Cultivating Awareness: Register and Context in First-Year Arabic

The teaching of Arabic in American universities today, like that of so many other more commonly taught foreign languages, has by and large come to be guided by the same communicative approach objectives that regularly inform the profession as a whole, such that curricula frequently place an explicit emphasis on the development of the four skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. While there is little question about the fundamental importance of these skills as part of a curriculum in Arabic, the definition of what constitutes ‘Arabic’ is much more problematic—that is, the listening to, and the speaking, reading, and writing of what kind of Arabic.

As with all languages, Arabic has a multiplicity of different regional varieties. And like all languages (particularly those empowered by institutions such as the university), it also has its standard forms, often collapsed under the name ‘Modern Standard Arabic’ (MSA) in the American academic context. What distinguishes Arabic, however, are the pronounced differences in form and usage between the primarily written MSA—a shared, ‘educated’ variety of Arabic whose provenance is not geographically defined—and the spoken varieties that wear their regional specificities on their sleeves. For a number of oft-cited reasons ranging from the difficulty of choosing which regional spoken form to teach, to a lack of resources for multiple colloquial Arabic courses, inevitably the vast majority of American institutions default to Modern Standard Arabic—the would-be lingua franca of the Arab World—as the language of communication in the classroom. And yet as Al-Batal and Belnap and others (Wahba 2006; Wilmsen 2006) have pointed out in their recent work on the need for critical reflection on methodologies of Arabic instruction, “Modern Standard Arabic is not a language of conversation. It can be a language of intellectual exchange but, even as such, it is normally used with an admixture of spoken Arabic” (2006: 396).

If the goals of a communicative approach are to foster accurate and appropriate language production in a variety of culturally specific contexts, then, to use Wahba’s words, a student whose sole linguistic recourse is MSA cannot help but be “a disabled learner” when confronted with a situation that calls for a more colloquial mode of expression (2006: 141). Indeed, Al-Batal and Belnap go on to stress the importance of the spoken forms of Arabic in the achievement of higher levels of competence in the language, stating that “many, if not most, American students who have reached superior proficiency in Arabic have had training in multiple varieties, including Classical Arabic” (2006: 396).

These findings, together with my own experiences over the years as a student of (mostly Modern Standard) Arabic, served to inform my initial plans for my BLC Research Fellowship project: one in which I proposed to create a series of model lessons for use in UC Berkeley’s Arabic 1B course (second-semester Elementary Arabic), lessons that would systematically integrate the teaching of a particular spoken variety of Arabic with existing, widely-used MSA-centered materials. Each lesson would make use of one or more short video clips from Arab films, television shows, and news media as a structuring device for a series of activities that would give students a context in which to understand the MSA and the regional spoken variety they would be learning. In the long-term, these lessons could be used as models for the teaching of any regional spoken variety of Arabic, ideally beginning in the first year of Arabic instruction when the most students are affected.

As with the overwhelming majority of university Arabic programs in the U.S., the UC Berkeley program presently uses the Al-Kitaab series of textbooks to structure the basic curriculum of the first two years of instruction. While the series does include Egyptian colloquial materials to supplement the MSA in each lesson, these materials remain physically marginalized in the textbook; relegated to the final page of each chapter in the liminal spaces between lessons, they literally and figuratively lie beyond the jurisdiction of the legitimating grammar headings attesting to the ultimate (grammatical) correctness of MSA. Consequently, even if a student is able to look beyond the subtle, yet powerful stigmas affixed to the spoken language by way of textbook layout, s/he cannot truly hope to attain any level of communicative competence in Egyptian given the lack of communicative approach-based tasks and grammar that might guide or reinforce the student’s acquisition of the colloquial.

Based on the gap I perceived between the communicative goals outlined in recent research in the field and the means to get there offered by the most widely-used textbook for university-level Arabic, it appeared that what was needed was a way to activate students’ communicative abilities in a spoken variety of Arabic while complementing their existing MSA practices. At the same time, it was equally as important to determine if students themselves even wanted to speak Arabic in the first place; just because the communicative goals include the development of context-appropriate speaking and listening skills, I could not assume that students would attribute the same importance to these modes of communicative competence as part of their own goals in learning the language. What if they were only studying Arabic in order to use it in interactions and activities that would more often than not call for MSA or Classical Arabic?

Moreover, given the time constraints that all foreign language classrooms face, it would be necessary to be as efficient as possible if I were to propose any additions to an already intensive Arabic curriculum. Thus, rather than simply diving headlong into the process of creating integrated MSA and regional spoken Arabic lessons that could potentially prove too cumbersome for practical application, it ultimately seemed more constructive to examine what exactly students were expecting from their Arabic curriculum, and to what degree their goals—together with those suggested by a communicative approach attentive to the specificities of Arabic—were being met. In this way, it would be easier to determine precisely what could be improved and the most effective manner for addressing the aforementioned gap—without completely overtaxing the existing curriculum, or the students and instructors.

In this way, data collection and analysis came to play a much more central role in my BLC research project. I conducted a survey of the students enrolled in Arabic 1B in the spring of 2010 to determine their concrete goals as a result of their Berkeley Arabic studies, as well as their understandings and opinions of MSA and Arabic dialects. 34 out of 72 enrolled students responded. Students were given thirteen different tasks to rate from 1 to 10 in terms of importance to their language goals, ranging from ‘comprehend an Arabic language news broadcast’ to ‘read a religious text in Arabic’ and were allowed to rate each task independently (i.e., they were not being asked to rank these tasks from most important to least important, but rather could theoretically rate each of the thirteen tasks as a 10 out of 10/‘extremely important’ if they so chose).

