely extends to financial. I know I’m not alone in this endeavor. Most of my colleagues have the same issues at their various institutions. Thus I organized the Ohio Arabic Teachers Association (OATA) a few years ago. We are small, but we have a presence at conferences and meetings. We seek each other out and bond – just as my high school class bonded years ago. The purpose of the organization is to act as a venue to help us share resources and collaborate to build our programs and our community. There have been varying levels of success. On the one hand, I’ve met some stellar language teachers that get little recognition for their skill in teaching what the State Department rates as one of the most difficult languages to learn. On the other, we are a small group, so we are all very, very busy. So finding the time to develop fully this organization takes away from immediate priorities such as lesson planning, course development, and the myriad of other activities left to a single faculty person in which other disciplines have 2 or 3 people to divide these duties.

Building a Program: What it Takes

In larger departments, language educators take for granted the resources they have at their disposal. I currently work in a one-faculty discipline, but I am not complaining. Fortunately, we have had temporary funding for a second faculty member to teach additional courses. To build a strong language program, there are many duties outside of just classes that need to be carried out.

Pedagogy and Curriculum

Of course, the development of a strong, pedagogically sound curriculum is essential for any sustainable language program, but especially important in a new program. People want to see tangible results rather quickly. Therefore, one must choose resources carefully. Fortunately, the last 10 years has produced a variety of quality Arabic textbooks – some more popular than others. However, along with this massive output of materials, there is the necessity to evaluate them. No textbook is perfect. In order to keep up with new materials and how to utilize them as a resource, I developed a “rating system.” Out of the rating system, I began blogging about how to utilize these resources in the Arabic classroom. I am not unique. I know many of my fellow Arabic language teachers have all had to develop their talents in ways that are new and unique to our field.

For programs on a budget, materials are expensive. Happily, there are alternatives. Dr. Steve Berbeco, now the Franklin Fellow for the U.S. Department of State, started teaching Arabic in his high school with no materials. Students developed their own textbooks. His techniques and methodologies are now a nationally recognized curriculum. You can read more about his program on the Marhaba Project at Dr. Berbeco’s work is just one example of how the Arabic classroom is a natural fit for innovative pedagogies.

Building a curriculum is one thing, building a program is an even bigger job. In my experience, I’ve found that many times we need to justify our financial existence to our upper-level administrators. Over the years, due to the political situation in the Arab world, the task of convincing the need to teach Arabic is much less cumbersome. But we are still concerned with enrollments – especially in upper level coursework. On the whole, most language programs do not offer upper level Arabic coursework. And those classes that are classified as “advanced,” generally do not teach advanced level Arabic. It is difficult to find, an advanced level Arabic course teaching Classical literature such as the works of Al-Mutanabbi, or even the modern poetry of Nizar Qabbani. Students need more time in class than is generally provided in a 48-50 minute class period to reach the necessary level of proficiency to handle these texts. By contrast, classical and modern literature can be introduced within the first year of a Spanish or French class.

Again, innovation has been a natural fit. Although students in a basic Arabic class cannot decipher Classical Arabic texts, I’ve been able to at least introduce these texts to students, even to begin recognizing letter or basic grammatical structures. The texts can be used as an authentic tool in the teaching of the language.

Ways to compensate for this time difference is through study abroad programs and intensive language study. At Kenyon, I have had success with developing advanced levels of proficiency by working closely with our study abroad office and programs overseas to build upon their curricula within my own classroom. In that way, students do not have a gap in their language learning from what they learned abroad and their return. In fact, preliminary evidence shows that building on their curriculum abroad helps to “debrief” the students upon their return in addition to building their language skills.

Institutional Support

Other aspects to program development are extracurricular activities and linkages with other programs and departments. These events function as PR, outreach for the program. They have helped to identify potential students, create links with other programs and departments, and help the program become an integral part of the academic integrity of the institution. One specific example comes directly from my own experience. Upon inviting an Arabic calligrapher to give a workshop, we gained 2 students from the Art department in beginning level Arabic the next academic term. These students were interested in calligraphic arts, but, before that workshop, did not know that a calligraphic tradition existed within the Arab and Islamicate worlds.

Other successful collaborations include the departments of History, Religious Studies, Mathematics, Economics, International Studies, Women and Gender studies and Sociology. Interdepartmental and interdisciplinary collaborations can be very simple. For example, I’ve worked with Religious Studies faculty by using their syllabi to help inform my own materials development and curriculum. For example, when students are learning about the Prophet Muhammad in their Religious Studies course, in the concurrent Arabic class we have a discussion on the Bayt an-Nabi – the House of the Prophet. This discussion uses simple language to describe the family of the Prophet Muhammad. Students are very familiar with the vocabulary, they have the linguistic capital to expand their knowledge in the target language, and, the context is set in their Religious Studies course so a majority of class time can be devoted to using the target language. Students not taking Religious Studies will benefit not only by the use of the target language, but also by learning about important cultural and historical elements.

