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On Arabic Language Day: How Do We Market Arabic?

On UN Arabic Language Day, we ask: How can we reduce learning poverty in MENA?

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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Arabic is the official language of 25 countries and is spoken by more than 467 million people across 60 countries.

In 2021, the World Bank published an alarming report, which found that 59% of children in MENA are experiencing learning poverty, meaning that more than half of children in the region are unable to read and understand age-appropriate texts in Arabic by the age of 10. [1]

This means that native-speaking children are effectively cut off from one of their main avenues to learning--reading.

Creating Benchmarks For Arabic Learning

Professor Hanada Taha-Thomure, Endowed Professor of Arabic at Zayed University and one of the authors of the World Bank report, is one of the architects behind SARD, a standardized Arabic testing platform that aims to be the Arabic equivalent of MAP tests. SARD, which is currently being piloted, is an AI-enabled tool that will compare and benchmark children’s language acquisition across schools, countries, and the Arab world.

“Language is a bunch of strategies and skills that kids need to learn, so they need to know rhyme, letter names and sounds, blends, how to read words quickly with diacritics or tashkeel, and how to identify nonsense words, among other things. All of these tests, which include reading and listening comprehension, also tell us whether or not children are seeing writing and script enough,” Taha-Thomure tells us.

Taha-Thomure also leads Zayed University’s recently launched Zai Center, a research center that identifies best practices for teaching Arabic and helps bridge the gap between schools and teachers and parents to deliver Arabic instruction at home and school. It also translates research done on evidence-based literacy strategies, much of which is not available in Arabic. [2]

Another challenge is the lack of teacher training and the absence of structured learning strategies.

“Teachers lack passion, they are not invested, they work with outdated prep programs, no one invests in them, and this sends a message to everyone that Arabic is not important,” she tells us. Add to that outdated curriculum, a dearth of evidence-based literacy strategies, the prevalence of foreign language schools, and educational policies that do not mandate Arabic learning at preschools or enforce a sufficient number of hours of Arabic learning weekly, and you have a generation that is effectively being taught Arabic as a second language or a special subject.

She tells us that, more than anything, “we need to market for Arabic.” “It’s a huge advantage to be bilingual or trilingual, but we need to be solid in our language.”

How to Bring Books Into the Home

One of the biggest challenges of learning Arabic is the difference between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Spoken Arabic, which results in diglossia--a term that linguists use to refer to languages that have a high and low form. In Arabic, it refers to the difference between Spoken Arabic which native speakers use to communicate in their daily lives, and Modern Standard Arabic. This creates a culture where you have to learn one language to speak in your everyday life--and another to be considered literate in that language.

“The definition of an Arabic native speaker is someone proficient in fasiha or MSA as well as in their home dialect, and can understand different dialects,” says Taha-Thomure.

From birth until they reach school age, children acquire literacy through reading or being read to. The World Bank report shows that only 20-25% of children are read to by parents and caregivers in Arabic-speaking countries, compared to 80% percent in countries like Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Northern Ireland.

Another key indicator is the low ownership of children’s books at home, which is also prevalent in the region.

Nada Sabet, owner of LibLib Publishing, a London-based publishing house that specializes in publishing children’s books in Spoken Egyptian Arabic, tells us that multiple conversations that she has had with self-published authors and publishers make it clear that books in Spoken Arabic are often more relatable and engaging to both parents and children. Despite that, books written in Spoken Arabic are often exempt from book awards. [3]

Publishing in Spoken Arabic also makes it difficult to publish to scale, limiting publishers to a single Arab-speaking market. Accordingly, publishers that publish in Spoken Arabic have to lobby directly with parents in their home countries and expatriate communities abroad rather than sell to schools.

Many authors find ways to bridge the gaps between Spoken Arabic and MSA by finding common words or being creative about diacritics, which are the source of many of the differences in local pronunciation. Even among writers who use MSA, however, publishing volumes are low when compared to publishing in other languages, she tells us.

For Taha-Thomure, while hearing Spoken Arabic is key to familiarizing children with the structure of the language, the learning gaps exist primarily in MSA, making it important for children to engage with MSA through media and books. Like Sabet, she notes that publishers and writers need to be creative in finding common words between Spoken Arabic and MSA that can help bridge the gap for young readers and their parents, and create a love of reading and language at an early age. 

Flying Under the Radar: Edtechs

Maged Harby, General Manager of EdVentures, a Cairo-based VC that is affiliated with Nahdet Misr Publishing Group NGO and invests in pre-seed and seed stage edtechs across MEA, Europe, and the US, tells us that, despite the growth of edtech in the region, edtechs working in Arabic language learning are still modest. From his experience, innovation in Arabic language learning has often come from programs to teach non-native speakers.

“We need more collaboration with governments, NGOs, and the private sector to create something unique to preserve and develop language,” he says, adding that if policymakers and regulators create incentives for startups to enter the space, edtechs will rise to fill the gaps.

For him, the absence of standardized testing and the lack of awareness about the size of the problem are hurdles to advancing Arabic language learning.

Ahmed ElKalla, an angel investor and venture capitalist who has invested in upward of 8 edtech startups across MENA, the GCC, the US, and Africa, including Noon Academy, Orcas, and Albwaab, tells us that edtech innovation can help bridge gaps not just in language learning, but for formal education in general. Based on his experience working closely with edtechs across the region, he believes that they have the innovation required to partner up with ministries and fill the necessary gaps--but have yet to gain the trust of regulators.

Edtechs have a discovery problem, ElKalla tells us, stressing that, because they lack regulatory support and are not recognized as legitimate learning tools by policymakers, they cannot penetrate the schooling system in the same way that English learning edtechs have.

“Regulators still have a trust problem with edtechs, because regulators focus on the how, but I want to think about the what. Are these apps delivering the right content? Do they provide equitable access? What are their outcomes? These are all things that we can measure,” he says.

The Silver Lining

Although there is passion and interest in improving Arabic learning outcomes, the framework and policy required to advance language learning lag.

“We need policy-makers to mandate a set number of hours of Arabic learning weekly, and that learning needs to be delivered well. We need fun subjects like specials to be taught in English and Arabic. Just think of how much counting happens in PE classes. Why not have music classes that teach both Western and oriental music? This is all low-hanging fruit,” says Taha-Thomure.

“It all goes back to policy – I lose count of how many times a day I say policy. We have more than 250 million kids in schools, and that number will keep growing. We need policies that can help us get our kids to engage with Arabic and to feel belonging and identity,” she adds. “I think the only homework for Arabic should be to read for 20 minutes a day in primary school and 30 minutes a day in secondary school, just like they do in English. This will drum up business for publishers and make readers out of the children. The demand for books must come from schools.”

ElKalla stresses that the absence of a legitimized, recognized testing ground for edtechs makes it difficult to bridge the gaps that exist in the market. “If there’s one ask that I can make of regulators, it is to create a sandbox for education innovation,” says ElKalla, comparing edtech to the region’s booming fintech industry, which has benefited from sandboxes for testing. “If the ministry can provide their educational outcomes, edtechs can deliver and measure them.”

And for Harby, the primary role that policymakers can play is in raising awareness: “We need policymakers and regulators to raise awareness about the size of the problem. Startups will come in when they see the problem and they will try to offer solutions,” he says.

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Read this in Arabic on Inc. Arabia. 

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