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Intermediate Arabic, Boston College

28 July 2018


The Arabic Program at Boston College is housed in the Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures in the school’s Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences. All levels of Arabic - elementary, intermediate and advanced - are taught. Among the other courses we offer beyond the advanced level are Business Arabic, Newspaper and Media Arabic, Advanced Tutorial, Advanced Arabic Reading Seminar and the Linguistic Structure of Arabic.

Course Description

There are currently 14 students enrolled in our Intermediate Arabic classes. Intermediate Arabic is divided into a master class (3 credits) and two practicum classes (3 credits each). Thus, students enrolled in Intermediate Arabic meet with their instructors 5 times a week for a total of 6 credit hours per semester. This is also the same structure followed in Intermediate Arabic II. In the master class, the whole group meets for 75 minutes twice a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays with Prof. Abdelkrim Mouhib, their lead instructor. The master class is divided into two groups and the students meet with their practicum instructors, Prof. Mayss Bajbouj and me (Atef Ghobrial), for 50 minutes, three times a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Instruction at the intermediate level uses the communicative approach. Students are encouraged to memorize vocabulary and use them in sentences that are relevant to their worldviews, lives and experiences. Creating new contexts within a given situation, asking questions, making statements and engaging in various speech activities help students apply the new vocabulary and retain them. Drilling and practicing structures the students have already prepared at home help this process of retention. Explanation of grammatical concepts is usually done through authentic texts or given exercises, as we stress the acquisition of grammatical structures by application rather than explanation. Work in the class is supplemented with frequent written and oral assignments from the textbook, as well as teacher prepared assignments.

TalkAbroad Implementation

We are planning on incorporating four 10-minute conversations per student into the Intermediate Arabic I curriculum in the fall of 2018. Even though we are aware that TalkAbroad can be successfully implemented to cater for the needs of elementary students, we thought it would be more pedagogically judicious and realistic to start with intermediate students as students at this level are less apprehensive and reticent and will thus have a better chance at feeling successful about this experiment.

Students will be required to participate in four 10-minute conversations with native speakers of Arabic who will employ Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) only as the medium for conducting these conversations. The native speakers can therefore be from any Arabic speaking country provided that they only use MSA. This will alleviate the potential for confusion, misunderstanding and bewilderment that will most likely ensue if our students are exposed to a variety of dialects with which they are not familiar.

Each 10-minute conversation will take place every three weeks after each unit in the students’ textbook (Marhabtayn) has been covered in its entirety. All four conversations will account for eight percent of their total course grade.

The topics we have chosen for our intermediate students for the fall of 2018 correspond with the major themes dealt with in their textbook. These are:

  1. introducing one another,
  2. shopping and food,
  3. daily routines and
  4. national and religious holidays.

We believe that working with our students on these themes will encourage them to engage in conversations about themselves, others, their culture and various other cultures. While the book includes audio exercises that are often assigned as homework, it is practically impossible to always ascertain that students are really working on these assignments. Needless to say, such exercises can never substitute the natural flow of a conversation with native speakers where the two parties converse and react to each other in real time.

We will enrich the current curriculum by implementing these four 10-minute individual conversations. Alternatively, a student may have the option of partnering with a classmate in the first two conversations to lessen students’ anxiety. These conversations will be implemented after these topics have been fully covered in class. The students will be prepared for these conversations by working on teacher-created pre-assignments designed to enhance the student’s productive/conversational skills to make the best of their conversations with the native speaker(s). These assignments will be presented beforehand in class and graded as homework assignments. For follow-up assignments, students will be asked to reflect on their progress and to write and speak about their impressions of the TalkAbroad experience, such as their ability to understand, their level of confidence in speaking and cultural differences. Reporting to the classmates and the instructor will also give them another chance for oral practice. We will also acquaint our students with the NCSSFL/ACTFL “Can-Do Benchmarks” for interpersonal and interpretive listening. The students can use these benchmarks as a self-assessment tool to gauge their own progress and for self-assessment before and after their conversations with their partners. They can even use them to set personal goals for their next conversation. Thus, they can feel confident about their functional language use as well as take pride in the fact that they are in control of their own learning.

This project will contribute to the greater educational community in and around the city of Boston. Increasing the students’ speaking confidence and pronunciation through TalkAbroad conversations will help them better communicate with others who have emigrated from some Arab countries and who have demonstrated difficulty communicating in English. For example, our students have been involved with BC’s Music Outreach Program in high schools in Boston and its suburbs. One such school is Brighton High School. Like other high schools in big metropolitan cities, the students there come from various countries of the Middle East and have experienced frustration due to difficulty in understanding, and thereby interacting with their teachers. In short, we have been trying to mitigate the effect of the language barrier that has decreased those students’ level of comfort in this educational setting. Our students have also found the experience rewarding. In addition to feeling helpful and encouraging to these teens, they have found that applying their language skills in genuine life-like situations, albeit with difficulty at times, extremely fascinating. With the confidence they will acquire from their experience with TalkAbroad, their contribution to the community in academic settings, and in the workplace at large, is bound to prove fulfilling and rewarding.

It is our hope that implementing these conversations into our intermediate Arabic curriculum would give our students a unique opportunity to practice speaking and listening with native speakers and inspire and urge them to positively and resolutely look forward to using this service in Intermediate Arabic II and beyond. It is also hoped that such an opportunity would enrich other parts of the course curriculum through students’ exchange of cultural information with each other in their reports, discussions and writing assignments. More importantly, it is hoped that this opportunity would minimize students’ reticence and anxiety when using the target language by boosting their confidence through discovering that they have been capable of engaging in conversations with native speakers, which we consider a primary goal behind these interactions.

In addition to the chance offered them to communicate with native speakers outside of the classroom and test themselves on how well their speaking skills are in a real time conversation, this experience will also provide them with the chance to hear and learn different accents and different vocabulary from each one of their TalkAbroad partners.


Coming in 2019

Project Lead

Atef Ghobrial, Boston College