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Reviewed by:
  • Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal, Abbas Al-Tonsi
  • Camelia Suleiman (bio)
Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds, third ed.
Kristen Brustad, Mahmoud Al-Batal, and Abbas Al-Tonsi

The field of Arabic-language teaching has become more visible in US universities during the past decade, with a solid student demand in almost every university. This has forced practitioners of Arabic-language teaching to reexamine the field and their assumptions about Arabic pedagogy. Naturally, the past few years witnessed an openness toward the fields of applied linguistics and its related disciplines. As a result, we notice an increased interest in writing Arabic textbooks, this time, hopefully, with less isolation of Arabic from other relevant fields such as linguistics but at the same time without losing sight of the specificity of Arabic teaching to American students.

One of the best books for beginners is the third edition of Alif Baa, with its ten chapters, each introducing an average of six letters, in addition to dialogues and some basic vocabulary. As someone who had great success with beginners when using this book, I highly recommend it for the following reasons:

  1. 1. It focuses on minimal pairs in Arabic. In other words, the Arabic alphabet is taught through phonetic contrasts that create new meanings in Arabic, but in most cases not in English. An example is the phonemic contrast between the sounds “s” and “ṣ.” This conceptual tool comprises a major thread in this book. Throughout the book, minimal pairs are emphasized, recycled, and always contextualized. From my experience with this book, I find that the students get to master Arabic pronunciation and spelling earlier, and with relative ease. [End Page 119]

  2. 2. Along with teaching the alphabet, this book prompts the students to start producing language at the novice level, also from the first chapter. Through different methods of language activation, whether in the accompanying online interactive materials or in suggested class activities, the students start acquiring some linguistic-pragmatic knowledge such as of greetings and very simple dialogues about the immediate surroundings of the learners. While the grammar is not explicit, students are introduced to basic simple grammatical structures such as the possessive, simple verbal sentences in the present tense, and basic nominal sentences, and they are introduced to the adjective-noun agreement and some basic vocabulary (always in a meaningful context for the student).

  3. 3. As I mentioned briefly, the textbook is accompanied by excellent online supplements that enable the students to practice their lessons and correct themselves by getting immediate feedback. This is a valuable feature, as it helps the students become more active in their learning, regardless of their pace.

  4. 4. As we all know, the debate in Arabic is currently very heated regarding not whether to teach ʿamiyyah or not (most would agree that it should be taught) but rather when to introduce it. The book gives the choice to the instructor to introduce either Egyptian or Levantine ʿamiyyah, along with fuṣha. I find the ʿamiyyah phrases and vocabulary in this book to be effective and successful. Students are taught politeness phrases such as greetings, appropriate to the pragmatic demands of a variety of situations; hence, for example, the students learn how to greet formally or less formally, depending on the situation. At this very early stage, introducing the pragmatic distinction between fuṣha and ʿamiyyah is not yet too much where it becomes a burdensome cognitive load on the student. This is not to say that right at the next level, both ʿamiyyah and fuṣha should continue to be taught simultaneously, as grammatical structures become more complicated. We do not have enough research in this regard to warrant one way of doing ʿamiyyah in the classroom over the other—in other words, to continue to introduce ʿamiyyah at the same time fuṣha is introduced. In my opinion, Alif Baa gives the right amount of exposure to ʿamiyyah and fuṣha at a beginners’ level.1 We all know that, at a novice level, students do not yet internalize grammar rules, and their learning is very much dependent on memorization of short phrases. But as they move forward in...


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pp. 119-121
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