Are Duolingo’s Arabic lessons useful for learners?

Are Duolingo’s Arabic lessons useful for learners?
Duolingo’s Arabic language course takes the learner through the teaching process in steps. It introduces the Arabic alphabet with sound exercises. (Shutterstock)
Updated 27 July 2019

Are Duolingo’s Arabic lessons useful for learners?

Are Duolingo’s Arabic lessons useful for learners?
  • Online portal with over 300 million users recently added Arabic to its language offerings
  • Some users find Duolingo useful but not sufficient to master language with many dialects

DUBAI: Duolingo, an online language-learning portal with over 300 million users, recently added Arabic to its course offerings. Luis von Ahn, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, launched the app along with Severin Hacker with the aim of creating a free language-learning platform in 2012.

But with Arabic categorized as one of the “super hard” languages by the US Foreign Service Institute due to its complex grammar, varied dialects and rich lexicon, are the app’s “game-like lessons” enough - or even useful - for a learner?

Hope Wilson, a learning scientist at Duolingo, wrote in an essay on the official website on June 26, 2019, that just because a language is difficult to learn doesn’t make it “un-learnable,” “After all, babies can learn to speak any language on earth - and so can adults, given enough time and effort,” he said. In theory, Wilson sounds right.

But as Muhamed Al-Khalil, director of Arabic studies and associate professor of practice of Arabic language at New York University Abu Dhabi, points out, Arabic presents a more complex system than many other languages.

But Russian, for example, shares with Arabic certain characteristics that make it relatively easy for a Russian speaker to learn Arabic, Al-Khalil told Arab News. But the same cannot be said about native English speakers.

Likewise, May Zaki, associate professor in the department of Arabic and translation studies at the American University of Sharjah, said Arabic is not very difficult to learn for native speakers of Farsi or Urdu. “Arabic can be easier to learn also for a Spanish speaker than an English speaker because of similarities in grammar and even some vocabulary,” she told Arab News.

Zaki said there are complexities in Arabic in matters of script, root and pattern system compared with most European languages. So, it takes longer for a learner to make progress in learning Arabic as opposed to learning, say, French or Spanish, she said.

She commended Duolingo for including Arabic to its menu of language offerings. “I have personally tried it to see how it feels from a teacher's perspective,” she said. “It would be a great addition at a later stage if Duolingo offers the option of learning one colloquial variety as well. Egyptian Arabic and Shami (Syrian) Arabic could be the most popular options,” Zaki said.

Duolingo’s Arabic language course takes the learner through the teaching process in steps. It introduces the Arabic alphabet with sound exercises. In his essay, Wilson said: “The challenge level of these exercises will ensure that our learners are forced to engage their brains to internalize the new alphabet.”

Yomna Taha, a native Arabic speaker, tried out a few Arabic lessons on Duolingo and was impressed. “I was curious to check it out and, from my experience, it was pretty good,” she told Arab News. “Not many language teaching apps work that well.”

The verdict of Mariam Hammad, another native Arabic speaker who tried out Duolingo, was mixed. “The app is easy to use but I don’t believe it will have a big impact on teaching Arabic,” she said.

She said the only time she would use the app would be during emergencies or when in need of immediate translation while in a foreign country. “Arabic language is very nuance rich and probably needs an actual tutor, preferable of an Arab origin,” she said.

Al-Khalil, of NYU Abu Dhabi, said Duolingo has created possibilities for practice and provided an opportunity not only to learn the Arabic vocabulary but also build sentences.

At the same time, he pointed out one limitation of Duolingo: language is a social activity whereas the app lacks human interaction in terms of body language and facial expressions. Thus, the platform by itself may not be sufficient for a learner to master Arabic.

Linnette Schoeman, who is trying to learn Arabic, found the Duolingo lessons unhelpful. She said she would rather learn the language through YouTube videos or take one-to-one classes. “Also, the Arabic lessons lack visuals unlike the Spanish lessons, which provide them from the start,” Schoeman said.

Baris Dur, who completed the Duolingo Arabic course, found the lessons useful and the app easy to use. But the problem he faces is all too common in the Middle East: none of his friends speak standard Arabic. “It is difficult for me to understand their different dialects,” he told Arab News.

Zaki said the differences between the formal and colloquial forms no doubt add to an Arabic learner’s challenges. Under the circumstance, she said, the solution is this: “A learner who wants to be fully proficient in Arabic should learn both varieties and master the skill of using the right varieties in the appropriate situation.”


First Muslim woman on UK Special Forces TV show describes ‘internal conflict’ at taking part

First Muslim woman on UK Special Forces TV show describes ‘internal conflict’ at taking part
Updated 33 min 42 sec ago

First Muslim woman on UK Special Forces TV show describes ‘internal conflict’ at taking part

First Muslim woman on UK Special Forces TV show describes ‘internal conflict’ at taking part
  • Fitness enthusiast Shireen Khan says “SAS Who Dares Wins” placed her in some uncomfortable situations
  • The entrepreneur of Pakistani origin said her parents did not want her to take part, and share room and toilets with men

LONDON: The first Muslim woman to take part in a popular British TV show, in which contestants are set challenges by former Special Forces members, has described both her pride in taking part but the “difficult situations” she faced linked to her faith and upbringing.
Shireen Khan, an aesthetics and tech entrepreneur from London, was chosen among thousands as one of the recruits in the action-packed series “SAS Who Dares Wins.”
The sixth season, which started airing on Sunday on Channel 4, involves an elite team of ex-Special Forces soldiers putting 21 men and women through a series of grueling physical and mental exercises designed to mirror selection for the Special Air Services (SAS).
“A lot of people thought I wasn’t going to get on the show or even pass their fitness tests,” Khan told Arab News of the entry process. “At one point, I actually thought myself I was’t going to pass, because they were so difficult.”
Even to enter the show, contestants must be able to do 44 push-ups in a minute-and-a-half, and run 1.9 kilometers in nine minutes.
Khan, 28, received the call to say she made it as one of the final recruits, but her parents were not very happy, which posed a “real conflict” for her.
“My mum was like, you are a Muslim girl and how are you planning to go onto the show, when you are going to be sleeping next to men, and going to the toilet, and all of these things, if you go on the show, I am practically going to disown you,” Khan told Arab News.
For Khan, this was “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” although it “was a very difficult situation.”
“There are Muslim women who want to go into the SAS or army, because that is their passion and the big question is, is that something they can do in the correct way of Islam?”
Since then, her father has come around due to her achievement and knowing her values, but her mother has not, however at the time of the interview, they still had not seen her contribution to the show.
On the show, the men and women share open toilets and sleep in army camp beds in the same room. They also get changed together.

The sixth season of “SAS Who Dares Wins” started airing on Sunday on UK Channel 4. (Channel 4)

“I got very constipated, because mentally that is not something I am used to, whereas a lot of the other recruits, they have been in scouts and been wilderness camping since they were young, they have been exposed to these type of things, so they did not find it as a culture shock,” Khan said. “Whereas with me, I have been brought up in a very strict Muslim household in some way, so I physically couldn’t go to the toilet.”
At one point, they returned to camp and were washed off in freezing cold water to clear the mud and filth, and were told to undress and get into their dry kit.
“It meant that everyone had to strip, and when it came to me, I just said no,” Khan said. Instead, she wore her dry kit over her wet clothes, prompting warnings from the show’s staff that she risked hypothermia.
“It was a very uncomfortable situation and what you see on TV and in reality is absolutely nothing what they put you through, they literally just put a few snippets, but you are constantly going through that trauma behind the cameras.”
Another problem she faced was that the show did not not provide halal food.
Women were only allowed to apply for the real SAS since 2018.
On the TV show, Khan is not the first Muslim to take part. In the second season, Iraqi-born Mohammed Abdul Razak, who reached the final stage, used to pray five times a day on the show.
It was filmed in a remote part of Scotland, where the British Special Forces do most of their challenging training.
Despite her best efforts, Khan was the first to be eliminated during the first task, where they had to race 2.2 kilometers up a mountain carrying 18 kilos on their backs, as she along with another contestant, would have been a liability in a real war zone, the judges said.
Contestants often have a story of hardship, which has given them the strength to turn their lives around.
“Since I was young, I was bullied at school, I was not one of the best looking girls, I had a mustache growing up, being from a Pakistani background I was extremely hairy and that was one of the targets for bullies to pick on me and beat me up in the playground,” Khan said.
She suffered from self-esteem issues, which made her binge eat and become overweight. She also went through a really tough time with her parents’ divorce and growing up without much money.
She changed her life to become as physically fit as possible and went from “rags to riches,” training as a nurse before setting up a a chain of beauty clinics across London.
“I have come a long way and...it took a lot for me to do that, but I am a pure example of when you put your mind to something it is possible.”

