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Review of  Al-Kitaab fii Ta callum al-cArabiyya with DVDs

Reviewer: Maher M. Awad
Book Title: Al-Kitaab fii Ta callum al-cArabiyya with DVDs
Book Author: Kristen Brustad Mahmoud Al-Batal Abbas Al-Tonsi
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Arabic, Standard
Issue Number: 16.796

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Date: Tue, 15 Mar 2005 21:32:16 -0500
From: Maher Awad
Subject: Alif Baa (with DVDs) and Al-Kitaab fii Tacallum al-cArabiyya
(with DVDs)

AUTHORS: Brustad, Kristen; Al-Batal, Mahmoud; Al-Tonsi, Abbas
TITLE: Alif Baa (with DVDs)
SUBTITLE: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds, Second Edition
PUBLISHER: Georgetown University Press
YEAR: 2004

AUTHORS: Brustad, Kristen; Al-Batal, Mahmoud; Al-Tonsi, Abbas
TITLE: Al-Kitaab fii Tacallum al-cArabiyya (with DVDs)
SUBTITLE: A Textbook for Beginning Arabic, Part One, Second Edition
PUBLISHER: Georgetown University Press
YEAR: 2004

Maher Awad, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures,
University of Virginia at Charlottesville


The Al-Kitaab textbook series, which focuses on Modern Standard Arabic but
also integrates Egyptian colloquial Arabic, is one of three comprehensive
communicative-based textbook programs that have been published over the
last decade that are designed to teach Arabic from the beginning level to
the American college student. The other two programs are Younes 1995/1999,
which integrates Modern Standard Arabic and Levantine colloquial Arabic,
and Alosh 2000, which deals with Modern Standard Arabic. The first edition
of Alif Baa and Al-Kitaab Part One were published in 1995. This second
edition is a substantially revised and updated reincarnation. In addition
to Alif Baa and Al-Kitaab Part One, the audience of which is the beginning
level American college student, this series also includes Al-Kitaab Part
Two (1997), designed for the intermediate level learner, and Al-Kitaab
Part Three (2001), designed for the advanced level learner. The object of
the present review is the second edition of Alif Baa and Al-Kitaab Part

Alif Baa, which is accompanied by two DVDs bound into the book, is the
basic foundation of the Al-Kitaab series. Its target audience is the
novice learner of Arabic. It consists of 168 pages that comprise ten
lessons, an English-Arabic glossary, and an appendix containing the texts
of the twelve dialogic scenes on the accompanying DVDs. Alif Baa
systematically covers all the sounds and letters of the Arabic alphabet,
as well as the numbers 1-10. It also introduces about 150 basic vocabulary
words and expressions sprinkled throughout the book and DVDs in the
context of appropriate and relevant written exercises in the book and
listening sound files and spoken dialogues on the DVDs. The typical lesson
in Alif Baa covers about half a dozen letters and diacritical symbols.
Each lesson has about a dozen and a half to two dozen recognition-focused
exercises and production-focused drills, along with a list of the basic
vocabulary introduced in the various exercises and activities in the
lesson. Each lesson also includes a brief section about some salient
cultural feature, e.g., making and drinking coffee, what to say to someone
who is not feeling well, how to respond when a host offers you food or
drink, and so on.

Alif Baa is designed to be completed in 20-25 class hours and assumes
double that number of hours in preparation and practice outside the class
spent doing exercises in the book and watching and listening to the DVDs.
The DVDs consist of ten lessons that parallel the ten lessons in the Alif
Baa book, and they include for each lesson four main components. One
component is listening and vocabulary-building exercises, all at the level
of individual words. Another component is the viewing of all manner of
signs written in Arabic, for example, street signs, shop signs, still
advertisements, and so on. Another component is the viewing of an Arabic
calligrapher engaged in live writing of all the different letters and
symbols of the Arabic alphabet. The last component of the DVDs consists of
short dialogues, typically between two or three people, carried out in
Egyptian colloquial Arabic, and covering such topics as self-
introductions, greetings, taking leave, talking on the phone, and so on.
These dialogues, in addition to addressing the oral-aural skills, serve as
rich cultural lessons. The DVDs make for a multimedia program that is at
once attractive and compelling, but they do not come without some
technical glitches, which I will discuss further in the latter half of
this review.

Once Alif Baa is completed, Al-Kitaab Part One can be begun. Al-Kitaab
Part One assumes that the student has gone through Alif Baa. Al-Kitaab
Part One consists of 493 pages comprising 20 lessons, an Arabic-English
glossary, an English-Arabic glossary, grammar (mainly verb conjugation)
charts, and a very useful index -- new to this edition -- listing all the
grammar topics that are covered in the book along with the page numbers
where they can be found. Al-Kitaab Part One is accompanied by three DVDs
bound into the book. The goal of the book and DVDs is to take the
beginning learner, who has already mastered the sounds and letters of
Arabic, from the beginning level all the way to the intermediate level
(Intermediate Low to Intermediate Mid range, to use the terminology of the
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL)). Al-Kitaab
Part One covers in a balanced way the four language skills of listening,
speaking, reading, and writing, and it concerns itself with the infusion
of cultural knowledge and grammatical information as well. It requires 150
class hours (an academic year) and 250-300 hours of preparation and
practice outside the class.

