The Good and the Bad of Al Kitaab
By Emily Tain/Arab America Contributing Writer
Textbooks can be critical when it comes to learning a language, especially at the university level. Conversation in class helps refine skills and pronunciation, but readings, vocabulary lists, and practice activities are a necessary complement for in-person instruction. When it comes to learning Arabic, there is no textbook in America more notorious than Al Kitaab. Written by Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal, and Abbas Al-Tonsi, the series is headed by Alif Baa and concluded with Al Kitaab part three.
About the Series
Alif Baa introduces students to the Arabic alphabet as well as some simple vocabulary lists. Chapters are focused on a handful of letters and their sounds, making a point to differentiate sounds that, to English speakers, are very similar. Paired with the textbook is an online platform that has listening, speaking, and fill-in-the-blank drills. During the first half of Alif Baa online, the main focus is teaching students how to write the letters properly and effectively while also providing pronunciations. A feature that many students enjoy is the transliteration that comes with the vocabulary lists. When a new letter or concept (such as the double fatha) is introduced, the writers include the Arabic pronunciation in English letters along with the Arabic and English. The glossary in Alif Baa contains English to Arabic and Arabic to English, making it very easy for a beginner to locate the word they’re looking for.
When a student graduates from using Alif Baa, they are then introduced to Al Kitaab part one. Al Kitaab is a pioneer in its field in that Fusha (standard Arabic), Masri (Egyptian dialect), and Shami (Levantine dialect) are all featured in one book. The vocabulary lists, coded by color, present all three forms side-by-side (unless, of course, the word does not exist in one of the dialects). In addition to more vocabulary, Al Kitaab online has videos that present stories about characters and their day to day life. This includes Maha and Khalid, shown in both Fusha and Masri videos, and Nisreen and Tariq in the Shami videos. After completing Al Kitaab part one, students progress to part two, then part three accordingly. The same characters are used in the storyline with random recurring actors in unrelated skits. Additionally, after part one, there is no longer an English to Arabic glossary.
Pros and Cons
I have been using Al Kitaab for the last four semesters, and I am currently halfway through Al Kitaab part two. For that reason, I will only be addressing the first three books.
There is certainly no shortage of vocabulary contained in each book. Alif Baa contains around 200 words, part one contains over 400 words, and part two contains a similar amount to part one. Themes range from travel to moving to immigration; students certainly gain a wide breadth of vocabulary from the books.
Alif Baa as an Introduction
Most other Arabic textbook series do not go into nearly as much detail as Alif Baa. By providing a book specifically for those unfamiliar with the Arabic alphabet, the authors have made it easier for Arabic learners to have a cohesive experience from beginning to end. It should be noted that I knew the alphabet before starting classes. Because of this, I breezed through the first book; others might not have this experience. Either way, I was appreciative of Alif Baa for its accessible glossary, transliterations, and useful online content.
Flexibility for Professors
Because the book offers three different dialects, professors can choose what they would like to emphasize. This makes sense in that most Arabic speakers do not use Fusha in day-to-day conversation. With all three available, professors can use Fusha for written assignments and other dialects for spoken assignments. Additionally, offering both Shami and Masri allows for every student in an Arabic department to use the same book. This makes it easier to study with others even if you are in classes that focus on different dialects.
Al Kitaab is notorious for having useless vocabulary when it comes to real-life situations: the word for the United Nations is introduced before any of the colors. For those that have learned other modern languages, this is strange. In typical language classes, students spend the first year learning practical words and phrases, like how to introduce yourself, how to describe your family, how to order in a restaurant, and how to tell the time.
Al Kitaab chooses to focus on obscure vocabulary rather than providing vocabulary for everyday interactions. Many have commented that the book is geared more toward producing professional Fusha translators than teaching you how to communicate in real life. It is even more strange when you look at the “themes” for the units. While some are more cohesive, others are completely random. For example, one chapter might focus on partying, cooking, and anxiety – topics that seem to not be linked. Right after comes a chapter about drugs, blood, and family members. The lack of cohesion between vocabulary words in the same unit makes it difficult to have assignments that focus on just one unit.
Al Kitaab does not seem to know that its users are most familiar with English grammar. Rather, the book will explain Arabic grammar as if it has no relation to English grammar, making the process even harder for those that struggle with grammar in the first place. For example, when learning about infinitives (to run, to speak, etc), the book never refers to them as such. Despite the fact that most English speakers -especially those that have studied another language- can identify what an infinitive is, Al Kitaab doesn’t attempt to use the term. Obviously, English and Arabic grammar are not the same. However, the book would be a lot more accessible if it had English grammar principles in mind.
I can understand what the authors were attempting to do with the characters they created. By demonstrating how to use the vocabulary in a “real-life situation,” it made what we were learning seem more applicable. The videos, however, are outdated, cringe-y, and altogether pretty useless. My classmates and I were more invested in making jokes about the videos than actually learning anything from them. The storylines also don’t make a lot of sense; while this isn’t technically inhibiting the learning process, updated videos could engage with and teach students better.
I have cultivated some of these pros and cons through reviews, classmates, and my own experience. Therefore, these opinions are not universal. There are plenty of people that believe Al Kitaab is the best Arabic textbook series on the market. It just goes to show how subjective language learning is; for me, Al Kitaab does little more than provide random vocabulary and poorly functioning online activities. Regardless, I have still learned plenty of Arabic and can use the skills gained from Al Kitaab and apply them to my independent study of the language.
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