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 18, 2009

Which Arabic Ought To Be Taught?

Recently, there have been discussions in Egypt about the diglossic nature of Arabic, about the teaching of Arabic in schools, about the difficulties students face when learning Arabic, and about the methods used to teach the language. As a result students graduate from high schools or colleges with poor knowledge of their own language (see post, 10/12/09, Demise of the Arabic Language in Egypt).
Maher Hasan wrote in Al Masry al Yom an article entitled “Intellectual Struggle: Egyptianization of the Language” (9/4/09). He stated that the struggle about the nature of the language is one of the oldest ‘literary ‘struggles. Lutfi El Sayyed, Hasan said, wrote seven articles in Al Jarida (1913) about the Egyptianization of the Arabic language. So did his students, Mohammad Hussein Heykal and Taha Hussein. Abdel Rahman Al Barquqi and Mustafa Sadeq Al Rifaa3i who defended the sanctity of the Arabic language vehemently opposed them.
Maher Hasan concluded by saying that the Arabic language has profited from the diverse views exchanged between such luminaries as Lutfi Al Sayyid or Al Rifaa3i. Each aspect of the language is contained in its own domain. The colloquial has a domain, and the FusHa has another domain, and none is superior to the other. Borrowing from each other is allowed except the borrowing of common expressions (mubtathala), according to the author.
Reading this article rekindled in my mind the unending debates in the USA among teachers of Arabic about the diglossic nature of Arabic, and the teaching of the language. Discussions were conducted in the summer of 2007 on Arabic-1. It all started when Mustafa Mughazi announced, on Arabic-1, his program at Western Michigan University. He stated that the “first semester he teaches exclusively a colloquial dialect in the Arabic script. The second semester will continue the dialect and introduce MSA as a written language. Second and third year courses will focus mainly on MSA. Study abroad programs will focus mainly on the dialects”(Arabic-1, 6/1/07)
Different opinions were expressed following Mughazy’s message. The exchange of ideas held on Arabic-1 were between Mustafa Mughazy, David Wilmsen, Nimat Hafez Barazangi, Jeremy Palmer, James E. Bernhardt, Fred Cadora, Dina El Zarka, John Joseph Colangelo, Ola Moshref, Abdulkafi Albirini, Waheed Sami, Michael Schub, Haider Bhuiyan. Antonia Gimenez, Munther Younes, Jackie Murgida, Karin Ryding, Klaus Lagally, and Ahmad Khorshid. I hope nobody was left out!
The different discussions exchanged were interesting. I wish they were all gathered in a monograph as ‘The Dilemma of Teaching Arabic to non-Arabic Speakers: Different views, “ and circulated among students. It will make them think that both MSA and a colloquial are features of the same language, and as David Wilmsen wrote” to be deficient in either one is to miss half of the rich culture of Arabic.”( Arabic-1, Colloquial First 6/19/07)
Hence, the debate about how to begin Arabic teaching, i.e. the use of colloquial versus Fusha, seems to be perennial.
In my humble opinion every teacher of Arabic should consider what motivates, and what is most useful for his/her students, and then use the most appropriate feature or features of the language: colloquial first, colloquial and MSA, or MSA only.
Arabic is not a dead language. It should be taught in such a way as to reflect culture as a whole with all its diversity. It certainly needs a talented teacher who can joggle gracefully the different varieties of the language.
The moral of the story is that one should be aware that there isn’t a single way to begin Arabic teaching.
Comments will be most welcomed.


  1. In Arabic countries, I think it is important to maintain classical Arabic in the educational system. This helps keep a common language among the Arab world as a whole and provides for a consistent standard for literature. The net effect is that as long as Arabic is common in the Arab world, there is a larger body of work in the Arabic language than if all the different dialects became the defacto languages.

    In the case of ex-patriot Arabic speaking people, I believe that colloquial Arabic should be taught to the next generation. The dialect selected should match the ethnic origin of the students. The reason to do this is to transmit the cultural context afforded by the language to the next generation of ex-patriots. It will also help create a bridge between the children of immigrant and their parents and grandparents.

  2. A very perspicacious comment. I totally agree that classical Arabic should be, not only maintained in the educational system , but also strengthened in the Arab world.However, heritage students, ex-patriots,should learn both.

    Learning standard Arabic, in many cases,leads to the acquisition of a specific dialect.It acts as a bridge, as a bond among ex-patriots which in many ways help toward the learning or maintenance of one's ancestral language.

  3. Ellen says

    There are 25 countries that speak Arabic. (I looked it up) I understand there is no difference in the classical or MSA Arabic used in these countries. How far do some Arabic speaking countries stray with their colloquial version of Arabic?

    I know some of the difference in MSA and colloquial Arabic is pronunciation ... but can there also be two different words for the same thing in the two versions?

    Are Al Jazeera and other Arabic cable stations a positive influence on the promotion and preservation of classical Arabic?

  4. Yes Ellen MSA is the same in the different Arab countries. However,each country has its own spoken form, or colloquial.
    There can be two differnet words for the same thing,eg.Egyptians say dorg for drawer, and in Jordan it is jaruur; bed in Egypt is seriir and in Jordan takht; matress is martabah in Egypt and farsheh in Jordan...etc.
    AlJazeera is the best thing that happened towards the promotion of the language. It also created a sort of competion among the different Arabic TV stations which gave us better performance!

  5. As long as we all agree that Arabic is not a dead language... there is hope.

    Just a little typo: it is not "Antonia" but Antonio!

  6. Mr. Gimenez, please explain what do you mean by "as long as we all agree that Arabic is not a dead language"! Did my post transmit such an idea?
    Arabic is very much alive, whether it is MSA or a colloquial. My point was to discuss what variety should an instructor use when teaching Arabic.

