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The Gray Zone in Arabic - illustration

Arabic letters in the “Gray Zone”: a technique for guiding novice learners

Arabic beginners who have only learned a few letters often have difficulties in class. A new concept, The Gray Zone, could help, writes Dr. Roger W. Anderson

Published: September 4, 2023

Getting started with the Arabic language is extremely difficult. The Arabic alphabet alone is a major hurdle for anyone who decides to learn Arabic. The and dashes above and below the letters, the different shapes depending on the position, and especially the untrained eye muscles that have to get used to moving from right to left don't make it easy. But we all want to feel a sense of achievement quickly, to learn words and be able to speak after just a few hours.

Prof. Dr. Roger W. Anderson is an assistant professor of French at the Defense Language Institute. Previously he taught French and Arabic at Central State University (Ohio, USA). He has an interesting idea that he would like to share in this guest article:

The Gray Zone

A simple technique simultaneously supports alphabet learning and development (even for words contained to-be-learned letters).

Is Arabic really so hard?

The question has been asked for decades: “Is Spanish really so easy? Is Arabic really so hard?”1

As we know, transitioning from one Latin-alphabet-based language to another requires minimal effort when compared to learning a language with a distinct alphabet (or no alphabet at all!).

According to the Modern Language Association's Fall 2020 study of enrollments in all world language courses within U.S. colleges and universities, the four years' prior saw the largest drop in Arabic enrollments following those in German.2 While reasons behind the decline remain unclear, it seems critical that researchers mobilize to understand this trend, and likewise that instructors establish best practices in Arabic language teaching- particularly at the foundational level.

Signaling to learners

Like all instructors, Arabic as a foreign language (AFL) language instructors must anticipate the aspects of language learning that will be difficult for their learners.

One helpful concept within education generally is that of a threshold concept.3 Instructors signal that a particular piece of content may be particularly difficult by invoking the metaphor of a threshold, a doorframe to be walked through. This alerts the learners, helping them to hold on to their sense of control within their learning.

AFL instructors may find this framing useful in teaching various aspects of grammar. This logic can be applied to the two-tracked learning of foundational vocabulary and the alphabet.

Signaling Gray Zone” letters in sight words

Many AFL instructors whom I've met, like myself, teach learners to recognize and produce the alphabet and sight words.

Unsurprisingly, learning the Arabic alphabet must be done incrementally, over a prolonged period of time. (This is one disadvantage to learning Arabic relative to learning Spanish, Italian, etc., but one advantage to learning Arabic relative to learning Chinese, which has no alphabet).

Notwithstanding, instructors concurrently teach key phrases and sight words. Used in literacy in the first language (L1) or second (L2), sight words are “common words that schools expect kids to recognize instantly”, writes Julie Rawe, a former reporter of Time Magazine who currently works at the nonprofit Understood.4 The key is they are recognizing them, not successfully decoding them with the mastery they will later acquire.

In AFL courses, learners will be learning sight words both orthographically and phonetically, without having learned all the component letters. For example, learners may learn to read and write “Hello!” (مرحبًا) without having yet learned the letter م.

In other words learners are being asked to speak and write letters for which they have not yet studied as individual letters.

While children may be tolerant of sight words, and their brains more adaptable to accepting their veracity (because a bigger human is telling them so), adult learners and adult brains do not seem to be so accepting.

What is the “Gray Zone”?

From my experience teaching at the university level, and as an adult Arabic language learners, learners are aware they are learning words containing bits they do not fully have control of. Feelings of discomfort or being unsatisfied may arise. What's more instructors may explain unstudied letters within sight words using some variation of: “trust me on this one” and “we will learn this letter soon” – an explanation often done not in Arabic but in the L1.

This complicated discussion in the L1 could be mitigated if not avoided without abandoning sight words altogether. More importantly, the learning could rendered more transparent by using a system to signal to learners that the word being targeted contains unstudied letters.

To be precise, the occurrence of unstudied letters within a targeted word can be called “the Gray Zone”. Students understand that gray as the ambiguous color that results from the encounter of black and white. As such, it seems an apt metaphor for this conundrum and pedagogical tool.

For example, if students are learning to read, write, and speak the word “Hello!” (مرحبا), and they have already studied (and mastered to some degree) the letters ر and ح and ا, then the remaining letter م could be identified as presently belonging to “the Gray Zone”, in which resides the letters that have yet to be formally studied. This could be quickly and transparently made clear to learners if this unstudied letter were so identified in initial presentations of the word, like this:

مرحبا

Only after formal lessons on the letter م would words that contain م no longer be colored gray.

Using “Gray Zone” to introduce new vocabulary

Applying this system to the presentation of new vocabulary would require instructors to carefully comb through the learning material, “graying” only the letters within words that have not yet been formally taught.

As a second example, if the targeted word is تفاحة (apple), and learners have only formally studied ت and ا and ح, then the letters ف and ة would be identified as being in “the Gray Zone”:

تفاحة

Using “the Gray Zone” will permit learners to build their foundation of key vocabulary while continuing to progress through learning the alphabet.

Applying the “Gray Zone” to classroom teaching

The Gray Zone technique will be most impactful to learners during learners' first (formal) encounter the new word for the first time in written form. This means that instructors prepared materials will include this technique. (Attending to Gray Zone letters during informal, extemporaneous moments when a word surfaces, seem less critical.)

