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It Is Time to Deal with Arabic’s Diglossia

/ 26 Apr 2022

It Is Time to Deal with Arabic’s Diglossia
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

A recent paper by Riham Shendy highlights the need for an updated model of Arabic education in the Arab world that deals with the challenges posed by Arabic’s diglossia.

In Arabic, diglossia refers to the split between the so-called high or formal language, which is used in education even though children largely do not understand it, and the everyday language.

While diglossia itself is not bad, simply being a linguistic situation, a growing number of studies confirm that a refusal to acknowledge the challenges it poses is affecting literacy and education across the board.

Shendy’s paper, “Learning to Read in an ‘Estranged’ Language: Arabic Diglossia, Child Literacy, and the Case for Mother Tongue-Based Education”, quantifies the extent of the problem.

She uses measures such as the World Bank’s learning poverty indicator, which refers to the ability of children to “read and understand a simple text by age 10,” and a “below minimum proficiency” (BMP) indicator based on the learning poverty indicator, to compare child literacy skills in eleven Arab countries to those in other countries of similar economic status.

Shendy found that five wealthy Gulf countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—-have an average BMP indicator of 36.6 percent, meaning 36.6 percent of students are unable to grasp a simple text by the end of fourth grade. Countries with comparable GDP per capita have an average BMP of 2.7 percent.

In six lower-income Arab states— Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Tunisia—the average BMP is 59 percent, with Egypt coming in at a whopping 69 percent.

Low Scores on International Tests

One would expect growing up speaking one language and having to learn in another to have a significant impact on education.

Such findings are not new. Shendy shows that on international literacy assessments, specifically the 2018 Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) and 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Arab children score below average, even in rich Gulf countries.

Shendy devotes a section of her paper to reviewing the literature on the effect of not accounting for Arabic diglossia on child literacy. She concludes that diglossia has a negative impact on “phonological awareness, morphological awareness, phonological representation, word decoding, reading fluency, and letter naming,” and notes that this negative impact is greater for families of lower socioeconomic standing.

Two Varieties of the Language

Arabic’s diglossia is a split between two varieties of the same language.

The formal language is called al-Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). It is no one’s native language today, but it is used in formal writing, pan-Arab media, official speeches, and, notably, education.

The everyday languages are often referred to as dialects; they are used in all regular interactions, and, although Arabs have not developed formal writing systems for them, people often write in the dialects in informal settings, spelling words as they see fit.

One would expect growing up speaking one language and having to learn in another to have a significant impact on education.

In a review of various textbooks for kindergarten-aged children in Egypt, Shendy found that only 40 percent of the words used in them overlap with the Egyptian dialect. The rest show varying degrees of differences, from phonological differences to being completely different words, all of which represent challenges to young learners.

Another study based on children in Palestinian villages shows similar findings: Only 21.2 percent of their vocabulary is fully shared with al-Fusha.

Denying the Problem

However, a number of Arab academics and policy makers deny that diglossia is affecting literacy rates. A common argument is simply to say there is no evidence that diglossia impacts literacy, despite years of research to the contrary.

Another common argument is to recognize that Arabic’s diglossia poses challenges but then wriggle out of taking steps.

For example, a 2021 World Bank report on Arabic language education acknowledges the same challenges posed by diglossia that Shendy summarized, even going so far as to say that al-Fusha is not anyone’s mother tongue — a significant acknowledgement since Arabs often refuse to admit that dialects differ significantly from al-Fusha. (Interestingly, the Arabic translation of the report changes that line, stating that “children are not raised to speak al-Fusha,” as though the blame is on parents.)

Another common argument is to recognize that Arabic’s diglossia poses challenges but then wriggle out of taking steps. A July 2021 World Bank report and roundtable titled “Loud and Clear” discussed the importance of using the mother tongue in education to improve children’s academic progress.

The moderator opened the roundtable by stating, “Children, when they’re taught at school in the language that they speak at home, do better in their school studies. It’s just a fact.”

All of the speakers in the roundtable acknowledged this point, except Hanada Taha, who spoke on Arabic education.

Taha, a professor of Arabic at Zayed University, in Dubai, agreed that conducting Arabic education in al-Fusha “leads to many kids falling behind.” However, she put the burden of resolving the issue on families, calling for children to be exposed to al-Fusha via TV and children’s books at home before entering school.

The problem with this so-called solution is that many families do not have the resources or skills to resolve the problem, and research has shown that simple exposure to TV in al-Fusha does not improve children’s literacy.

Looking Elsewhere for Solutions

Another way of failing to deal with diglossia is to simply ignore the matter and lay the blame for low educational achievement on other aspects of Arabic and the education system.

A 2016 commentary for Al-Fanar Media, for example, noted the poor performance of Arab schoolchildren on tests of proficiency in reading, math, and science. The article never mentions diglossia as part of the problem, however. Instead, the author suggests “optimizing printing fonts for speed, removing certain vowel signs,” and “teaching standard Arabic grammar early and efficiently.”

Researchers who promote working with dialects believe in finding ways to help children bridge from their mother dialect to al-Fusha — not in doing away with al-Fusha.

A common attack on proposals to teach children in the language they hear at home is to cast any discussion of dialects as a conspiracy against Arabs, Arab nationalism, and Islam.

A campaign in Morocco to use dialect was met with widespread criticism and rejected as being “a plan aiming to revive the French colonial view that wants Arabic to be limited to mosques only.” The Algerian minister of education’s proposal to use the local dialect to teach the first two years of primary school was likewise shouted down as an effort “to return Algeria to the colonial era.”

A Bridge Between Languages

Those most hurt by these arguments are the Arabs themselves. Researchers who promote working with dialects, among them this author, believe in acknowledging dialects and finding ways to help children bridge from their mother dialect to al-Fusha — not in doing away with al-Fusha.

In fact, a number of studies have shown that if children first learn in their mother tongue, they can then learn a second language faster and better than those who are initially taught just in the standard language.

Shendy herself refers to the need to use dialects as a steppingstone to reach al-Fusha. At no point does she recommend discarding al-Fusha.

No researcher is claiming that there are not other pedagogical issues affecting literacy in Arabic, only that diglossia is a key issue that needs to be treated.

Diglossia itself is not a problem. Many countries deal with multilingual situations, finding a balance between respecting local languages while teaching a lingua franca to allow people to communicate and work together. The issue here is that many Arab policy makers, academics, and opinion leaders refuse to treat diglossia, and this negatively affects literacy and education in general.

Arabs use both al-Fusha and dialects. Both forms of the language embody cultural and historical aspects, and cutting Arabs off from either one is cutting off part of their identity.

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What’s needed is a new idea of language, one that balances the complexity of diglossia with educational needs. But continuing to avoid the problem hurts Arab children, denying them their right to a better education.

Hossam Abouzahr is the nerd behind the Living Arabic Project, an online database for dictionaries for Arabic dialects and al-Fusha. His day job is as an analyst, translator, and editor in the Washington metropolitan area. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام