My experience learning a foreign language growing up had a significant effect on my teaching style. I was born in Damascus, Syria, but at the age of four my father relocated his business and moved the family to Kuwait. There, I attended school from kindergarten through college. Kuwait was once occupied by a British colony, and as in all Middle Eastern countries, the occupation seeped into several portions of the culture, especially language. English was taught as a daily core subject in public and private schools from the early grades. I questioned the reasoning behind learning English because, to me, there was no immediate use or benefit in doing so. My family was not going to use English unless we traveled to England, and the possibility of living in the United States was far from my mind.
During my middle and high school years, English classes became more focused on grammar, writing, and reading–obviously textbook driven teaching. As a result, I began to hate English, but one summer my feelings changed. Kuwait City, where we lived, is a small city in a desert; in the summer, the temperature would reach 105 degrees. There was nothing to do there in the summer except to shop in the closed malls that offer central air conditioning, so my family usually traveled abroad in those months.
That summer, our family vacation plan was to start in Lebanon and spend two or three weeks there, then fly to Rome and spend a month there, then back to Damascus to spend the rest of our vacation at our mountain house in northern Damascus. That experience made me think more deeply about learning another language. I noticed that all of my cousins who were around my age could communicate with native French speakers—the tourists at the markets and malls and the businessmen who visited my cousins’ father. My cousins were fluent in French, and they seemed perfectly comfortable speaking French with others. I was impressed and jealous.
I thought to myself, How can anyone be so fluent in a language that is taught in school? My English skills were based on drills in grammar and vocabulary—boring material that I never practiced, either in or outside class. That summer, I tried to use scattered words with others who spoke English; however, I was disappointed with myself and my English-language abilities. Because I had learned English from a textbook with no practice in communicative skills, I could not converse with others easily. However, I found that I could ask for directions, ask for help with purchases, and inquire about times and prices—a survival level of language ability. Despite the years I had spent studying, my language skills were basic. I could not communicate my ideas or discuss any topics at length. According to the Performance Guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) (1998), I was at the level of “low intermediate.” I was amazed at how I could study English for 12 years and be unable to communicate at a high level, as my cousins had communicated in French in Lebanon.
Therefore, I am a strong believer of the “natural approach” of Krashen and Terrell (1983). This approach emphasizes the teaching of any foreign language – for me, Arabic — through experiences and associations with vocabulary in context. Teaching this way makes the language more meaningful and more memorable, unlike my early experience in learning the English language. My objective as a teacher is to motivate my students toward a level of independence where they develop a desire to learn and think for themselves. As such, in class, students work in pairs or groups to collect information about each other and present their findings. This facilitates students’ learning the vocabulary and using it in context that is meaningful, hands-on, and fulfilling.
I also believe the key to achieving my objectives in each class is to keep my students motivated; therefore, my teaching style is full of enthusiasm from the minute I enter the class until the end. Patience, humor, warmth, and culture accompany my presence. Students like to connect with their instructors using the target language, so I share a lot of my personal stories appropriate to their language proficiency to create an opportunity for them to ask more and learn more in a meaningful context.
I cherish this quote: “Learning to speak another’s language means taking one’s place in the human community. It means reaching out to others across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Language is far more than a system to be explained. It is our most important link to the world around us. Language is culture in motion. It is people interacting with people.” (Savignon (1997)
I reach out to my students in class through communication, staying in my target language 90% of the time while using a variety of approaches such as visuals, music, physical gestures, authentic videos, and stories to engage my students in unrehearsed communication for real-world purpose. For instance, as a native speaker and someone of Middle Eastern descent, I take the opportunity to celebrate major holidays in the Middle East to share authentic cuisine and desserts with my students. In each class, I ensure students engage in the learning process by interpreting my input through storytelling, listening to short conversations, or reading, then allow them to interact through comprehension questions that tie together their developing speaking skills.
Technology is one of the most important tools an effective teacher can use in the classroom to address different learning styles, especially with the current generation. Technology creates a productive learning environment and increases student motivation. Additionally, the internet is full of rich, authentic materials that I include periodically to enrich students’ understanding of the variety of Middle Eastern perspectives of culture. Furthermore, technology creates a community in the classroom by connecting with a variety of native speakers such as professionals, students, writers, and housewives using Skype. I also invite native speakers from different regions of the Middle East from USC for presentations in the classroom. I create this opportunity to enhance my students’ abilities in asking and answering questions, and engage and motivate students to gain more inside-information about cultural differences.
Overall, when I prepare my syllabus and objectives, I start with the question, “What do I want my students to do with the language by the end of the semester?” From that end, I plan the communicative activities, writing projects, and appropriate authentic materials in class. Mainly, I believe in engaging students actively in the learning process through interaction with their peers and instructors. Communication is my goal; the aim is to develop in students the ability to understand and use the language rather than understand the system as a set of grammar rules.
Over the past years that I have been teaching at USC, my students who learned Arabic in my class through this approach said they not only learned better but actually enjoyed being in the Arabic class.