The Power of Song in Arabic Language Education

“Sing Wahid, Ithnayn, Thalathah,” a local Philadelphia teacher instructed the class to sing Arabic numbers with a warm smile on her face. This teacher had no background in the Arabic language but fifteen minutes into Al-Bustan Music Director Hanna Khoury’s Arabic singing class, she was able to use a basic Arabic song in order to demonstrate effective language education pedagogy to her fellow “classmates”. After this teacher sat down to an applause from her classmates, another teacher stood up from her seat to suggest a different teaching technique. This second teacher asked her peers to clap to a beat. Using a call-response technique, she called on every student to each repeat a few Arabic numbers in synchrony with the beat. After a few fumbles here and there during the group’s first attempt, they were able to recall Arabic numbers to a catchy rhythm.

This was my first day at Al-Bustan’s week-long Arab Arts and Culture Course for Educators, a professional development workshop geared towards Arabic and music teachers in the wider Philadelphia region. I sat in on classes with teachers who had temporarily exchanged their traditional roles as educators to be students of Arabic arts and culture. The goal of the workshop is to enable participants to teach Arabic arts and culture content effectively to their K – 12 students. The teachers I met were actively engaged in the language and music curriculum, enthusiastic (even at 5:00 pm, hours into the workshop!), and friendly. Their enthusiasm to learn about Arab culture made the workshop an interesting venue for Al-Bustan staff and workshop participants to exchange ideas and experiences related to the theme of Arabic arts and culture in medieval Arabic-speaking Andalusia.

The ability of teachers who had no prior knowledge of the Arabic language to begin teaching the Arabic numbers using song demonstrated to me that effective teaching depends more on a teacher’s enthusiasm and pedagogical technique than his or her depth of knowledge of experience in the material. During my first day at the workshop, song both lifted participants’ energy levels and increased language retention. Workshop participants smiled more and seemed more eager to participate when they had to sing the numbers to a beat as opposed to plainly calling out vocabulary words. Al-Bustan’s decision to teach Arab culture and language through an arts (specifically a music) medium helped some newcomers to the world of Arabic gain basic language skills on day one. 

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