This paper is an attempt to describe Arabic and the problem of diglossia which confronts students of Arabic in the United States. Diglossia basically means "bi-lingualness" and is the word used to describe the state of affairs where two different forms of speech live side by side and are used in different contexts. Diglossia is only one of the problems which the student of Arabic will encounter. First I will briefly describe Arabic's place in the world of languages. I will touch lightly on some of the aspects that make it a difficult language to learn for speakers of Indo-European languages. Then I will describe the problem of diglossia in modern Arabic. Finally I will make a proposal on a possible way to teach Arabic that directly addresses the diglossia issue.

Learning Arabic in the United States today has other problems besides diglossia. A partial list of the other problems for a student of Arabic in the United States includes:

  1. The lack of readily available resources.
  2. The need to learn a new alphabet.
  3. Most Arabic texts are written without the use of short vowel marks.
  4. Arabic is not an Indo-European language, therefore there are very few recognizable cognates. The student needs to learn a very large amount of new vocabulary.
Any one of these topics is certainly broad enough to warrant the writing of another paper. However none of the above problems are per se, a problem of teaching methodology, but rather features of the language that the serious student needs to overcome.

Arabic in all of its different dialects is the mother tongue of some 200 million human beings residing in North Africa, the Levant, the Tigris-Euphrates river valley and the Arabian Peninsula 1. Classical Arabic is the language of the Qur'an, and is still the current written form of the language. Classical Arabic is used by approximately 1 billion Muslims 2 for prayer and scholarly religious discourse.

Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family. Other languages in this family include Akkadian, Amharic, Aramaic, Assyrian, Hebrew, Maltese, Phoenician, Sabaean, Tigre and Ugaritic. From this group Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Maltese and Tigre are living languages. Hebrew had been a dead language, but has been successfully revived as the language of Israel. Aramaic is still spoken in two villages in Syria3, but nothing new has been written in Aramaic for awhile. Out of this group Maltese is an exception on two counts, it is written using a modified Latin alphabet and it is the one dialect of Arabic to break off and become its own language.

Of the Semitic languages only Maltese is written using the Latin alphabet. Thus the student of Arabic needs to learn a new alphabet in order to know how to read and write. On the other hand the spelling in Arabic follows a regular phonetic system, and there are very few exceptions. A minor complication with Arabic is that even its printed form is cursive, and the letters have slightly different flourishes depending upon where the letter falls within the word. With the exception of Maltese these languages are all written from right to left, which does require some adjustment.

The feature that is generally a minor shock to literate Anglophones is that Semitic languages are commonly written without the vowel marks which would indicate the short vowels. Semitic languages can get away with this because they all have a predictable root-pattern system. In Arabic the simplest form of a root is the third person, singular, masculine, past tense of the first form. The root KTB holds within it the basic idea of writing. KaTaBa means he wrote, KaaTiBun means writer, maKTuuBun means something written, and maKTaBun means the place where writing occurs. The root KHZN carries the basic meaning of stockpiling. KHaZaNa means he stored, KHaaZinun means treasurer, maKHZuuNun means something warehoused and maKHZaNun is the place where things are stored. The part of speech and the voweling of a particular word in a sentence can be readily recognized by someone familiar with the grammar and vocabulary of that language. Thus for a knowledgeable reader the vowel marks which indicate short vowels are superfluous in Arabic. Only the Qur'an and certain elementary textbooks are completely vowelled4. For an English speaker this does make learning a Semitic language more of a chore than learning French or Spanish. Thus when a reader encounters an unfamiliar word, this person is forced to look it up before being able to read it out loud correctly.

Classical Arabic circa 580 AD was already a refined literary form used for reciting poetry and was a common form which transcended tribal boundaries 5. The prophet Mohammed used this poetic language in imparting his revelations to his followers. After Muhammed's death his followers spread the Qur'an as the received word of God that had been transmitted directly to Mohammed. They also spread the Arabic language with the Qur'an as the unalterable word of God. At first it was the language of the conquerors and the language of their religion. After some time the religion and in some cases the language took root in these new lands. For reasons which are beyond the scope of this discussion, Arabic did not take hold everywhere that Islam did. However some of the peoples who did not adopt the Arabic language did adopt the Arabic alphabet. The Arabic script was unique to the Arabian peninsula at the time of the prophet Muhammed. The Arabic script is currently used for writing Kurdish, Farsi and Urdu. Until very recently it was also used for writing Turkish and Malay.

