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
OVERVIEW AND SUMMARY
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 One.
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 structures.
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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.