The results were consistent with the findings of similar surveys conducted at other American universities for the purposes of measuring student interest in learning Arabic for oral communication purposes (Belnap 1987; Younes 2003), in that the only two tasks to receive an overwhelming majority of 10s were ‘hold a sustained conversation with an Arabic speaker’ (80.6% of respondents) and ‘listen to and understand a conversation between Arabic speakers’ (71% of respondents). That is, the average respondent rated ‘hold a sustained conversation with an Arabic speaker’ as a 9.55 out of 10 and ‘listen to and understand a conversation between Arabic speakers’ as a 9.42 out of 10 (see the following chart for a breakdown of all thirteen tasks).

Chart of tasks

In addition to confirming my expectations that students were in fact interested in learning to speak and understand Arabic in its oral form regardless of variety, the larger picture of the results also fulfilled my desire to know whether students would also give greater importance to communicative tasks that would normally be carried out in a regional spoken variety of Arabic (also commonly referred to as an Arabic dialect) rather than MSA. Specifically, four of the top five most important tasks for the first-year students polled were ones that would normally involve a significant degree of spoken Arabic (see the following chart for a breakdown of which tasks would typically be conducted in MSA/standard, a regional spoken variety of Arabic/dialect, or a mixture of the two).

It is important to reiterate here that MSA and the regional spoken varieties are not impervious to each other, and that any one of the tasks delineated in the survey could theoretically play host to varying degrees of MSA or regional spoken Arabic(s). The full spectrum of Arabic and its infinite implementations is far too dynamic to be encapsulated in a static, binary opposition of MSA vs. dialect. Rather, in more recent work, it has varyingly been theorized using the models of the continuum—the hallmark feature of which is a “constant style shifting along a cline at opposite ends of which are ‘pure’ MSA and the ‘pure’ regional dialect” (Holes 1995: 39) —and the coin—a model which emphasizes that “the colloquial and Fusha [MSA] sides are not separate from or independent of each other, but complement one another to form one system of communication,” and that “each side of this system is used in situations and for functions for which it is uniquely suited.” (Younes 2006: 159)

What was truly surprising about the survey were students’ responses to the questions ‘In what contexts do people use Modern Standard Arabic?’ and ‘In what contexts do people use Arabic dialects?’ While the majority of respondents to the second question (53.33% of respondents) cited some combination of ‘at home’, ‘with family or friends’, or ‘in informal settings’, not one student suggested that Arabic dialects could be used at work, at school, or in a professional setting of any kind. Instead, these professional domains were only mentioned in response to the question about the contexts in which people use MSA, particularly journalism and fields related to communications. However, as S’hiri’s 2002 study on Arabic language use in the work place demonstrates, “contrary to the widespread belief or wish that when Arabs meet, they communicate by using fusha, the fact is that they generally stick to their own varieties or codeswitch as they judge necessary or suitable” (2002: 165), even at radio and television stations where MSA is known by all the journalists and broadcasters employed there (as was the case in her study).

In the end, these particular findings not only demonstrated a well-developed tendency—even after less than two full semesters of Arabic—for students to talk about MSA and spoken varieties of Arabic in rigid terms rooted in dichotomies; it was also clear from their responses that they weren’t even fully aware of when it was appropriate or possible for a speaker to use a regional spoken variety of the language. Thus, even in the face of curricular constraints that prohibit the extended development of students’ active communicative competence in a regional spoken variety of Arabic, one could make the case for mini-lessons on ‘register awareness’, whereby students are attuned to the intimate relationship between register and context in Arabic—or any language for that matter—and the very real consequences of using different forms of the language in accordance with, or against, social conventions. While this would mean regular exposure to dialect materials in the form of songs, proverbs and short movie, television and news media video clips—ideally those that bring together MSA and the spoken varieties to varying degrees—it would not significantly impose on the pace of the curriculum, nor would it require all instructors to be proficient in the same regional dialects. With the possibility of affecting so many more students in the first year of language study, we cannot afford to wait until the second or third year before introducing students to an issue that lies at the very heart of the Arabic language and its culture.

Al-Batal, M. & Belnap, R. K. 2006. The Teaching and Learning of Arabic in the United States: Realities, Needs, and Future Directions. In: Wahba, K. M.; Taha, Z. A.; & England, L. (eds.) Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals in the 21st Century. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Belnap, R. K. 1987. Who’s Taking Arabic and What on Earth For? A Survey of Students in Arabic Language Programs. Al-‘Arabiyya 20, (1 & 2), 29-42.

Holes, C. 1995. Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions and Varieties. London: Longman.

S’hiri, S. 2002. Speak Arabic Please!: Tunisian Arabic Speakers’ Linguistic Accommodation to Middle Easterners. In: Rouchdy, A. (ed.) Language Contact and Language Conflict in Arabic: Variations on a Sociolinguistic Theme. New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Wahba, K. M. 2006. Arabic Language Use and the Educated Language User. In: Wahba, K. M.; Taha, Z. A.; & England, L. (eds.) Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals in the 21st Century. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Wilmsen, D. 2006. What Is Communicative Arabic? In: Wahba, K. M.; Taha, Z. A.; & England, L. (eds.) Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals in the 21st Century. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Younes, M. 2006. Integrating the Colloquial with Fusha in the Arabic-as-a-Foreign-Language Classroom. In: Wahba, K. M.; Taha, Z. A.; & England, L. (eds.) Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals in the 21st Century. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.