Shireen Khan, an aesthetics and tech entrepreneur from London, was chosen among thousands as one of the recruits in the action-packed series “SAS Who Dares Wins.” (Supplied)

Khan joined the show because wanted to experience the real SAS and army, “who are actually going through this day to day just to save us, and for us to be sleeping peacefully at night. Coming off the show, my admiration, I’ve just got no words to describe what they get exposed to every day, it’s a real honor.”
Khan does not think she is capable of a career in the SAS because she discovered on the show she has physical, mental limitations. Weighing 51kg, Khan is 157cm, and said she was physically unable to compete with the men in the same tasks.
“It has definitely changed and shaped the way I look at life in general and I am exposing myself to new challenges,” she said.
Khan said she now plans to focus on her business and charitable work “and give back to the world in a different way.”
Khan runs a charity called Carrott Kids, which helped rebuild an earthquake-damaged school for 100 children in a remote Pakistan village. The new school building opened in March.


MBC's Waleed Al-Ibrahim receives King Abdulaziz medal

MBC's Waleed Al-Ibrahim receives King Abdulaziz medal
Updated 41 min 32 sec ago

MBC's Waleed Al-Ibrahim receives King Abdulaziz medal

MBC's Waleed Al-Ibrahim receives King Abdulaziz medal

RIYADH: Saudi Arabian media mogul Waleed Al-Ibrahim received on Monday the King Abdulaziz Order of Merit for his success in the media and broadcasting world.

The King Abdulaziz Order of Merit is a medal awarded to citizens of Saudi Arabia and foreigners for meritorious service to Saudi Arabia. It is considered the highest civilian honor in the Kingdom.

Al-Ibrahim founded and chaired the Middle East Broadcasting Center, also known as MBC Group, in London in 1991. At that time of its launch, MBC was the first pan-Arab free-to-air satellite TV network. Today, MBC is one of the biggest media broadcasting stations in the Arab world. It includes several movie, TV show, and children channels such as MBC 2, MBC 3, MBC 4 and MBC Action. Al Ibrahim launched Al Arabiya in 2003, a free-to-air television news channel based in Dubai.

Al-Ibrahim is widely recognized for his contributions in the field of Arab media. In 2007, he was chosen as the 27th most influential Arab among 100 Arab personalities by Arabian Business. He received the title ‘Media Man of the Year’ at the 4th MENA Cristal Awards held in Lebanon in 2008. In 2011, he was chosen among the top 50 figures in MENA’s media, marketing and advertising industry. Al Ibrahim was also named as the world's 66th most influential Arab personality by Gulf News in 2012, while Arabian Business named him as the world's 24th most influential Arab among 500 others in 2012.

 


Facebook, Instagram accused of bias by censoring Palestinian content 

Facebook, Instagram accused of bias by censoring Palestinian content 
Updated 10 May 2021

Facebook, Instagram accused of bias by censoring Palestinian content 

Facebook, Instagram accused of bias by censoring Palestinian content 
  • Director of 7amleh said the censorship of Palestinians happened through two channels
  • The organization was able to restore some content and pages of users who reported removals to them

DUBAI: Imagine the pain of being kicked out of your own home. Then imagine being unable to let the world know what is happening to you.

