Welcome to the Arabic Language Discussion Forum

Being a retired professor of Arabic and Linguistics, I have elected to publish an archive on how the Arabic language is used in America and across cultures.

I hope to establish a dialogue with people interested in the language, the teaching of the language, the learning of the language, and the interaction of Arabic and English while learning the language.

I am also interested in having a discussion as to the use of Arabic within the contexts of globalization.

Arabic is very much a language that binds a culture and defines a people. This blog is dedicated to understanding how American use, learn, and teach the Arabic language, and how Arabic, in Arab countries has been impacted crossculturally.

Nov 30, 2009

Modern Standard Arabic as a Second Language

Copyright © 2009 Aleya Rouchdy, All Rights Reserved

In the previous post "Which Arabic Ought to be Taught," I discussed the ongoing debates between Arabic professors about how to begin Arabic teaching, i.e. the use of colloquial versus MSA.

Recently, I read an article I thought might be of interest to all of us, and specially to those teaching Arabic to Arabic speakers.

A study conducted by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim and published in the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management examined the "cognitive status of spoken Arabic versus MSA in the brain."

Dr. Ibrahim concluded that MSA is "expressed in the brain of an Arabic speaker as a second language and not as a mother tongue."

I have always discussed with my students, the difference between MSA and colloquial, and pointed out exactly what Dr. Ibrahim has stated in his study. However, my discussions were not based on any concrete research. It was simply common sense.

It is, however, important to examine the learning of Arabic, both literary and spoken, within the proper domain of language acquisition: first and second language acquisition.

Doesn't this imply that the instruction of Arabic to Arabic speakers ought to use new techniques?
Specially the teaching of Arabic in the Arab world.

Read the whole article on Dr. Ibrahim's study in Science News, and do post your comments.



  1. The study can be read at:


  2. I have always been curious about the status of MSA, politically, lingusitically, and now cognitively. In Chinese teaching, our equivalent is the character-wrting, the most difficult part of learning and teaching Chinese. As a teacher, I have focused more on speaking and listening and reading. At least for our students, spending a lot of time on writing is really focusing only on one part of the language. For the sake of overall communicative success, I don't want to see students pulled back or scared away by Chinese writing. The point is, compared with the role of MSA, what is important and more practical in language teaching.

    Andy Lau

  3. The fact is that students of Arabic do not really need to use their writing skills much after they graduate and enter their careers. But they do need their reading skills and of course their speaking skills. It follows, then, that Arabic teaching should focus more on comprehension and speaking and less on writing. The teaching of Arabic as a foreign language has long been dominated by a bias toward the written language (for some very defensible reasons, but that is beginning to change, and there is now a concerted effort being made to integrate teaching a spoken vernacular (or more than one) into the curriculum. Nevertheless, learning to write with Arabic has its purposes, I think largely because it obliges students to think about how Arabic goes about constructing ideas. And it cannot be denied that the sheer ability to write something in Arabic gives the students a feeling of accomplishment. I am sure students of Chinese feel the same way.

  4. That's interesting! But it is hard to agree with it. Students (even after graduation) may need to use their writing skills. It depends on what they want to do. Such tasks as translation and emailing, for example, are not uncommon and these would mainly require using writing skills. Taking into consideration that Arabic is a phonetic language, students usually learn reading and writing almost at the same time. As a teacher of Arabic, it would be hard for me to focus on one of those two skills without the other.

  5. Emailing, yes, perhaps. That is often done using the vernacular (and sometimes, especially in text messaging) in trasliteration, of all things. If a student is to become a translator into Arabic, then for sure she must learn to write Arabic and write it very very well - such that her writing is indistinguishable from that of a native user of MSA. But the percentage of non-native speakers of Arabic who are 1) able to translate into Arabic and 2) find work as translators into Arabic are very very few. With the second category infintessimally smaller than the first (which is already small).

    About learning reading and writing at the same time, again yes, but reading is a passive skill and writing is an active skill. Read Said El Badawi's discussion of native speakers' approach to and acquisition of these skills: The Quest for 4+ in Arabic: training the 2-3 level. in Leaver and Schekhtman eds. Developing Professional-Level Language Proficiency.

    My lower intermediate students, for example are much more proficient in reading for comprehension than they are at writing anything close to idiomatic Arabic.

    A personal example: I spent fourteen years as the head of a translation studies program at a university in the Arab world, and in that time I might have written 28 documents in Arabic (not counting those that I translated into Arabic): most of them were notes to the guards at the doors requesting permission to admit someone into the campus (although I did write at least one short speech and one opinion for al-Azhar), and occasionally a business letter. But I had stable of secretaries who handled most of the correspondence.

    On the other hand, I spoke Arabic all day every day, and read Arabic every day - at least the newspaper, but very often work related documents, including technical texts of every variety, and certainly correspondence.

    And I am a student of Arabic whose career path is very unusual.

    For most students of Arabic, who are going to use Arabic in their careers reading and speaking are much more important than learning to write the language.

    This is not to say that they should not be taught to write. The very idea is absurd. But to use writing proficiency as a measure of overall proficiency or as a measure of success in teaching outcomes (a measure I have seen some use and whose use many more argue, and many many more seem to hold as an underlying assumption) is also absurd.

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