The Arabic language presents a conundrum: although beautiful and historically rich, it is resistant to change. While, in medieval times, Arabic was the language of sciences, culture, and knowledge, today’s technological and scientific advances are mostly supported in other languages.
This disenchantment trickles down into everyday practices. According to Internet World Stats, Arabic content formed only 5.2% of the whole Internet content in 2021, while social media is a space where users frequently adopt a hybrid version of the language. The fact that Arabic is diglossic – meaning that there’s a classical, written form and a spoken form, almost like two languages – doesn’t help.
Of course, some governments, particularly in the UAE, are making meaningful efforts to promote Arabic and encourage its use by younger generations; but in the Middle East at large, the issue of Arabic literacy decline is rampant. According to research conducted by the World Bank in 2021, 59% of children in the MENA region are unable to read and understand an age-appropriate sentence in their mother language at age 10.
Taking Arabic teaching into the 21st century
In particular, Arabic teaching – and learning – struggles to keep up with technological development. Attempts to reform outdated curricula and the way it’s taught to better engage students have long been opposed in fear of driving its deterioration. As a result, Arabic has too often become a subject that students fail to really get involved with.
It’s to address this critical challenge with far-ranging implications on the region’s culture and identity that two Lebanese teachers-turned-entrepreneurs created Kamkalima in 2015, demonstrating that, with the right drive and the right mindset, difficult cultural problems can find effective solutions thanks to technology too.
At the time, Siroun Shamigian and Nisrine El Makkouk’s paths had already crossed in the small Lebanese educational world. Shamigian had a good expertise in technology, having been asked to take on digital transformation at the school level and support teachers of every subject – every subject except Arabic. “There were no tools to integrate technology into the classroom so that you’re able to teach and learn a bit more interactively,” explains El Makkouk.
Neither of them was an Arabic teacher, but neither of them could shake off the feeling that it needed to be done either. So, why not do it themselves, instead of waiting for somebody to come in and solve “the Arabic problem”?
The solution? A new digital environment and b2b SaaS that would modernise and enrich the way Arabic is taught in schools, supporting teachers through this transformation. Firmly convinced that improving learning is at the heart of EdTech, the pair got to work.
First, they reached out to both teachers and students to better understand their difficulties. “When it comes to Arabic, one of the main issues is a crisis of relevance. One student, who excelled in everything except Arabic, told us, ‘I wasn't born in the 1400s.’ And that, I think, says it all,” says El Makkouk, who explains that “You cannot divorce language from the content that holds it. No one is going to get excited about learning grammar. The objective should be to be able to understand things and express yourself, whether orally or in writing. It’s a paradigm shift.”
Creating a whole new learning environment
The team had to consider ways to find the balance between classical Arabic and spoken Arabic, to overcome many Arabic speakers’ deeply rooted fear of underperforming in classical Arabic, and students’ varied levels of cognitive skills.
With such a high bar, Kamkalima was not a safe bet, but Shamigian and El Makkouk were undeterred. “If you look at similar EdTech solutions in other languages, very often, one of our features is an entire start-up. But we knew that we couldn’t do anything unless the basic components were all there,” says El Makkouk.
Firstly, they needed to create a library of digital content adapted to the various levels of the readers without diluting its quality in order to keep students interested; this content also had to be aligned with the different national curricula that it would amplify and enrich. So, they put together a team of language experts, therapists, lawyers, journalists, teachers, and people from all walks of life passionate about writing. They also aggregated content from the real world, such as menus, radio shows, and TV programmes, to bridge the relevance gap.
Secondly, they needed to invent the technology from scratch, “because the Internet was not designed right to left,” says El Makkouk. This meant developing in Arabic things many would take for granted in other languages: spell checkers, plagiarism detectors, etc., on top of a platform that would have the unique ability to tackle Arabic writing thanks to AI tools and chatbots, including a tone detector.
And lastly, they needed to create their support solution. Kamkalima was never meant to replace teachers or be a self-learning tool. “The role of the teacher is not to disseminate knowledge, but rather to teach children how to think, how to deal with this knowledge. But to do that, they need to build their digital literacy. Technology has been late to enter the educational system and Arabic teachers are even more at a disadvantage,” explains El Makkouk. Now, Kamkalima has a teacher skills programme as well as a support team that guides teachers step by step.
“Understanding that change takes time is something that we have to consciously remind ourselves, especially in the entrepreneurship world,” says El Makkouk, but change is happening with teachers increasingly embracing this new approach and students learning to love their native language in close to 100 schools in Lebanon, the UAE, and seven other countries in the Gulf and beyond, including China and Sweden. The team is currently in conversation with one of the GCC ministries for a national deployment in public schools.
Shamigian and El Makkouk are proud of Kamkalima. With a school retention rate as high as 85% six years in, they have every right to be.