Quranic Linguistics Institute
Of the many methods developed by the linguists, the most common approaches (methods) for second language acquisition are the grammar-translation method and the total-immersion method.
The grammar-translation method calls for the learner to “reconstruct” the language by learning and applying technical concepts as well as memorizing vocabulary.
On the other hand, the total-immersion approach advocates that the learner be “thrown into the water”, i.e. immersed in the language’s environment without any translation or grammar. The learner is then expected to “swim”, i.e. learn to speak, while the teacher serves as the “lifeguard” and “trainer”. The goal is to taste the language even at the cost of making severe grammatical errors. Grammatical errors are overlooked by the teacher until a later, more developed stage.
Comparing the Two Methods: Pros and Cons
Proponents of the immersion method argue that grammar takes too long and is not very helpful unless the learner is able to converse in the target language. Proponents of the grammar-translation argue that linguistics is the heart of the language and because of the active control of Arabic morphology and grammar, one cannot really converse intelligibly in Arabic without a basic knowledge of the two.
Arabic grammar actively controls meaning of words. For example, the word Muhammad will be Muhammadun if it appears as a subject (doer), Muhammadan if it appears as an object, and Muhammadin if it is an object of a preposition. The speaker must change the endings of such words depending on their position in the sentence. Ignoring these changes often leads to syntactic errors which can cause the listener to misinterpret what is being said.
In English, however, the word order (syntax) primarily determines the meaning (and grammatical function). For instance, Khalid hit Zaid is not the same as Zaid hit Khalid. Khalid is the doer because he was mentioned first. The subject is usually put first in English. The object, Khalid, is mentioned after the verb. That’s how the listener can differentiate between the hitter (Zaid) and the one hit (Khalid). However, in Arabic, the speaker has the option to play with the word order while keeping the same meaning. In other words, the above two sentences may have the same meaning if the word endings (markers) are kept the same. Thus, it is the word endings (inflection), not word order, that primarily determine the meaning, as illustrated in the following three sentences:
ضَرَبَ زيدٌ خالدًا ضَرَبَ خالدًا زيدٌ خالدًا ضَرَبَ زيدٌ
In all three of the sentences above, Zaid is the one who hit Khalid even though the word order has not been kept the same. So, how do we know who the hitter is? The ending of the word Zaid ('un’) is a sign that indicates that he’s the doer. Similarly, the ending of the word Khalid (‘an’) is an indicator that he’s the object. Because of the inflected nature of the Arabic language, morphology and grammar simply cannot be ignored. From day one, a learner notices that certain words are changing (inflected).
What works for acquiring an Indo-European language may not be so effective when it comes to learning Arabic. Arabic belongs to the Semitic family of languages. Arabic script, the 3-letter root based noun and verb structure, syntax, and phonetics differ significantly from other languages.
While each of the two dominant theories has its pros and cons, I think that the most effective and efficient method is to employ both of the methods in parallel. In other words, a multi-level course on Arabic linguistics should be taught side by side a separate multi-level course that builds conversational skills. A beginner, for example, will take first level of a linguistics course in parallel with first level of a conversational course.
The “Building Blocks” of the Arabic Language
Certain elementary technical concepts in the Arabic language such as noun and verb conjugation, roots, patterns, basic inflection theory and syntax are necessary ingredients for putting together grammatically sound sentences. These concepts are what I refer to as the basic linguistic building blocks of the Arabic language.
If mastered early on, not only do these building blocks make the language acquisition in an immersion environment easier, but also provide solid foundations for comprehension, expression, and conversational fluency. Thus, much of Level 1 of the Quranic Linguistics series is dedicated to developing mastery of these foundational linguistic building blocks of the Arabic language, while the first unit is designed to give a taste of total-immersion.
In order to put the technical concepts to work, an immersion environment is absolutely essential. A language is best learned when spoken and heard in meaningful contexts. A student can memorize countless rules and technical concepts, but at the end of the day if the theory is not put to practice, the language will remain ‘dead’ and the student will not be able to communicate or express one’s feelings in the target language. Thus, most if not all technical concepts taught should be practiced in an immersion environment that provides meaningful context to the learner.
Immersed in the target language’s environment, the student will be able to learn at a faster pace. Without an immersion environment, the grammar approach may become too cumbersome.
While the total-immersion method has its benefits, it neither truly empowers the learner to have a deeper understanding of the language, nor does it provide explanations for any syntactical and morphological errors that the learner often makes.
Understanding Quran & Hadeeth
Furthermore, if the goal is to understand Quran and Hadeeth, then a total-immersion environment is helpful, but not sufficient. In other words, the Quran and Hadeeth simply cannot be understood at a deeper level without morphology, grammar, and rhetoric which are the three main disciplines of the Arabic language. See ‘The Three Primary Disciplines of the Arabic Language’. The three disciplines are what are referred to by scholars as the 'tools of learning'.
Finally, it is important to highlight that the Introduction to Quranic Linguistics series is designed specifically for mastery of technical concepts of the Arabic language via the three primary disciplines. These disciplines serve as ‘tools of learning’ for unlocking and comprehending the Quran, Hadeeth, Arabic literature, Fiqh and other Islamic disciplines. For a total-immersion experience, books such as Qasas al Nabiyin and al-Arabiyyah li-Nashiyeen may be used.
C o n c l u s i o n
While each of the two dominant theories has its advantages and limitations, I think that the most effective and efficient method is to separate the linguistic/technical aspects of the Arabic language from the skills and conversational aspects. The two should be taught in parallel and may be synchronized as outlined in “Three Components of a Successful Quranic Arabic Program”.
Summary of Some of the Benefits of the Grammar-Translation Approach
Summary of Some of the Benefits of Total-Immersion Approach
Recommended Medium of Instruction
One of the major aims of the translations provided in Level 1 is to help develop strong foundations in the linguistic building blocks of the Arabic language as well as to make a smooth transition into the Arabic environment of the next two levels.
And since it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the non-Arabic speaker to understand these concepts in Arabic, I recommend that, as long as the learner is in her early stages, that these technical concepts be explained in one’s native tongue.
If Level 1 is properly taught and mastered through the medium of one’s native tongue, then transitioning into the Arabic environments of the next two levels should not be very difficult, God willing.
Level 1 acts as a bridge that takes the student from his/her native-tongue environment into an Arabic environment. It is recommended that Level 2 be partially taught in Arabic and partially in the student’s native tongue. It may even be taught entirely in Arabic depending on student learning abilities and how well Level 1 was taught, understood, and applied. Level 3 on the other hand, should be taught in Arabic.
Summary of Recommended Medium of Instruction for QL Series
Native Tongue Only
Native tongue and/or
50 / 50
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Learning Quranic linguistics is a three-step process. The first step, learning Arabic morphology, is like planting seeds into the ground. The second step, learning Arabic grammar, is like watering the tree until its branches are fully developed. The third step, learning Arabic rhetoric, is the sweet fruit.
"The [Quranic Arabic] series combines abundant material with clear and easy presentation; it combines excellent ordering [of the chapters] with accuracy in expression; it combines plentiful quotations [from the Quran & Hadeeth] with excellent choice so that the beginners benefit from it, [while] the advanced students cannot do without it”
Dr Ayman al-Shawwa, Professor of Arabic, College of Letters, College of Sharia, University of Damascus, Syria