Grayed letters can be maximally helpful if they are included on both initial visuals (slides) during a classroom presentation as well as on vocab lists that are provided to learners. This way, learners will avoid feeling panicked to correctly produce (in writing/ orally) the letters they have not yet studied.

Clear presentation of vocabulary is a key component of Barcroft's Input-based Incremental Vocabulary Acquisition, which is highly recommended.5

Goal: presentation of vocab

Take the presentation of vocab in a sample lesson in which learners are to “learn” the word apple, both recognizing and producing it in written and spoken Arabic. In this lesson, learners are not yet familiar with the letter ف and the final letter ة.

  1. First, the image of an apple will be shown on a slide.
  2. Second, the instructor can speak the Arabic word تفاحة
  3. Third, the written word will appear above the picture of the apple, with the unknown letters grayed. (A prior lesson [early on in the learning] will have explained the significance of the gray zone).
  4. Fourth, students can be invited to speak the word.

Later, after other words have been learned, simple recognition activities (or oral and written forms) can be implemented, followed by purely recall activities (in which students produce orally and then in writing the new words).

Admittedly, using graying on the initial presentation of a word's written form will task learners with decoding another when learning a word. Yet learners may feel more relaxed, seeing the familiar signal (graying) marking the letter by a thoughtful instructor as something still unfamiliar. If learners are then more at ease, their cognition will function more effectively.

Goal: pairing vocab

If the goal is pairing vocab (written form + oral form + ideation of an apple), and not necessarily accurate / correctly performed writing of the word (since not all letters have been learned), it seems best to have these typed out.

If hand-written, learners may begin to fuss about or connect letters that the instructor is not yet prepared (had not planned yet) to teach.

Related, note that learners' imperfect written productiison of the word with Gray Zone letters is to be expected. If instructors stop and teach the rules of connecting the letter ف , for example, then ف is no longer in the Gray Zone… and the lesson's planned progression will have taken an unplanned detour.

As such, the Gray Zone letters are a useful tool to continue to advance learners' development of their vocabulary despite their incomplete knowledge of all the letters in a given word. Gray Zone letters will satisfy learners' curiosity (or strong need to resolve cognitive incompleteness), and allow the instructor to remain entirely in the target language.

A subject for action research

Instructors can experiment with this presentation with real learners. For example, instructors may find it more effective to present the written word first, then gray the Gray Zone letters after students have interacted with the word's written form. As always, level and age may impact results. Learners' whose first languages use the and most heritage learners will likely find this tool unnecessary… but maybe not.

If action research produces promising findings, then more empirical work could flesh this out further. In the words of the Qatar Foundation International, “The time has come for researchers of Arabic language teaching and learning to turn to K-12 schools”.6
Eye-tracking studies of learners reading Arabic as well as analyses of memory retention could demonstrate that identifying Gray Zone letters significantly facilitates students' learning. At that point, textbooks could begin to follow suit.

One study of AFL learners in Jordan found that students identified their instructor and the teaching method implemented as the most important dimensions in their language learning. The researchers explained, “it is the preparation and the effectiveness of the teaching method and the teacher's ability to design activities that energize them, create excitement and enthusiasm that makes the teaching learning process easier and more enjoyable for both the students and teachers”.7 This finding, coupled with deep declines in Arabic enrollments recently should necessitate teachers' experimentation within the classroom to produce a smoother learning experience for learners.

“Gray Zone” letters: a compass at sea

If the Arabic language is a sea, as some of the ancients philosophized, we AFL instructors are perched high enough to see the perimeter of this sea. Our AFL learners cannot. To them, Arabic may appear an endless ocean and their raft is being tossed and spun unpredictably. Any compass we can give them, any tool to orient their learning and help them gain a sense of control, may smoothen their journey.

The Gray Zone should represent only a first iteration. A different metaphor, a sharper conceptual image will surface amongst a group of thoughtful AFL instructors, who succeed at viewing the Arabic language learning experience from the eyes of their learners. Dedicated instructors can also experiment with applying the Gray Zone to vocalizations, etc. I look forward to reading action research reports that share results!

References

  1. Stevens, P. B. (2006). Is Spanish really so easy? Is Arabic really so hard?: Perceived difficulty in learning Arabic as a second language. In K. M. Wahba, Z. A. Taha & L. England (Eds.), Handbook for Arabic language teaching professionals in the 21st century (pp. 35-63). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates ↩︎
  2. Modern Language Association. (2020). Snapshot: Language study in fall 2020. MLA Newsletter, 54(3), 6-7. Link to source ↩︎
  3. Olaniyi, N. E. E. (2020). Threshold concepts: Designing a format for the flipped classroom as an active learning technique for crossing the threshold. | Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, 15. Link to source ↩︎
  4. Rawe, J. (2019). What are sight words? Link to source ↩︎
  5. Barcroft, J. (2012). Input-based incremental vocabulary instruction. Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Assocation ↩︎
  6. Elabdali, R., Ortega, L., & Ashraf, H. (2022). The evolving needs of arabic language teachers in the U.S. K-12 education. .Georgetown University Initiative for Multilingual Studies. Link to source ↩︎
  7. Dajani, B. A. S., & Omari, F. (2014). Difficulties of learning arabic for non-native speakers. Procedia- Social and Behavioral Sciences, doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.12.808 ↩︎
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