In this review I will give my perspective on Mastering Arabic 1, a popular beginning textbook by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gaafar.
The book is available from two different publishers (Palgrave and Hippocrene), though I imagine there are few differences between the two editions beyond the book cover and the packaging. The book can be bought separately or together with two audio CDs. There is also a free companion website with additional materials, including some video clips and vocabulary flashcards. (I have the Palgrave edition, which lists the Palgrave website, but I assume that the Hippocrene edition also hosts its own website.)
Overview. Mastering Arabic 1 is an attractive, illustrated textbook with a wide variety of exercises. While I find it a bit weak in the way it teaches the Arabic writing system, especially writing skills, it is otherwise an excellent textbook that is practical and gives equal weight to reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
What kind of Arabic? This is the first question to ask when evaluating an Arabic textbook, as there are actually different varieties or registers of “Modern Standard Arabic” differ in formality, ranging from informal to bookish and archaic. This textbook focuses on the more informal variety of Standard Arabic, omitting many of the case and mood endings typical of formal Arabic. For most learners, this is a good thing.
For both classroom and self-instruction. The book seems to have been designed with both classroom instruction and independent learners in mind. Independent learners will particularly appreciate the extensive answer key to the exercises in the back of the book.
Structure. The book is laid out in 20 units, each of which has a theme, such as “Describing Places”, “What Happened Yesterday?”, and “Comparing Things”. Three of units are review units. The writing system is taught gradually, alongside other skills, from units 1 through 6.
Writing system. I find the presentation of the writing system the weakest area in the book. Explanation of how to write is particularly sparse. You can purchase a companion volume called Mastering Arabic Script, but that didn’t impress me too much, either.
In a classroom setting, this weakness can be made up for by careful instruction by the teacher, but independent learners may want to first start with either my book Bite-Size Arabic or the popular (but rather expensive) Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds by Kristen Brustad and Mahmoud Al-Batal. If you don’t want to fork out any extra money, you could supplement Mastering Arabic 1 with the Bite-Size Arabic: Handwriting Workbook, which can be downloaded free of charge from this page.
Of course, if you already know the alphabet, this aspect will pose no problem for you.
Lively, engaging, and easy. What I most like about this textbook is the lively, engaging exercises. Many of the exercises are supported with visuals, e.g., describe what you see in the picture. There are no tedious translation exercises. There are also quite a few exercises to develop your coping skills, that is, learning to extract useful information out of material that goes beyond your level of knowledge. For example, three exercises in unit 11 are based on a full-page advertisement for back-to-school items. The exercises get to you glean information, even though much of the vocabulary is unfamiliar, allowing you to learn by doing rather than by rote memorization.
The texts in this book are all on the short side. This keeps the book from being tedious and will definitely make the book easier to complete for independent learners, but teachers may want to supplement the lessons with longer and more challenging reading material.
Some of the exercises specifically target listening comprehension, ensuring a well-rounded development of your language skills. For example, in one exercise you have to listen to an audio clip about a 16-year-old boy named Murad and figure out what days of the week he has to do certain chores.
Conclusion. Overall I really like this book. So much so that I will be switching to this book for my Arabic 2 and Arabic 3 courses at UvA Talen starting in 2018. (For Arabic 1, we will continue to use Bite-Size Arabic.) Mastering Arabic 1 is colorful, lively, and focused on practical communication skills. The variety of Arabic it teaches is not overly formal. While I’m not too happy with the way it introduces the Arabic writing system, this problem can be addressed by using supplementary materials, and the book is ideal for those already familiar with the alphabet.