This is the reality for Palestinians living in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which houses 28 families from the 1948 Nakba. Under international law, East Jerusalem is considered part of the Palestinian Territories.

Earlier this year, the Israeli Central Court in East Jerusalem approved a decision to evict four Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood. 

The court was scheduled to issue a ruling on the evictions on May 6 amid heated demonstrations and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, but the decision was delayed until May 10.

Hundreds of social media users have accused Instagram and Facebook of removing content and accounts reporting on the Sheikh Jarrah violence.

One of the videos that was deleted from the story archives of Palestinian journalist Maha Rezeq was about Israeli settler Jacob, who took over the house of Muna El-Kurd in 2009. He told her that if he did not steal her house then someone else would.

“What I’ve been sharing is raw footage, videos, testimonies of people on the ground, some are actually coming from the mouth of an Israeli, the mouth of a settler, why is that controversial? Everything was self-explanatory, there is no blood or graphic footage that violates the community standard,” Rezeq said.

Rezeq told Arab News that only her content on Sheikh Jarrah was removed.

“The only thing that was removed from my archive were stories and posts related to exposing Israeli crimes against Palestinians.”

Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian writer from Jerusalem, was posting videos and stories on violence in Sheikh Jarrah when he received a warning that his account might be deleted.

“Some of your previous posts didn’t follow our Community Guidelines,” the message read. “If you post something that goes against our guidelines again, your account may be deleted, including your posts, archive, messages and followers.”

Facebook also removed “57 pieces of content” from his page because they went against the guidelines.

Yasmin Dabat said her stories with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah, dated to May 3, were “removed by Instagram without any warnings or updates.”

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, tweeted it was facing technical issues on May 6, after hundreds of people began reporting the censorship.

“We know that some people are experiencing issues uploading and viewing stories. This is a widespread global technical issue not related to any particular topic and we’re fixing it right now. We’ll provide an update as soon as we can.”

Nadim Nashif, the director of a nonprofit organization called 7amleh that advocates for Palestinian digital rights, said the explanation did not make sense to them.

“(It) is very weird, like you know, to compare what happened in a certain neighborhood in Jerusalem, with huge countries like Canada, the US and Colombia, doesn’t sound logical to us, doesn’t sound like it’s really explaining, because in Canada and the US they were taking down stories that are about various topics, (but) here (it was) about (a) certain hashtag, specifically about Sheikh Jarrah,” he said.

Nashif said the censorship of Palestinians happened through two channels.

“One factor is what the Israelis are doing, they are basically trying to push the social media platforms to adopt their own standards of what should be there and what shouldn’t be there. There’s strong cooperation between them and Facebook mainly.”

According to Nashif, this leads to what’s called “voluntary takedowns,” where Israeli cyber units send requests to social media platforms to take down specific content without a court order.

Another way that Palestinian content was pushed out of social media was through “armies of trolls and applications called Act.IL organizing people to report in a massive way,” he added.

Act.IL is an app that describes itself as “the place where all pro-Israeli advocates, communities and organizations meet to work together to fight back against the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state.”

According to the app, users “will be able to remove inciting content from social media, fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism, influence the online narrative regarding Israel, and take part in special pro-Israel campaigns and efforts.”

Palestinians are also being silenced on social media through the use of Artificial Intelligence by those platforms to identify what content violates their user guidelines.

“Social media platforms are (using) artificial intelligence for takedowns and there is lots of use of keywords, mainly around what the US government consider(s) as terrorist organizations,” Nashif explained.

Some of those who reported content takedowns and account removals to 7amleh were able to restore their content after the organization reached out to Facebook.

“We managed to restore tens or hundreds of them in this struggle, because we are (a) trusted partner of Facebook,” Nashif added.

Dabat was able to recover her stories around 12 hours later after getting in touch with Instagram.

