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Is Arabic taught differently in Germany than in the USA?

“Real-life-situations” (USA) versus “lots of grammar” (Germany) – that’s what studying Arabic used to be in both countries. But that is changing, says Paula Rötscher, who has studied Arabic at university level in the US and in Germany – and, moreover, teaches Arabic at several institutions.

Last updated: 9 months ago

Paula Rötscher

A significant number of refugees from Arabic countries live in Germany. In the streets of Berlin, you can hear people talking in Arabic. So, is Arabic trending in Germany?

Let's learn more about that from Paula Rötscher, who is not only passionate about Arabic, but also very committed to the teaching of Arabic in Germany.

Paula is 26 years old and will work as an Arabic teacher in GERMANY soon. You can follow Paula on Twitter: @fachverband_ara

Paula grew up in a small German town called Buttstädt in Germany.

She began learning Arabic at the age of 11 as a student at the Salzmannschule Schnepfenthal in Thüringen and continued to study Arabic Language and Literature as a minor for four years at the University of Florida after that.

In 2017, she received a scholarship to attend the Middlebury College Arabic Language School for a summer and applied to the CASA (Center for Arabic Study Abroad) Program afterwards. This scholarship program allowed her to study at the Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman, Jordan for 9 months.

In the fall of 2019 she came back to Germany and began her master's in Arabic Studies at the University of Bamberg which she finished in summer 2020.

Over the course of the last year, she has taught at the Volkshochschule (adult education center) Würzburg and the Volkshochschule Schweinfurt and is currently a lecturer at the University of Erfurt. She is also active in the Fachverband Arabisch e.V. (association of Arabic).

She will soon begin her new job as an Arabic teacher for students in 6th-12th grade at the Salzmannschule Schnepfenthal.

Question: Paula, you did the CASA Arabic program and are now teaching Arabic in Germany at public centers, universities, and schools. What is the difference regarding textbooks, methods, and the general approach to Arabic?

Paula Rötscher: One main difference is that in the CASA program and in American university classes in general, the main focus is placed on speaking. Students are encouraged to express themselves in Arabic from the very beginning and mistakes are not seen as a hindrance to communication.

Professors are less quick to correct students and try to let conversations flow as naturally as possible. This, however, also means that in Germany, grammar plays a more significant role in the Arabic classroom and students who study Arabic in Germany are often more comfortable at writing and reading in the language and possess solid knowledge of the important grammatical concepts.

I would say that overall, the United States have adopted an approach of teaching students to communicate in real-life situations, whereas German institutions still predominantly follow a more traditional approach of text-based language learning. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and we could certainly learn a lot from one another in the field of TAFL.

Question: Which textbooks are used at universities in Germany?

Paula Rötscher: The Al-Kitaab series is of course highly popular in the United States and I have seen it being used in some German universities as well. One advantage of this series is that it provides resources for teaching Modern Standard Arabic alongside a variety of dialects.

In Germany, some popular textbooks include the Lehrbuch des modernen Hocharabisch by Eckehard Schulz and the Arabisch intensiv series from the Landesspracheninstitut at the Ruhr University Bochum.

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Those textbooks also exemplify what I mentioned about grammar taking up more space in the Arabic classroom at German institutions, since they include quite a few grammar sections and drills as compared to the many conversation-based exercises in Al-Kitaab.

One method employed in the CASA program, the Middlebury programs and other intensive Arabic courses in the US is what is often referred to as the language pledge, whereby students commit to speaking only Arabic with one another and their teachers. At first, it is a bit odd to speak only Arabic with fellow learners, but after a while it becomes second-nature and provides tremendous benefits because you speak and think in Arabic only, from morning to nighttime, and continuously practice your communication skills.

Question: In your opinion, what needs to be changed in Arabic lessons (Arabischunterricht) in Germany?

Paula Rötscher: I won't say that teachers have to teach the Arabic dialects, but I think it would benefit Arabic teaching in Germany if we were more open to the idea.

Some universities have started to offer classes in various dialects and some Volkshochschulen (adult education centers) are open to teaching both Modern Standard Arabic and dialects in the same course, which is a positive development.

In addition, I would really like to see more being placed on the cultures of the Arabic-speaking countries and insights into the societies of the Arab world, including aspects like religion, food culture, artistic expressions, and relations. There are unfortunately many stereotypes about the Arab world and the Arabic classroom is an important space to tackle those stereotypes and provide learners with profound sociocultural knowledge that they can also share with others outside the classroom.

paula roetscher
Paula Rötscher studying in Amman, Jordan.

Question: Are there any public schools (or even Kindergartens) offering Arabic in Germany? How many are there?

Paula Rötscher: To answer this question, it is important to distinguish between what we in Germany call Herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht (HSU), meaning Arabic classes for children of an Arabic-speaking background who likely already come to class with some knowledge of Arabic, and Arabic as a foreign language, aimed at students with no prior knowledge.

