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Volume 34, Number 4July/August 1983

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Arabic and Arwri

Written by Barbara Paulsen
Photographed by Steve Earley

The way John Wilson saw it, the hard part was still to come. Sure, he had spent four painstaking years preparing for the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service exam, one of the most comprehensive achievement tests given. Sure, he had passed the exam - and had been accepted for a diplomatic assignment in Cairo. But there was still a catch. At some point he had to learn Arabic.

Because of that, John, enrolling in Arabic at the University of Texas, was apprehensive. Recollections of his high school Spanish class loomed before him: daily homework, irregular verbs, memorization and, worse, those terrible moments in class when his cheeks would redden as he sputtered out the unfamiliar sounds.

For Americans, it seems, learning any foreign language is difficult, and mastering Arabic is virtually impossible. Because Arabic uses a totally different writing system and because the sounds are unfamiliar and the alphabet complex, learning to write the Arabic script demands years of hard work, endless patience and determination. All but six of Arabic's 28 letters have three or four forms, depending on their position in a word and with the addition of six diacritics - symbols written above or below a letter, three of which give the effect of a vowel - just learning Arabic script becomes a horrendous challenge; it normally takes 30-36 hours just to master the Arabic alphabet, let alone starting on vocabulary and reading

Mastering Arabic also requires one more factor: an exceptional instructor. That’s important because success at the early stages of the language learning process is largely dependent upon the number of teacher-student interactions that occur during instruction - interactions that, in turn, require endless patience.

Fortunately for John Wilson, there was such an exceptional instructor at the University of Texas. The instructor is called Arwri and students who learn Arabic from Arwri rave about the course. Arwri, they say, doesn't get upset if asked to repeat a pronunciation or review a lesson more than a dozen times. Arwri never makes them wait overnight for corrected papers, and not only tolerates their mistakes, but gives hints about the correct answer. Best of all, students learn the Arabic writing and sound system in one-fifth the time it takes using conventional teaching methods.

What is so unconventional about this teacher? Arwri is a computer - whose point graphics cathode-ray tube (CRT), typewriter keyboard and audio unit transform the tedious task of learning Arabic characters into a rather enjoyable challenge that requires only six to eight hours.

When John Wilson, for example, goes to class, he simply enters the language lab, puts on headphones and types "ARWRI" (Arabic Writing) plus his identification number on the typewriter keyboard, and immediately the lesson begins:

"Hello, John. Glad you could come."

Arwri knows exactly which lesson the student needs to work on, whether he is on the writing and sound program or the vocabulary and reading comprehension program. Arabic script dances across the CRT screen from right to left while the sounds of the letters or words are given by audio messages through the headphones. John pronounces words that appear in phosphorescent green as he traces the letters with a grease pen on the face of the CRT and responds to a question by typing his answer on the keyboard.

"Nope, that's not the one."

The student tries again.

"Slow down, John. Look carefully at..."

The lesson continues, progressing through a basic text, questions on the text, sentence generation, matching parts of sentences and, finally, the test. The entire unit should take one to one-and-a-half hours at the computer and the program's format is varied to reduce fatigue and sustain interest. At his request, or when he fails to meet certain standards in tests, the student is directed either to remedial exercises or to a review. But if he scores a 90 or above on the final test, he is automatically moved on to the next lesson.

Arwri monitors the progress of each individual student, keeping track of his or her test performance, the lesson level and the time spent on each unit, as well as the response time to specific questions.

A frame-change key also enables the student to transfer to another part of the lesson - backtracking to re-examine the basic text, for example, or calling up the dictionary to check words he has forgotten (except during tests).

In the course of an hour, the computer will interact with the student 50-60 times. This is 10 times the number of interactions a student gets with a teacher in the average classroom. Reinforcement accelerates and strengthens the process of habit formation essential to language learning.

Using computers in education is by no means new. It goes back to the 1960s, a period of heavy investment in research and development in educational technology. But the first effort to design computer-assisted instruction - CAI, as these programs came to be called - was generally thought to have been a failure, because few concrete programs resulted.

The idea for the CAI program in Arabic - the first of its kind in the world - began gestating in 1969, when Victorine Abboud, a woman who had no experience with computersor teaching Arabic, needed a topic for her linguistics dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin.

Previously director of the mathematics department at the American College for Girls in Cairo, Mrs. Abboud had moved to Texas with her husband, Peter, who was working on his doctorate in linguisitics. Though she already had degrees in mathematics and in educational psychology, Mrs. Abboud decided to earn another, this one in linguistics, like her husband. To do so, she had to prepare a dissertation and she was not enthusiastic. Mrs. Abboud saw linguistics as overly theoretical and confining. She preferred a more practical, problem-solving approach to language.

It wasn't long before she got her chance. Because of her background in mathematics and educational psychology, the chairman of the linguistics department suggested that she enroll in a computer course to see what she could do with computer-assisted instruction. Although Mrs. Abboud rebelled against that idea at first, she struggled through the computer course, and soon recognized the possibilities of CAI with respect to teaching Arabic, her native language.

Her first step was to consult her husband, author of Modern Standard Arabic. What, she asked, are the greatest difficulties an American student faces in learning Arabic?

"The first stages," he told her. "The fact that they have to learn a new script with all its intricacies and rules. The students get tired of spending six weeks, six hours a day to do calligraphy. It has a psychological impact on the students and many drop out after the first few weeks. If you could somehow speed up the process and keep them interested, that's the best contribution you could make."

Victorine Abboud said she would try, but most of her colleagues were skeptical. "You can't do it," they said. "You're just dreaming."

