The Wild Western Learner

By Khalid Khalifa … and the team

The Arabic Institute Insights Series

Read this story in German — Translated wonderfully by Nick Goulet (Goulet N)

They were the only learners we have ever known, before discovering their siblings, the Russians and later on the Eastern learner. It used to make the perfect sense. To me, to us, to anyone who learns that we teach Arabic to non-native speakers.

The only image that flashes into our minds when we mention non-native speakers was always a white, tall, an American or a European, in particular, an English man. But it turned out that they were the least enthusiastic towards learning the language.

I do not mean to underestimate their abilities by saying this, after all, it is the sum of all these characteristics that makes this learner the Western Learner as we know them.

The north American group that Susan mentioned in her Eastern Learner story was the most unique group that we have ever encountered through our life at The Arabic Institute.

Two of which were Canadian, and the rest were Americans of mixed backgrounds, one Mexican, and two Pakistani who lived their entire childhood in Liverpool, England, then moved to the US to spend the rest of their lives. The head of this group was Aisha K., an Employee of Aramco, the reputed petroleum company on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, with excellent network throughout the entire company’s division.

…and has never paid a serious effort in learning the language as there was no urge for learning it, exactly what we have been hearing all time from EACH AND EVERY Western Learner.

Aisha was married to her Saudi colleague for over 20 years with two daughters who speak both languages perfectly. She converted to Islam 15 years ago and had never paid a serious effort in learning the language as there was no urge for learning it, exactly what we would hear from a typical Western Learner EACH AND EVERY time.

The rest of the group, which were 9 in total, were fairly new to the country and culture, so they were curious to learn about Saudi life and people through the language.

Where the Western Learners come from or lived most of their lives

They registered themselves to join a private tuition class in a bit more than a week so they could manage to attend on time all together.


It was painful to admit that our current curriculum was created for us entirely. That Susan was right. That I was wrong.

Immediately after filling out their highly customised course form, Susan locked herself up in her office to come up with this new student classification. At first, I thought it was way too sophisticated to change the introductory course for total beginners like this group. They were non-Muslim but the two Pakistanis, so I didn’t bother to introduce the new curriculum that Susan suggested as they had no reason to come across Arabic at any point earlier in their lives.

A week later, I got the evaluation results. The class was below their expectations. They didn’t want to spend their time in learning what I offered them, the ABCs, the beautiful Formal Arabic, the greetings… etc.

While the other scattered group of Eastern Learner of the other tutor, Ali Ayash, were cheering up and showing off their newly gained knowledge, mine were slipping away from me, one by one. Until I was only left with the two Pakistanis, who were Muslims. Was not it very intuitive?

It was painful to admit that our current curriculum was created for us entirely. That Susan was right. That I was wrong. That we really haven’t learned much from our experience, if we could call it experience.

We had to stop giving the remaining classes to that group. We had to gather them again to talk about what we can correct and to listen to their needs, honestly this time.

Luckily for us, they agreed to give us a second chance.


It was not that easy to go back and forth to the notes I have taken from the new curriculum while I am introducing the new information in front of sceptical audience. Especially when I already feel that I already returned to first year teaching.

This how hard that new curriculum was.

But, it was exactly what this group needed and wanted. It was tailored to the Western Learner as we call them today.

It was even better in it’s updated versions for our German student Benedict, then Massimo, then the German/English couple Peter and Christine.

Here are some of our insights into this wild learner:

  • Like native speakers, 82% of Western learners excel in learning Arabic IF AND ONLY IF the starting angle was the spoken dialect with a special focus on related skills (speaking, phonetics, listening and understanding).
82% of Western learners excel in learning Arabic IF AND ONLY IF the starting angle was the spoken dialect…
  • With this approach, 87% of Western learners move to the following skill, which is reading effortlessly. As Arabic is a phonetic language, reading what you hear is quite an advantage especially for learners of English background.
  • The majority of Western Learner (91%) are Solitary learners. Giving a plenty of time between each session is crucial to get tangible results of the educational materials input.
  • They go back and forth between being visual and verbal learning styles (45%-55%), so it is equally important to repeat the audio materials while accompanying them with visual aids.
  • As they are already attached with responsibilities, they rarely make an actual progress with long homework. Instead, spacious in-class activities and dedicated homework sessions provide sound alternatives for this very busy learner.

If you are a Western Learner, you need to focus your initial efforts on learning and analysing what you hear so pay special attention to the speaking and related skills.

You will need a plenty of time to shift your brain into Arabic, make it slow and easy, so you do not give up in the middle of the road.

You will need a plenty of time to shift your brain into Arabic, make it slow and easy, so you do not give up in the middle of the road.

Our current programmes, tracks and packages have been redesigned to match these unique learners needs, and so they will remain.