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Saturday, July 31, 2021

An Educator and Translator Confronts a Decline in Teaching Arabic

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CAIRO—Over her 35-year career, Maha Saleh worked as an academic researcher specializing in Arabic literature at the American University in Cairo, a teacher of Arabic language and literature for Arab and foreign students, and a translator of novels from English into Arabic.

She has noticed what she considers a remarkable and continuous decline in interest in the teaching of Arabic at the region’s universities due to what she regards as poor curricula. In particular, she believes the wide number of textbooks and their styles of Arabic has resulted in a fragmentation of the language itself.

“Most universities do not teach Arabic as part of their main curricula,” she said. “Besides, many parents are not interested in teaching Arabic to their children, as it is not useful in the professional path and not strongly required in the labor market.”

Saleh has taught Arabic to Arab and foreign students at the American University in Cairo; Middlebury College, in the United States; and the AMIDEAST Foundation, in Cairo. She notes that the political fluctuations Arab countries have witnessed over the past ten years have prompted many foreigners to avoid coming to study Arabic in the region. That, she believes, has also contributed to a decline in teaching the language. (See a related article, “A Website Seeks to Show “How Alive Arabic Is.”)

She also believes that the lack of a unified list of the most commonly used words and combinations by Arabic speakers is the most important problem facing Arabic teaching. This, she believes, has contributed to a breakdown in teaching curricula in a way that has harmed the language and its teaching. (See a related article, A Conversation With One of the Most Influential Arabic Teachers.”)

Still, Saleh’s personal and academic passion for the language has never faded. “Teaching Arabic made me deal with this language from a different perspective,” she said. “Through teaching, I discovered the enormous variety in the connotations of the language’s words and the many ways to use and employ them across various contexts.”

An Early Passion

Saleh graduated from the American University in Cairo’s Department of Arabic Studies (Arabic Language and Literature) in 1983, and from Cairo University’s Faculty of Politics and Economics, Department of Politics, in 1984. After working her way through a variety of other diplomas and degrees, she eventually got her Ph.D. in Arabic literature in 2011 from Benha University, in Egypt.

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