“I emailed Instagram directly mentioning this and applied pressure on them to put them back. They then put them back without replying to me,” she said.

Nashif said the system was still biased despite the restoration of content and accounts.

“We (haven’t) managed to get a transparent, clear system of content moderation. The keyword here is transparency and equality, because this is not happening in the Israeli side.”

Instagram hid the hashtag #الأقصى (Al-Aqsa in Arabic) two days ago, when Israeli police in riot gear were deployed in large numbers as thousands of Muslims held Tarawih prayers. Medics said over 200 Palestinians were wounded that night.

“Part of the escalation that happened is that they were even taking down hashtags, I mean they were hiding hashtags like Al-Aqsa, which is something new,” Nashif said.

He advised social media users to continue reporting instances of censorship through their platforms and contact organizations that handled these issues to raise awareness and correct such behavior.

Facebook did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On Thursday, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland urged Israel to cease demolitions and evictions in Sheikh Jarrah in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law.

On Sunday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel rejected pressure not to build in Jerusalem, after days of unrest and growing international condemnation of planned evictions of Palestinians from homes in the city claimed by Jewish settlers.

“We firmly reject the pressure not to build in Jerusalem. To my regret, this pressure has been increasing of late.”

Last week, the Red Cross reported that 22 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli police in annexed East Jerusalem.


UAE-based Kerning Cultures Network acquires first podcast

UAE-based Kerning Cultures Network acquires first podcast
Updated 10 May 2021

UAE-based Kerning Cultures Network acquires first podcast

UAE-based Kerning Cultures Network acquires first podcast
  • ‘Faslah’ is narrative-driven Arabic podcast about life-changing moments

DUBAI: Middle East podcast network Kerning Cultures has acquired its first podcast, “Faslah.”

Founded by Bahraini creator Mohammed Jaafar in May last year, “Faslah” is a narrative-driven podcast in Arabic about life-changing moments.

Dubai-based Kerning Cultures, which was established in 2015, produces original content including tech show “Akhbar el Tech,” and self-reflection and mental wellness show “Sukoun.”

In a blog post, the company said: “As creatives, we’re perfectly aligned: Like Kerning Cultures, ‘Faslah’ values authenticity and simplicity in storytelling.

“We both believe in highlighting untold stories from our communities: The everyday heroes whose stories will make us laugh, cry, ruminate, and bring us a little closer together.”

The acquisition of the show is in line with Kerning Culture’s vision of building the largest podcast network in the Middle East and North Africa region.

In recent months, the company has doubled its team size and is in the process of doubling its show offerings. The network currently has 12 Arabic and English shows with plans for more.


Fast food firm’s Ramadan Pizza aims to taste, do good

Fast food firm’s Ramadan Pizza aims to taste, do good
Updated 10 May 2021

Fast food firm’s Ramadan Pizza aims to taste, do good

Fast food firm’s Ramadan Pizza aims to taste, do good
  • Pizza2Go, MullenLowe MENA, Emirates Red Crescent join forces to tackle food wastage during holy month

DUBAI: Ramadan is marked by fasting throughout the day and eating at suhoor and iftar. However, takeaway restaurant firm Pizza2Go claims an estimated 25 percent of food goes to waste during the holy month, which goes against the principles of Ramadan.

So, to address the issue, Dubai-based Pizza2Go has launched its three-quarter pizza box, a normal pizza but with 25 percent removed to eliminate wastage.

The reduced-size pizza costs 44 dirhams ($12), with normal ones ranging in price between 33 dirhams and 65 dirhams, and 25 percent from the sale of every three-quarter-sized pizza will be donated to the UAE charity organization Emirates Red Crescent.

The campaign was inspired by creative shop MullenLowe whose regional executive creative director for the Middle East and North Africa, Paul Banham, said: “The three-quarter pizza box is just like any other pizza except for one important difference: We have one slice missing.

“It’s a great idea and opportunity to help solve a huge problem while also tying in with the spiritual side of the holy month of Ramadan.”