Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Language & Culture in the Classroom 

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I listened to this podcast Academic Citizen (thank u Laura Czerniewicz for pointing me to it) – this episode on the politics and power of language in the classroom was powerful. They include a student voice at some point in the podcast (they do this regularly) but focus mainly on interviewing experts and for that episode, history Professor Dr Nomalanga Mkhize speaks in a very nuanced way about what it means to use non-English languages in different contexts in the classroom and beyond. She echoes a complex landscape where different parts of South Africa speak different languages whereas English seems to be the dominant language of higher ed. She speaks of how school teachers struggle to teach in English because it isn’t their native language, too. She is highlighting, of course, that in many contexts, ignoring indigenous languages and enforcing a supermacy of English, while important economically and for employability, reproduces inequalities in society and privileges certain learners over others. It also creates graduates unable to engage with the reality of a multilingual society. 

I am reminded again of how little I read in Arabic and how difficult it is for me to write in Arabic.  And my decision to change this. I am already very cognizant of getting my child engaging books in Arabic and have succeeded in that and she was also lucky to have had a good Arabic teacher last year (that’s so rare here).

But beyond my individual change…I would like to go back to some institutional change. And I will start soon. And it is this: our university requires students to take several rhetoric and composition courses in English in order to do well in university. It also requires some amount of Arabic language. Back in my day, you could avoid taking an Arabic language test if you took two Arabic literature courses (classical and modern) in Arabic. I did that. I learned to type Arabic quickly then. But those courses did me little good beyond those days. There is a course now on business/technical Arabic which I believe is more useful. For our students to learn to write and present in Modern Standard Arabic. This, I feel, would be a much more useful course for students. I would take it now. I would so take it now.

I discovered a long time ago that even though my institution required us to speak fully in English in class, that my non-degree students understood me better if I didn’t stick to that too strictly.

There is also the important point of humor in the classroom. Humor is always always different in your native language. Joke in English with an English style joke and some of the class will get it. Joke in Arabic and almost all will get it (I might not get it myself actually! But that’s another story).

So even though I now teach undergraduate students who mostly understand English well enough or even really well… I will occasionally use Arabic. I will allow them to create their games in Arabic if they choose…even though thry have to blog about them in English because my learning outcomes must focus on English communication. 

I am reminded of my schooling. British. We weren’t allowed to speak in Arabic even outside class. We did of course. And inside class as well (non-Arabic class I mean). A small act of resistance by 7 or 16 year-olds. It somehow made Arabic special.

The problem of teaching Arab culture oe history at a place like AUC (American University in Cairo) where I  graduated and now work/teach is that you end up learning it in English and from a partly American perspective. That seems wrong even when teachers are Egyptian. I feel the teachers making it into something by Egyptians for Egyptians and I admire that.

I came across this article from the archives of Hybrid Pedagogy and this quote is worth remembering over and over (it talks of indigenous people which isn’t the case in Egypt in that sense, but the case of good education in Egypt being always in a foreign language to the suppression or alienation of the native language) :

Hybrid learning should not only involve combining the physical classroom with the web and other environments outside the classroom, but also combine western viewpoints, experiences, and ways of learning with those students who are often asked to leave these attributes at the door.

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