HSU classes are offered at many different schools, particularly in larger cities like Bochum, Dortmund or Berlin. I must admit, though, that there don't seem to be official statistics on the availability of HSU Arabic classes in Germany.

And as far as classes for Arabic as a foreign language go, there is one public school in Germany called Salzmannschule Schnepfenthal that offers Arabic classes from 6th through 12th grade with the possibility of taking a final school exam in Arabic. However, that school is the sole exception in terms of formalized Arabic classes at German public schools.

Some other schools offer at least an after-school elective class. But overall, Arabic language classes for non-heritage speakers are almost impossible to find at German public schools.

Question: Is there an officially recognized test/exam in Germany to measure your level of Arabic?

Paula Rötscher: That is a great question! The only test I know of is the Al-Arabiyya-Test, which appears to be generally accepted as a measure of Arabic language skills.

I personally have been using my ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) test scores here in Germany and those were accepted as well. Given that knowledge of Arabic among non-native speakers in Germany is still rather rare, employers and institutions will likely accept any language scores from an official entity like a university or language school.

Question: If I want to become an Arabic teacher in Germany, what should I do? Are there special programs for TAFL (teaching Arabic as a foreign language)? Is there a special curriculum?

Paula Rötscher: One of the main challenges – if not the main challenge – for aspiring Arabic teachers in Germany is that there is no formalized pathway. Arabic teaching is not widespread, and the vast majority of classes teach Arabic as a heritage language and not as a foreign language.

Therefore, the need for Arabic teachers is still rather low and there is no program in TAFL in Germany (or even in Europe). Some universities like the University of Bamberg have started to offer courses in teaching Arabic as a Second Language to their overall curricula for Arabic Studies in order to address this issue.

But currently, Arabic teachers are often either native speakers of the language with a teaching degree in another field or a completely different degree, or they might be Germans who have studied Arabic Studies, or even Middle Eastern Studies. I would suggest pursuing an academic degree in Arabic, regardless of whether the focus is on literature, linguistics or something else, to ensure solid language skills, and then to find ways to gain teaching experience through practice and also through participation in programs abroad.

Question: What is the most difficult aspect for German native speakers when they start learning Arabic? Do you see any similarities or differences to native English speakers?

Paula Rötscher: From personal experience, I can say that learning to roll the letter ر was very difficult for me and took me a long time to master. I would say this goes for many English speakers as well. Some other letters give German and English speakers a hard time as well, for instance the ح and the emphatic letters ص, ض, ط and ظ.

One interesting aspect, which is challenging for both groups, is the usage of the definite article, because in Arabic it is often used to describe concepts or ideas like money, love or friendship, for which we would in German or English explicitly not use the definite article. I'd also say that the system of roots and patterns for verbs is both intriguing and challenging for German and English speakers, simply because it is notably different from “our way” of deriving verbs, active and participles and so on.

Question: In Germany, there are millions of people who speak Arabic. They are refugees from Arab countries or children of parents who migrated in the past to Germany. But until now, Arabic is not visible and of almost no importance. Why is that?

Paula Rötscher: To answer this question, we have to differentiate between Arabic classes for heritage speakers (so-called HSU) and Arabic classes for students with no Arabic language background once more.

HSU classes are often organized in collaboration with local governments and made available depending on the number of parents and children interested. So, in that sense, there is a recognition of the Arabic language being important. But it is true that Arabic as a foreign language, and especially given that it is one of the six official UN languages, receives far too little attention.

I can't tell you exactly why that is. I think in part it has to do with other foreign languages having been more important for Germans in the past. We are just slowly realizing the value of Arabic in our global society and in Germany.

Secondly, I do think that there are misconceptions and negative associations with the language that stem from stereotypes about the people who speak it. In the wider discourse, Arabic is often framed as a language of immigrants, refugees and developing nations, which to some people means that it is not worth learning.

Paul Rötscher, thank you for your time!

Photo credit: Unsplash (Christian Lue); Paula Rötscher

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Sharifah Raudhah
Sharifah Raudhah
3 years ago

Always love the interview segment! –
Am curious what made Paula chose the arabic language mastery as her academic pathway and as early as 11. What was her and her family’s inspiration? Am grooming my 11 year son to take up this route too and just intrigued😊

Ismail Foltz
Ismail Foltz
3 years ago

Excellent interview. I started an Arabic degree in a U. S. university in the late 1970s. At that time, the study of Arabic was mostly text and grammar based. The premise was that Arabic was mostly for comparative literature students or people interested in old texts for religious studies, for example. However, views on Arabic were beginning to change at that time and there was a subtle shift to more real world communication. Some dialects were taught-mostly Egyptian, but only after a year of MSA. I feel this was a mistake since I only started Egyptian dialect in my third year and it made a huge difference in my comfort level when speaking the language. Today, the teaching of Arabic is probably largely influenced by the methodology for teaching English as a Foreign language.

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