Wael Farouq, an Egyptian academic in Italy, says he has developed a method to help non-native speakers learn Arabic which includes using music.
He says the traditional curricula followed in most Italian universities have created a “false stereotype” that the Arabic language is hard to learn and impossible to master. But music and poetic prosody can help students from other cultures overcome difficulties in pronunciation and reading, he says.
Farouq has been a professor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, in Milan, since 2013 and founded its Arabic Language Choir. He previously taught at the Arabic Language Institute at the American University in Cairo between 2001 and 2004.
“There is no major Italian university that does not provide its students, today, with the possibility of learning the Arabic language,” he told Al-Fanar Media.
But only a few universities in cities such as Milan, Naples, Rome and Venice have full departments of Arabic language and culture, he says, and few use modern scientific methods.
The Catholic University is developing a curriculum for the study and teaching of Arabic, which is presented in a book Farouq is writing. The first two parts—an elementary and an intermediate course in Modern Standard Arabic—were published in English under the title “Words in Action”. The third and final part, an advanced course, is due out in March.
Farouq uses some principles of prosody (the science of weights of Arabic poetry) “to facilitate reading for students, and to raise their sensitivity to the music and rhythm of the language.”
Drop-Out Rate Falls
The book, Farouq says, relies on a critical study of theories of teaching Arabic to non-native speakers and blends elements from each theory into a new harmonious structure. It focuses on the living language rather than theorizing and abstraction.
Farouq says he used some principles of prosody (the patterns of rhythm and sound in poetry) “to facilitate reading for students and to raise their sensitivity to the music and rhythm of the language.” His technique “succeeded in getting students to the advanced level in 120 hours of teaching and has reduced the dropout rate from near 60 percent to less than 10 percent.”
He says that “thanks to this curriculum, the number of students studying Arabic has increased significantly.” Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the number at his university reached 500.
In addition to teaching, Farouq organises cultural activities to acquaint students with Arab literature, thought, plastic arts, architecture, cinema, theatre, and music.
Foremost among them is the Arabic Language Choir, which has taken part in events outside the university such as the “Bridge Builder” awards ceremony, held at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo last fall.
The university also organises an annual Arab Language and Culture Festival, which it calls the “largest Arab cultural event” on the European continent. More than 60 writers, thinkers and artists from 19 countries participated in the fourth festival, held in 2019. The event was cancelled for two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the fifth edition is scheduled for March 18 and 19 this year.
Building Cultural Bridges
Focusing on the cultural dimension is “the most important characteristic” of teaching Arabic, Farouq says.
His cultural activities opened the door to exchanges with institutions in the Arab world, such as Cairo University and the Library of Alexandria, as well as with Almutawassit Publishing House, to publish translations of Arabic literature.
The Catholic University in Milan notably signed an agreement with the Sharjah Book Authority and the Ambrosian Library in Milan to digitize 2,500 ancient Arabic manuscripts and make them available to students and researchers around the world. This agreement, by nurturing the heritage of the past, invests in the future of Arab culture in the West, Farouq says.
In addition to teaching, Farouq organises cultural activities to acquaint students with Arab culture and thought. Foremost among them is the Arabic Language Choir.
While Farouq attributes the increase in the number of students of Arabic to political events in the Middle East, he also points to cultural factors, such as the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.
But he acknowledges that the primary motivation for studying Arabic is economic—the prosperity of some countries in the Arab world. Another factor is the need for European officials who can communicate with Arab refugees in Europe, he says.
Farouq was awarded the Strauss Institute for Advanced Studies in Religion and Law Fellowship at New York University in 2011, and served as a visiting professor at the University of Macerata between 2008 and 2015.
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In addition, he contributed to several books, including a collection of essays by Pope Benedict XVI, the French philosopher André Glucksman and other intellectuals. The book was published in 2017 in Italian with the title “Dio Salvi la Ragione” (“God Save Reason”). It has been translated into Frech, German and Spanish.