During the following months, Mrs. Abboud began to think her colleagues were right: the obstacles were formidable. First, computers normally operate from left to right, and Arabic is written from right to left. Second, no graphic pattern existed for transferring Arabic script into computer language.

Another problem was that working out these difficulties required a great deal of time at the computer- and computer time costs money. So before she could really move, Mrs. Abboud had to seek a grant; she got it - from the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation - and eventually succeeded in making the computer function from right to left.

Next, she had to go through the tedious process of making the computer produce the delicate Arabic script, which means that every Arabic letter - in all its forms - had to be carefully drawn on IBM instructional system graphic coding forms. Since there are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, 22 of which have three or four forms, this proved impossible, since - no more than 64 graphics can be programmed in one course design. Compounding this problem was the fact that some complex letters required more than one graphic.

To reduce the number of graphics, Mrs. Abboud searched for redundancy in the shapes of parts of different letters, and then drew a number of dots, dashes and inverted v's on the graphic coding forms which could be superimposed on the same shape. Through this overlay technique several more letters could be created without exceeding the 64-graphic limit.

Last, she had to design course materials so that students could learn more quickly and with more interest. She did so by adding sound and animation to the routine drills and the practice exercises necessary at the initial stages - the stages her husband had warned about. "I didn't want to make the computer a page-turning device," Mrs. Abboud said. "I didn't want to just take the book and put it on the screen, but to make a creative design ... to make the program different."

Realizing that drills and practice can be extremely effective if applied imaginatively, Mrs. Abboud designed her course to provide active participation, individualized attention, frequent interaction and rapid feedback, and what she came up with was a program that will not allow a student to sit through class, answering questions only when he is called on. John Wilson, for example, quickly found that he could not remain passive; he had to respond before he could move on in the lesson. He also found that Arwri adjusted itself to his individual problems. If, for example, he repeated the same error again and again, the computer stored the word and continually quizzed him on it in subsequent exercises.

The result is a system that is thorough, yet flexible. A student is able to repeat segments that he has not learned completely, ensuring that he will never go on to a lesson before he has assimilated the previous one. On the other hand, students who have mastered the lesson are encouraged to go on to the next one, thereby removing some of the tedium associated with repeating set after set of already mastered materials, as so often happens with textbooks. These features allow students to spend their drill time more effectively.

More important, for someone like John Wilson, who cringes at the thought of making a fool of himself in front of classmates, Arwri offers a private, non-critical environment in which to speak Arabic aloud. Making mistakes in front of a classroom "audience" can intimidate students, yet it is important that a student make mistakes freely - so that they can be instantly corrected. The computer can provide the right answer or the correct pronunciation rapidly or reinforce correct responses without embarrassing anyone.

"Sometimes when I'm back in the lab, I can hear a student practicing a sound over and over again. The student can't do that in class because he would be ridiculed," Mrs. Abboud said.

The first CAI program was offered in 1971 and was an instant hit. By the end of the six-hour program, the students were able to read and write down Arabic words, even though they did not yet comprehend the words' meanings. More to the point, CAI was exceptionally effective. In a comparative test, students of first-year Arabic courses at the University of Texas, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor - each using different teaching methods - were checked to see how well they had learned Arabic writing and sound systems. The results were dramatic: students taught by the CAI program had a much higher mean score (91.5) on the writing portion of the test than those taught by programmed instruction (79.3) or the audio-lingual method (68.2). The range of grades for the CAI group was also much narrower, indicating that most students earned scores close to the mean.

By 1980, Mrs. Abboud and her staff had developed a second CAI program which emphasizes vocabulary and comprehension of elementary modern standard Arabic, covering three semesters' worth of material in two semesters. The purpose of this second program is to help students retain and understand a vocabulary of about 800 to 1,000 words and encourage them to read Arabic for the gist of a particular passage instead of word-for-word comprehension.

Work on a third CAI program is underway, funded by a $228,957 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that Mrs. Abboud received in September, 1981. This intermediate vocabulary and comprehension program will increase students' vocabularies to about 2,500 words in the same time.

Mrs. Abboud and her staff also hope to transfer the CAI program from the university's computer system to an IBM personal computer that has a special graphics board providing a resolution of 700 horizontal by 350 vertical dots per inch. The computer must have a high resolution - a large number of dots per inch - for the Arabic script to be produced on the CRT screen with all its graceful curves and smooth lines intact. "To have beautiful Arabic handwriting you must have a screen with a very fine mesh. It's like embroidering a rose on a very rough canvas or a fine linen. The threads need to be very close together," Mrs. Abboud explained. Once the program is transferred to the personal computer, it will be ready to be sold to businesses, schools and government bodies.

The development of the CAI program comes at a felicitous time. The number of people who are learning Arabic today has increased significantly The Modern Language Association reports that enrollment in Arabic in two- and four-year colleges in the United States increased by a third between 1974 and 1977 and numbers continue to escalate.

American students have been struggling with Arabic since 1841 when Yale University began to offer Arabic, but not in significant numbers until Arabic was recognized as a critical language under the National Defense Education Act of 1958; this led to the establishment of National Defense Language and Area Centers in American universities.

Nevertheless, most communication between the West and the Arab world continues to be in either French or English, - a lack for those in the diplomatic corps and other areas of government dealing with the Arab world, since officials serving in the Middle East should know at least some Arabic - the language of more than 100 million people living in an area of geographic, economic and strategic importance - and computer-assisted instruction may be just what they need. John Wilson, for example, did learn Arabic - as did many businessmen, petroleum engineers and scholars - but without the pain that usually accompanies such an effort, thanks to their unusual - and tireless-teacher.

Barbara Paulsen is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Texas and a free-lance writer for several Texas publications.

This article appeared on pages 12-15 of the July/August 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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