  7. Of course not, I fully agree with you that Arabic is not a dead language, but unfortunately many colleagues behave as if it was. What I mean is that any choice may be fine to a certain extent provided we want to teach (and use) Arabic as a living language. My point here is that "the ends will lead us to the means". How can I expect my students to use Arabic as a living language if I do not teach them, for instance, what شوف (which is not pure MSA) means? As long as I use it as a living language, they will too.

  8. You seem to be among the talented teachers, as I said in the post, "who can joggle gracefully the different varieties of the language."
    Best of luck

  9. The notion that what is called Modern Standard Arabic is uniform across the Arab world is largely an ideological stance, little questioned, misleading, and untrue. Simply from what we know about the variability of languages across wide geographical areas should tell us that a homogenous linguistic entity covering an area as vast as the Arab world must be a chimera. A few studies (including some of my own), mostly examining the lexicon, but a few addressing syntax, have demonstrated regional differences in usage in MSA. There are, of course phonolgical, orthographical, stylistic differences as well, but these, while remarked upon, are not often addressed in formal studies. Some native speakers of Arabic who work as language professionals, eg, translators and interpreters, journalists, some Arabic teachers, acknowledge this.

    The al-Jazeera effect as a language purifier or homogenizer is widely assumed but never, as far as I can see, put to the test (except in a study that I am preparing). The effects of satellite news broadcasters is even lamented by some purists.

    There is nothing at all remarkable about variabilty in the written langauge. It simply shows that the language is indeed living. In fact were it truly invariable, it would probably be dead.

  10. Although the question on this post is on 'which Arabic ought to be taught?'your comment on the linguistic variation of MSA will be of interest to many readers.
    You are absolutely right,MSA is not "uniform across the Arab world". There are indeed linguistic variations, especially phonological differences. Those differences are obvious when one listens to the news broadcast from all over the Arab world, whether it is from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan or Morocco. It is especially noticeable when one observes interviews conducted in an MSA type on Al Jazeera TV, and when the interviewees are from different parts of the Arab world.
    However, I would like to stress here that MSA is usually used as a 'generic'term, and it is "an ideological stance".
    When we teach Arabic to American students, we either teach a colloquial or MSA, or both. When colloquial is taught, the instructor ought to explain/demonstrate (to a certain extent) the variations that exist across the Arab world. However, when MSA is taught, and unless the students are in linguistics, MSA is offered/taught as being uniform in structure, showing no variation, and as being understood all over the different parts of the Arab world. But, it should never be referred to as invariable. A language regularly spoken or used can never be invariable.
    I would like to stress here that MSA, in spite of its variability, is a sprachbund between Arab speakers all over the Arab world.It is specially used when speakers cannot understand each other dialect. Personally,I used to converse with Algerians in MSA rather than a colloquial both sides had hard time understanding.

  11. My comment was in reply to the comment by Anonymous of 23 November to this post, who stated, "MSA is the same in the different Arab countries."

    I quite agree with you that the MSA we teach in the language classroom is removed from its geography and even its history to some degree (in so far as language can be taught without reference to geography or history). In fact, I find that advanced non-native students of Arabic have better word attack skills than do native speakers of Arabic when contending with unfamilair diction in writing from areas whose MSA they are not accustomed to reading. Indeed, one of the reseach projects I referred to above came about when an Egyptian economist asked me the meaning of an unfamiliar usage from a publication by the central bank in Lebanon. I had to figure it out from context myself (it was a word used in reference to local elections), but since then I have found that it is a very common Lebanese regionality with which Egyptians are quite unfamiliar in that context (although they use the word in other contexts). The point is, from the way I was taught Arabic, I had greater access to regional differences of the language than even a native speaker might have. As a researcher into this aspect of Arabic, this can also be a hindrance, because I cannot always immediately recognize a particularly localized usage as such. It all looks like Arabic to me. That is not always the case, though; at other times, I can recognize the local "accent" in writing. Another one of the studies I mentioned above (which is about to be published in Arabica) came about because I recognized a Levantine accent in writing, involving an aspect of the syntax of object pronouns of di-transitive verbs that is not used often in Egyptian writing but is preferred in Levantine writing. So the way writers treat such object pronouns marks them as either Egyptian or Levantine. A clear regional difference in MSA.

    Really cool blog by the way!

  12. Thank you about the blog.
    Your comment is excellent, and do send me,via email, the information regarding your Arabica article. I will put it as a post rather than having it in the comment section.It will be more visible to the blog readers.

  13. Reply by Liu, Haiyong
    Assistant Professor of Chinese Linguistics

    I couldn’t agree Wilmsen more. Writing Chinese characters is a killer for Chinese-learning students. A lot of students and teachers equate learning Chinese and writing Chinese characters, the focus of L1 Chinese education. Nowadays, most of the educated Chinese, including my 78-year old father, are typing on a computer, a revolution in writing Chinese. That has brought with it the discussion of if we need to still focus a lot on Chinese character writing. Personally, I think, all depends on the students. If the students are well driven and capable of dealing with the difficulty, the teacher can require higher Chinese-character writing skills. If the students are in the class just for fulfilling language requirement, not interested in becoming a scholar in Chinese studies, the teacher can use the precious teaching time on speaking and listening. And I like Wilmsen’s point on focusing more on reading than writing. It might not be a good idea to let students learn to write Chinese characters on a computer, which is easier and more up-to-date. And another issues is what is writing. Writing is not only for character writing; writing also refers to writing sentences, passages, and articles, which require more linguistic proficiency than good grasp of character writing. I think as a teacher, especially one teaching in a not top-notch university, I focus on developing students overall communicative competence. I sure will not tell students that I focus more on listening and speaking and reading, but in practice, I will strengthen these three parts than writing characters.