Why learn a dialect before learning MSA?

Arabic learners – whether studying in their home country or in the Arab World – are faced with the challenge of diglossia – a linguistic situation where two different varieties of a language co-exist within a community. Usually, one of these varieties is considered prestigious (or in sociolinguistic terms, High) and the other considered “everyday” (or Low). In Arabic, the High variety is referred to as fusHa and the Low variety as ammiyah. The term fusHa includes both Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, the language of the media) and Classical Arabic (the language of the Qur’an). Ammiyah is referred to in English as Colloquial Arabic, dialects of Arabic, or simply “everyday spoken Arabic.”

The diglossic situation in the Arab World has proven to have complex implications for language learners. 

learning spoken Arabic in Amman Jordan

Are both MSA and Colloquial Arabic necessary? If so, which should be learned first?

For Arabic learners studying in their home country, options are limited. Most university programs have focused solely on teaching MSA, so learning a dialect of Colloquial Arabic outside of study in the Arab World often isn’t an option. But, what about those who are studying in the Arab World? The set of questions faced by learners in an immersion environment is different. 

Linguists have debated whether the varieties of Arabic should be classified as different languages or simply different “registers” on a continuum of formal to informal. Regardless of the classification, learning both MSA and CA involves learning two sets of (sometimes overlapping) vocabulary, grammar patterns, syllable structures, and sociolinguistic rules. Mahmoud Al-Batal emphasizes that gaining proficiency in both varieties will require concerted effort in learning both varieties. (1) 

If I study MSA, won’t I be able to live anywhere in the Arab World?

It’s not reasonable to think that intentional effort in learning one variety will lead to “picking up” of the other.

One reason students are motivated to study MSA rather than a dialect is because of the assumption that learning MSA will allow them to live anywhere in the world. And, while it’s the case that MSA is considered a “lingua franca” (common language between speakers of various language) in the Arab World, it’s also the High variety in terms of diglossia. It is a language of distance and formality, not of closeness and interaction. And, in fact, when native speakers of Arabic from different counties, they may use some MSA vocabulary, but the grammar and sound system is based on their own dialect, rather than that of MSA.

Arab woman teaches foreign language students how to cook mansaf in Amman.

Unfortunately, many students who studied MSA in their home countries find that when they arrive in the Arab World, they can be understood (though native speakers find their use of MSA to be strange and laughable) but they have a very difficult time understanding the speech of those around them. And, surprisingly, many dialects have more features (vocabulary, phonology, and grammar) in common with other dialects than they do with Classical Arabic (2) – pointing to the fact that the most helpful thing you can do to help you understand multiple dialects is to learn one dialect really well. 

Educated Arabs (who are fluent in Colloquial Arabic) spend 12 years of school studying fusHa, yet many say they don’t feel proficient in speaking or writing in formal Arabic. It seems a bit pretentious that non-Arab students of MSA – without a basis of Colloquial Arabic – assume that within a year or two they will master the language. Karen Ryding, a curriculum author and Arabic scholar writes that “while the educational establishment has for decades enforced the concept of MSA first and foremost, this is completely the reverse of the native speaker’s experience with Arabic as a mother tongue” (3 p226). 

If I focus my study on MSA, won’t I “pick up” the local dialect just by being immersed? 

Youssef Haddad discusses how learners who learn MSA first learn a phonology (sound patterns and syllable structures) that is not compatible with Colloquial Arabic, and unlearning those patterns in order to speak a dialect naturally is very difficult. He says that a student who first studies MSA ends up with “a grammar that is, not only different from, but also more demanding than the grammar that the native speaker has (4 p148)”.

private Arabic lesson in Amman Jordan

If I focus on Colloquial Arabic, will I learn to read?

Not only does learning Colloquial Arabic make sense from a language acquisition perspective, but other researchers (5) have found that students who focus first on learning a spoken variety of Arabic have increased motivation to continue learning long-term because of their ability to engage with the people around them. One of the most focused studies on this topic looked at learners who spent two years learning Arabic (. One group of students studied Colloquial Arabic for the first year and MSA for the second year, and the other group of students did the opposite. Qafisheh found that dropout rates were higher among those who first focused on MSA, and while those who focused on MSA were initially better at reading and writing, the Colloquial group quickly caught up and actually learned to read and write faster than the MSA group had (because of their broad vocabulary and focus on listening). The Colloquial Arabic group’s listening and speaking at the end of two years was also ahead of the MSA group.

Participate in Arabic Language and Arab Culture

Most Arabic learners who come to the Arab World have a desire to build relationship with Arab people. Without doubt, in any diglossic situation, strong relationships are built in the language spoken at home and in everyday life. MSA certainly plays a significant role in a literate and educated society, but learners will do themselves a favor if they focus their learning the way native speakers of Arabic do – first, learn to understand and speak. Then, as your vocabulary and understanding ability grows, and you develop relationships with Arabs, apply the literacy skills you have in your first language to learning to read and write. When it comes time to learning MSA, focus on learning the vocabulary (see Best Practices in Arabic Comprehension, a post that discusses approaching MSA reading) and practice reading on your own. As you develop your literacy skills, keep yourself in close relationship with Arabs (in Arabic) to continue growing towards full participation in Arab life and culture.

By Jozeca Lathrop

Jozeca is a language learning consultant who has been living in Amman since 2014. Her passion is to equip learners with tools to connect with their host community. She’s currently finishing an MA in Lingustics through the University of North Dakota.

References

  1. Al-Batal, M. (1992). Diglossia proficiency: The need for an alternative approach to teaching. In A. Rouchdy (Ed.), The Arabic language in America (pp. 284-304). Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
  2. Trentman, E. (2011). L2 Arabic dialect comprehension: Empirical evidence for the transfer of familiar dialect knowledge to unfamiliar dialects. L2 Journal, 3(1). 
  3. Ryding, K. C. (1995). Discourse competence in TAFL: Skill levels and choice of language variety in the Arabic classroom. In M. Al-Batal (Ed.), The teaching of Arabic as a foreign language: Issues and directions (pp. 223-231). Provo, Utah: American Association of Teachers of Arabic.
  4. Haddad, Y.A. (2006). Dialect and standard in second language phonology: The case of Arabic. SKY Journal of Linguistics, 19, 147–171.
  5. Al Zahrani, M.A. (2017). A Study on the Impact of Arabic Diglossia on L2 learners of Arabic:  Examining Motivation and Perception (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from Arab World English Journal
  6. Qafisheh, H.A. (1972). From Gulf Arabic into Modern Standard Arabic: A pilot study. Revised version of paper presented at the sixth annual ACTFL meeting, Atlanta, Georgia.

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