One type of collaboration that is often overlooked is that between languages. At Kenyon, we have many students learning more than one language. Students in French courses learn much about Francophone literature, where learning Arabic becomes a natural fit. Spanish is another language with which students can expand their knowledge of languages. Given the historical linguistic ties between Spain and the North African Islamic Caliphates, many words in Spanish are of Arabic origin, not to mention the plethora of materials written in Arabic in Al-Andalus. Other connections exist in German through the works of early German Orientalist authors who wrote extensively about the Arabic-speaking world, Italian via the Arabic materials translated and used to fuel the Renaissance and Russian as well – Arabic was the literary language of Central Asia until the times of the Soviets in that region.

When a language class can support a student’s learning in another discipline, not only does this strengthen the students knowledge in other classes and coursework, it helps to build their vocabulary, increase their language proficiency, but also provides evidence that learning a second language is not just as a service to another department, it is a necessity for deep cultural understanding. But this is NOT to argue that the purpose of learning a language should solely be to support student learning in other disciplines. Learning Arabic is not just a service to other disciplines and departments. The study of Arabic as a language itself opens students to an entirely different world and has had, in my experience, a profound impact on their academic choices (research forthcoming). By applying their knowledge of Arabic outside the Arabic language classroom, students experience the inherent worth of learning this difficult language and gaining higher levels of proficiency. It can take a number of years to develop and foster this attitude within an institution. But there has to be a starting point and the starting point is through this type of interdisciplinary collaboration.


Another challenge is how to administer a small program within a larger institution. I have worked hard to make Arabic a non-Othered language. There is sometimes a preconceived notion that there is just something SO different about learning Arabic than learning French or Spanish or German. Regardless of the intentions, what lies beneath this view is the cultural perception of “The Other.” Admittedly, it does take longer to become as proficient in Arabic as one can in French or Spanish with one year of instruction. However, this fact should not preclude Arabic from being taught to higher levels of instruction, nor should it lower the proficiency expectations that we have of our students, nor should it set Arabic apart from other languages in terms of instructional methodologies. This attitude seems somewhat fatalistic. In order to bring about a change in attitude, it has been a priority of mine to establish Arabic as a non-Othered language by modeling the Arabic program after other language programs. Though there may be some resistance and attrition, with a pedagogically sound curriculum and strong interdisciplinary collaboration, a robust Arabic program will begin to emerge.

In many cases, institutions have put Arabic language instructors into teaching positions though they have little to no experience in teaching the language, no language training, their only qualification being that they are from the Arab world. This practice, in some cases, has led to grade inflation, poor study skills, disorganized curricula, and confused students. However, increasing professionalism in the field has raised the hiring standards for Arabic instructors. Also on the rise is research in the field of Arabic pedagogy, which helps to inform better teaching practices, improve materials development and increase the number and access to resources for teachers and students. But there’s a long way to go before the field of Arabic is on par with the more commonly taught languages.

Commitment to Arabic

What has been the most rewarding of my experiences over the years is to see the sustained increase in interest and support for Arabic overall. Ten years ago, it was rare to find a certified proficiency examiner, or even a proficiency exam, but now ACTFL regularly holds workshops for certifying Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) examiners. Proficiency exams are available through companies such as Standards-based Measurement of Proficiency (STAMP – These tools can be expensive and for building a program on a budget, many instructors have developed their own proficiency and placement exams. One of the challenges is to move away from this type of self-sustaining sufficiency to bring the teaching and learning of Arabic into the fold of more commonly taught languages, thus making it less “othered.”

Offering proficiency exams for students reaching the necessary proficiency levels to take them is not yet a large expense, because there are just not many students at those levels yet. When working on a budget, it is important to prioritize what to spend money on. I have found that proficiency examination is worth the expense. This statement comes with a very important qualification, however: it is worth the expense as long as the test is pedagogically sound. Requiring students to take a test with which the teacher is unfamiliar is somewhat irresponsible in practice. Though I do not advocate for “teaching to the test,” I must know how my students will be evaluated and what criterion are referenced in a proficiency exam in order to assess if the particular proficiency exam accurately measures students’ performance in the developed curriculum.

All of this takes time and effort outside of the classroom. I have found tremendous collegial support in building Arabic programs. As Arabic becomes a more mainstream language to learn, I hope to see an increase in offering at the K-12 levels throughout Ohio. Taking Arabic in high school ultimately directed me towards a very rewarding and fulfilling career. As research by Norton (2000) concluded, learning a new language affects a person’s identity. We have the fortune of watching this happen amongst our students while contributing to the growth of our field.

This entry was posted in OFLA News: Association, Vol. 52, No. 2 - Winter 2014. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s