The overall organizing theme of Al-Kitaab Part One is a narrative story of
two main characters: Khalid, a college student in Egypt, and his cousin
Maha, a college student in the United States. The story thread, which
permeates through every lesson in this book, is about them, their extended
families, and their friends. The choice of this organizing theme gives
context and motivation for a large number - by no means all - of the
vocabulary and grammatical structures chosen for treatment and for the
exercises and activities that develop and reinforce those vocabulary and

Each of the 20 lessons in Al-Kitaab Part One consists of the following
components, typically organized in the following way. The lesson begins
with a list of about one to two dozen vocabulary words critical for
understanding the story line of the lesson. This is followed by three or
four exercises that develop and reinforce those vocabulary words. One of
the exercises is usually an interactive oral exercise that is optimal for
a class group activity. This is followed by a viewing of the video scene
on the DVD about Khalid or Maha, a member of their families, or one of
their friends engaging in a short monologue in standard Arabic about
themselves. With each successive lesson and scene the story line develops
a little more and we gain more information about Khalid and Maha and their
families and friends. There are usually one or two listening comprehension
exercises here. In keeping with the balance that the authors strive for in
covering the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing)
and culture and grammar, the remainder of the lesson has exercises and
activities addressing those skills. The listening and reading exercises
and activities are based on carefully chosen authentic texts that are
appropriate for this level. The grammar explanations are brief and to the
point and are not too technical. The grammar topics that are chosen for
treatment are usually topics that emerge from the narrative story or from
the activities and exercises in the lessons. These exercises are usually
well contextualized, but one also occasionally finds de-contextualized,
mechanical drills, especially where certain controlled structures are
being highlighted. The penultimate section of every lesson usually
contains two or three video scenes. The first is a rendition in Egyptian
colloquial Arabic mirroring the scene mentioned earlier of Maha or Khalid
or their families and friends talking about themselves in standard Arabic.
The other video scenes are often of two or more people also speaking in
Egyptian colloquial Arabic about some interesting cultural aspect not
necessarily directly related to the story line. For example, in one scene
a teaching assistant (TA) is interviewed in Egyptian colloquial Arabic
with English subtitles about her role as TA in an Egyptian university.
Another scene shows a group of school children singing and filing to their
classes. The final section of every lesson is a list, different from the
one appearing at the beginning of every lesson, of important and useful
vocabulary that arose in the context of the exercises and activities of
the lesson. The list contains anywhere from about half a dozen to two
dozen words.


In my review of the first edition of Alif Baa and Al-Kitaab Part One (Awad
1998), I made the prediction that this series would be embraced by earnest
teachers and learners of the Arabic language. That prediction has been
fully borne out. This series has become among the most widely used Arabic
language pedagogy programs in the United States, for good reasons. One
reason for the success of this program is the fact that it follows the
principles of meaning-focused, communicative approaches to language
teaching, where the emphasis is on real, natural, creative, and
interactive communication. The overarching goal of these approaches is to
enable the learner to attain real proficiency in order to function in the
native-speaking environment. A corollary of these kinds of approach is
that language must be taught in context. Adherence to this tenet can be
seen throughout this book in the well-contextualized exercises and
activities. Another reason for the success of this program is that it
addresses in a balanced way all the four language skills and adds a lot of
cultural information, resulting in a comprehensive pedagogical program.
The program also uses authentic listening and reading materials that make
the language come alive, and it makes good use of listening and reading
exercises based on these authentic materials. The authentic materials are
updated, so we find listening and reading texts that are from 2003, the
year immediately preceding the publication of this program.

This program's philosophical orientation influences the method of
presenting and explaining grammar topics. The method is mainly inductive,
in which the learner is challenged - with guidance and in context - to
discover the grammar structures using the techniques of inference and
analogy, rather than deductive, in which grammar rules and explanations
are given from the start, often in de-contextualized examples. In short,
in this book there is more emphasis on communication and less emphasis on
explicit grammar explanations, the rationale being that grammar is an
emergent byproduct of communication. This approach to grammar contrasts
with that followed by many Arabic language textbooks that focus on grammar
for its own sake.

One of the most important features of this book, which I believe has
greatly contributed to its success, is that it does not shrink from the
challenging task of teaching standard Arabic alongside a colloquial
dialect in the same book. The approach followed by the Al-Kitaab series
views the standard and the colloquial as two registers of the same
language that exist side by side in harmony, not as two competing
languages with a chasm separating the two. To my knowledge, Younes
1995/1999 is the only other program that in fact implements this approach
in a systematic way. On objective grounds, and on grounds that take the
Arabic linguistic reality into account (e.g. the reality of diglossia),
true proficiency in Arabic cannot be attained by learning only standard
Arabic. To be truly proficient in Arabic, one must also attain functional
proficiency in the more natural, less formal colloquial spoken Arabic (of
any variety), the kind of Arabic that native Arabic speakers use in
natural, real-time conversations. This is the view that this book series
takes. This approach is a welcome and refreshing departure from the
traditional, prescriptivist approaches to the teaching of Arabic that
placed most of the emphasis on the reading skill, less on the writing
skill, and much less on the speaking and listening skills. This
traditional approach dictated that standard Arabic alone would be chosen
for this or that Arabic language program, and in doing so shunned
colloquial Arabic.

