Learning Arabic as a Foreign Language

Some Key Issues in Learning Arabic as a Foreign Language

by Karin C. Ryding, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Arabic

The following is a short list of issues pertinent to learning and teaching Arabic as a foreign language. It is meant to give a very general idea about these features, and not by any means to be an exhaustive list. For further details, see my Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic (Cambridge University Press, 2005) or Mary Catherine Bateson’s excellent introduction to Arabic, Arabic Language Handbook (Georgetown University Press, 2003).

1. Non-Indo-European Origin

For English-speaking learners of Indo-European languages, foreign language input (both written and spoken) is in some cases at least partially comprehensible because of cognate lexical items (e.g., French industrie for English “industry,” the French verb danser for English “to dance”, etc.), familiar word structure and grammatical processes (e.g., making nouns plural by adding a suffix such as ‘-s’). Arabic does not belong to the Indo-European language family; it belongs to the Semitic family, which also includes Hebrew, Amharic, and Aramaic. It therefore has few cognates with English, and vocabulary-learning is one of the biggest challenges in learning Arabic. Moreover, there are striking structural and conceptual differences (such as the broken plural for nouns and the existence of a “dual” category for nouns, adjectives, verbs and pronouns) that take time for English speakers to internalize.

2. Non-Roman Script

Arabic script is cursive and is read from right to left. Because it is cursive, letters within words are connected, somewhat like English handwriting, and for a beginner, the script may look impenetrable. Although it looks complicated, however, Arabic orthography is actually more systematic than English, with much better “fit” or consistency between spelling and pronunciation. The achievement of mastering Arabic script is a high motivating factor for students of the language, and takes only about 15-18 class hours to accomplish in a normal university course. From then on, students should write only in Arabic script. It is important for students of Arabic not to rely on any form of transliteration because it will interfere with and delay their ultimate grasp of genuine script and the acquisition of sound-script correspondences. A particularly fun (demanding!) aspect of Arabic script is that short vowels are invisible. Long vowels are written into words, but not short vowels. Nonetheless the short vowels are of course, there, and must be pronounced when speaking or reading out loud.

3. Complex Phonological, Inflectional and Syntactic Systems

Arabic has some phonemes that speakers of European languages do not have in their repertoires. This includes pharyngeals, uvulars, and velarized consonants, as well as difference in vowel length (“short” vowels and “long” vowels”). Arabic also has complex morphological systems and is highly inflected compared to English. For example, there are three different cases (nominative, genitive and accusative) and there are eight different noun declensions.

4. Diglossia

Diglossia refers to the fact that Arabs read and write one form of language (the so-called “high” form), but for everyday spoken communication with each other they speak language variants that are substantially different. Moreover, the spoken vernacular (or dialect) varies from region to region in the Arab world, and although some geographically close vernaculars are mutually intelligible, those separated by vast distances (such as, for example, Moroccan and Kuwaiti) are normally not. These spoken forms have evolved over more than a millennium to accommodate the needs of everyday existence, and are vital, sophisticated, complex, living languages; however, they are not considered appropriate for written communication and therefore are not written down. This means that the spoken variants are free to evolve and adapt in their vocabulary, grammar and style, whereas the grammatical rules for the written language remain essentially as they were in the seventh and eighth centuries, A.D. It also means that the gap between the written and spoken forms is considerable and increases as time goes on. Native Arabic speakers function within a continuum of linguistic competence that encompasses an extensive range of actual performance. This range of competence is, of course, acquired over a long period of time that includes both formal and informal learning experiences. In establishing an Arabic program, in training Arabic teachers, and in devising goals of instruction, methodologies, and in choosing pedagogical materials, diglossia must be kept in mind. A fact of life in the Arab world is that there is dialect diversity and divergence between written and spoken forms of the language. Both forms are necessary for full communicative competence.

4.1 Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)

Most American schools and universities choose to focus on literacy in Arabic as the basic skill when teaching Arabic as a foreign language. The modern written language is called Modern Standard Arabic or MSA (in Arabic, fusHaa). It is the language of all contemporary Arabic written publications as well as the language of the Arabic broadcast media. It contrasts somewhat with classical Arabic, the Arabic of the Qur’an and classical Arabic literature, but the gap is reflected more in topic, vocabulary, and style than it is in grammatical structure. A range of excellent MSA materials is available with sophisticated video and audio support.

4.2 Dialects/Spoken Arabic

Spoken or colloquial Arabic is not generally written down; none of the dialects are “taught” in the Arab world because they are acquired as mother tongues; therefore the idea of teaching the spoken vernacular in a formal classroom setting is unfamiliar to most native speakers of Arabic. Nonetheless, speaking skills are important and necessary for students whose goals include travel to live, study or work in an Arab country, so some universities offer courses in dialects such as Egyptian, Levantine, Peninsular, Gulf and Iraqi. There is a fairly extensive range of materials available for teaching specific Arabic dialects.

4.3. Formal Spoken Arabic (FSA) or Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA)

A pragmatic option for teaching generalized Arabic speaking skills is to use the kind of Arabic spoken by native speakers with each other when they come from different dialect areas, or when they elevate their everyday colloquial language to a higher level (in speaking with a professor, for example, or a dignitary on an official occasion). This type of Arabic has been documented by both western and Arab authors, and it is the choice for spoken language instruction at certain government schools, and at Georgetown University.

5. Difficulty Level

Because of all the aforementioned features, Arabic is categorized as a State Department “level 3” language — the highest on the difficulty rating scale (1-3), along with Japanese, Chinese and Korean. It is the only Semitic language rated at this level of difficulty. Hebrew and Amharic, for instance are rated at difficulty level 2. For level 3 languages it takes longer (sometimes twice as long) for adult learners to reach their proficiency goals. It also requires a substantial study abroad and/or immersion experience for development of full communicative competence.