Arabic in Amman: Immersion?
Updated: May 12, 2020
This blog is taking a holiday from astronomical instruments, and turning its attention to language learning. That’s odd! I hear you exclaim. Yes, it may seem that way, but I have long been fascinated by different languages, and passionate about learning them. And now I am in Jordan, spending 2 months improving my Arabic. I plan to write a short series of language-focused posts while I’m here.
The big question for this post: to immerse or not to immerse? When is it better to learn a language in that language, and when is it better to do it in your native language?
First, a bit about why I’m here and what I’m doing. I’m studying at the Qasid Institute in Amman. This is a specialist language school which started out teaching Classical Arabic to Americans who were keen to read the Qur’an and other religious texts, but over the last decade or so has expanded into Modern Standard (written) Arabic, and now has students who come to learn the language for all kinds of reasons (still mainly Americans, though). This is the second time I’ve studied here (I spent 2 months here in Summer 2012 too) and I am impressed by their professionalism and the standard of teaching. I’m here now because texts translated from Arabic were incredibly important in medieval astronomy, and I’d like to be able to access some of those texts (many of which remain unpublished) in their original language.
But what’s the best way for me to do this? Should I be focused on immersing myself in Arabic, or should I be thinking about translating into English and understanding the structures of the language?
Now, I have some experience teaching English – both as a foreign language (EFL) and English literature, though it’s obviously EFL that’s relevant here. When I trained as a TEFL teacher, the course included 4 hours of full immersion Swedish. Why? In order to show us how a language can be taught from scratch without a word of the user’s native language being used. Many people believe this is the best way to learn: you are not constantly comparing the language to your own, you quickly learn to think in the language instead of translating, and you can somehow trick yourself into forgetting that you can use your native language. That last point means you’re less likely to switch back into your native language, and will instead force yourself to make the best use of whatever ability you have in the new language to communicate whatever it is you want to say.
At the other end of the spectrum are the people who say that the best way to learn a language is to understand how it works, and it is much quicker and easier to do that through your native language. These people tend to place emphasis on understanding the structures and grammar of a language, in contrast to advocates of immersion who focus on vocabulary and communication strategies. This approach might well be suitable for someone like me, more interested in reading, understanding and translating texts than speaking. Arguably it’s well suited to Classical (and Modern Standard) Arabic in general, which are structured written languages, distinct from the spoken dialects (‘Amia). This way of learning is familiar to anyone who’s learned Latin. (Are there any schools that teach full immersion Latin? That would be interesting.) And since I’ve learned Latin on-and-off for a while, it might suit me quite well.
Now most people, when confronted by a spectrum of views like this, assume that the optimum is somewhere in the middle. But for the immersionists, of course, there is no happy medium: if you get used to using your native language, particularly if you become accustomed to using it with a particular individual (your teacher, say), it immediately becomes much harder to use and to think in the target language.
Qasid have come up with a nice solution to this problem. They split the class in two, with a different teacher for each half. So each day I have two hours of “Skills”, followed by two hours of “Sciences”. The Skills are taught exclusively in Arabic, including all instructions, definitions and feedback. In these two hours we use the familiar four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking – but no translation, you’ll note. In the Sciences class we study Arabic grammar, learning to analyse and parse the structures of texts, discussing the patterns of grammar and seeing how the texts fit together.
For me, this is a good compromise. It has its drawbacks: grammar questions arise in the immersion (Skills) class, of course, and it’s tricky to ask in Arabic why a verb has a certain ending, and even harder to understand the teacher’s answer. Meanwhile questions of vocabulary and usage arise in the grammar (Sciences) class, but asking them sometimes feels like a distraction, as if it’s inappropriate to focus on minutiae when we’re looking at the bigger picture. But in general I like the approach. There’s not much space at present for translation, but that’s a skill to work on in future. For now, I’m happy getting my head around the 10 Forms in one class, and discussing the battle tactics of the companions of the Prophet Mohammed in the other. Come back soon for an update on how it’s going!
What are your experiences of language learning? How do you prefer to learn? Feel free to comment below!