One last reason I will mention here for why this program has become the
program of choice for a lot of teachers and learners is that it integrates
the cognitively rich multimedia program (DVDs). The DVDs make the language
come alive. They contain the sights and sounds of the Arabic language and
culture and make the learning process more fun. The on-demand interactive
audio-visual component is indispensable to this program and contributes to
its success.

But technology does not come without its challenges. There are some
technical issues with the DVDs that need be corrected in the next release.
One issue has to do with the fact that on almost every screen that one
navigates, the cursor (highlighted item) always reverts to the first item
on the list. So, for example, if a screen contains a list of vocabulary
items, and the user navigates the list and highlights, say, the third (or
nth) word that she or he wishes to hear read, after that word is read the
cursor (highlighted item) reverts back to the first item on the list. If
the user wishes to hear the same word again, she or he must scroll down
again to that word. This is a systematic flaw in the DVDs. In a DVD
program of this kind, where it is thoroughly expected that the learner
would want to replay the same item (word, sentence, etc.) many times over,
the issue becomes a serious - and avoidable - waste of time. This could
lead to frustration. Another issue with the DVDs is that the recording of
many of the words is inadvertently chopped off at the beginning, by a few
milliseconds. When a word consists of only three or four phonemes, and the
entire word is measured in milliseconds, this problem is obviously not
trivial. It is a problem when one-third or one-fourth of a word is chopped
off. This problem is more serious in the Alif Baa DVDs because the focus
in Alif Baa is at the level of individual words. Another issue with the
DVDs is that parts of words on the edge of the screen lie outside the
viewable area of the screen. Usually this is not a problem because these
words are English navigation words that the reader can figure out.

In addition to these technical problems, there are a few imperfections in
this textbook series. Alif Baa, which is an otherwise superb coverage of
all the sounds and letters of Arabic, would have been an excellent place
to include a section on word stress placement. I hope the next printing of
this book will correct this omission. Another imperfection is the presence
of typos, for example, on pp. 3, 348, and 470 of Al-Kitaab, to name a few.
These typos are scattered here and there and are not too numerous. On the
whole, they do not distract the reader from the content. Also, on p. 37 of
Alif Baa the English word 'say' is a bad choice of example to illustrate
the Arabic diphthong 'ay'.

The above shortcomings notwithstanding, these two books and their
accompanying DVDs constitute one of the most complete modern Arabic
pedagogy programs available, and they will continue to be so for the
foreseeable future. Every Arabic language program in the United States
that views itself as following the principles of proficiency language
teaching, which is the mainstream approach, ought to take a serious and
open-minded look at all three textbook programs mentioned in the
introductory paragraph of this review and ought to consider adopting one
or more of these programs.


Alosh, Mahdi (2000) Ahlan wa Sahlan: Functional Modern Standard Arabic for
Beginners. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Awad, Maher (1998) Review of Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and
Sounds; Al-Kitaab fii Tacallum Al-cArabiyya: A Textbook for Beginning
Arabic Part One, by Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal, and Abbas Al-Tonsi,
Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1995; and Elementary Arabic:
An Integrated Approach: Student Workbook, by Munther Younes, New Haven,
CT: Yale University Press. Language 74, 627-629.

Brustad, Kristen; Mahmoud Al-Batal; and Abbas Al-Tonsi (1995) Alif Baa:
Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds. Washington, DC: Georgetown
University Press.

Brustad, Kristen; Mahmoud Al-Batal; and Abbas Al-Tonsi (1995) Al-Kitaab
fii Tacallum al-cArabiyya: A Textbook for Beginning Arabic, Part One.
Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Brustad, Kristen; Mahmoud Al-Batal; and Abbas Al-Tonsi (1997) Al-Kitaab
fii Tacallum al-cArabiyya: A Textbook for Arabic, Part Two. Washington,
DC: Georgetown University Press.

Brustad, Kristen; Mahmoud Al-Batal; and Abbas Al-Tonsi (2001) Al-Kitaab
fii Tacallum al-cArabiyya: A Textbook for Arabic, Part Three. Washington,
DC: Georgetown University Press.

Younes, Munther (1995) Elementary Arabic: An Integrated Approach: Student
Workbook. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Younes, Munther (1999) Intermediate Arabic: An Integrated Approach. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


Maher Awad is currently a Lecturer in Arabic in the Department of Asian
and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia.
Beginning in fall 2005 he will be Lecturer in Arabic in the Center for the
Study of Languages at Rice University, where he will be running the Arabic
language program. He specializes in Arabic syntax and semantics and Arabic
language pedagogy.

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