One of the more difficult and interesting aspects of learning Arabic for the English speaker is that the spoken forms of the language differ from Classical (or Standard) Arabic in terms of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The two forms of the languages live more or less side by side. One is strictly a spoken form, the other is strictly a literary form. Additionally the dialects differ from each other, in at least the same degree that each differs from Standard Arabic. On the other hand Standard Arabic is a well-defined entity and is uniform throughout the Arabic speaking world with only minor variations in vocabulary. The grammar, syntax and much of the vocabulary has changed little since the Qur'an was written in the seventh century.

Even though spoken Arabic is not standardized, each dialect does have a definite set of grammar rules, which if not followed leads to unintelligible speech. Since children learn the language that is spoken to them, Colloquial Arabic is the mother tongue of all native speakers of Arabic.

It is incorrect to think of the existence of two separate languages, one Classical and the other Colloquial 6. Rather it is a continuum. The most "down home" street jargon sits at one end of the continuum. At the other end of this continuum sits the most ornate, elevated, classical language completely inflected for case and mood. Where a given person's speech sits on this continuum depends on a lot of factors, not the least of which is how well the two speakers know each other. Another very important factor in determining the formality of the language, is the formality of the occasion. The full-blown classical form of the language is typically spoken when giving newscasts, university lectures, television or radio interviews, speeches and sermons.

Conversely, Colloquial Arabic is written only in cartoons and movie scripts. Writers occasionally write dialogues using Colloquial Arabic in novels and short stories. Writers who do this run the risk of limiting their audience. In English it is permissable for a writer to toss in some colloquial jargon, for flavor or authenticity, but in Arabic it is "incorrect" for a writer to use colloquial grammar and idioms.

Movie scripts are written in Colloquial Arabic, and in recent years this has overwhelmingly been in the Egyptian dialect. Egyptian films and soap operas are seen in every Arab country 7. This has led to the interesting situation in which the Egyptian dialect is readily understood throughout the Arab world, but the dialects spoken in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunis) are barely intelligible to Arabic speakers from the rest of the Arabic speaking world. For example the first time the Algerian revolutionary Ahmed Ben Bella spoke to the Arab League he had to speak to them in French, because nobody could understand his Algerian dialect 8.

This situation is in some ways similar to the situation in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, when Latin was the literary language, and the great majority of ordinary people spoke some patois or other. Strictly speaking though, the Standard Arabic of the current period, is still a living and evolving language in ways that the Latin of the Middle Ages was not. Many people in the Arab world today know and use Standard Arabic, due in part to a greater literacy rate than that of the Middle Ages, and also because of the spread of mass media such as newspapers, television and radio. Additionally, every year, people continue to write popular fiction, poetry, articles for popular magazines, political polemics and scholarly dissertations in Standard Arabic. Nobody appears ready to break off and form a new literary tradition that is seperate from Standard Arabic.

The question always arises when learning Arabic, which form of Arabic to learn? Without a doubt Standard Arabic occupies a place of prominence above any particular dialect. It is hard to imagine someone with a serious interest in studying Arabic who does not want to learn how to read and write the language. Arabic, the literary language, plays such an important part in what it means to be Arab. After all Classical Arabic is the language of the Qur'an.

However anybody wishing to travel to the Arabic speaking world who only knows Standard Arabic is certainly not ready for the Arabic that he or she will hear there. In fact "for most students, it is quite a shock to realize how far it really is from the spoken forms of the Arabic language" 9. People in the Arab World will more than likely understand someone who really knows Standard Arabic, but this person will miss a large part of the verbal interaction going on, if they have no exposure to Colloquial Arabic. This person will also have difficulties accessing popular Arabic culture such as movies and music, even if he or she never travels to the Arab World. So to really function in Arabic the student needs to learn both Standard Arabic and at least one of the dialects. It is probably safe to say that there are roughly four major dialect groupings of modern spoken Arabic:

  1. the Gulf and Arabian penisula dialect group spoken roughly in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Yemen.
  2. the Levantine dialect spoken in Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.
  3. the Egyptian dialects spoken in Egypt, the Sudan and Libya.
  4. the Maghrebi dialect group spoken in Algeria, Mauretania, Morocco and Tunis. 10
Another problem with teaching only Standard Arabic is that it does not fit neatly into current second language acquisition methodologies. Course designers face some difficult choices with some pretty unsatisfactory solutions when deciding on how to design a course.

There are three broad schools of second language acquisition. There is the grammar-translation style where "the student memorizes words, inflected words, and syntactic rules" 11. Another school of second language acquisition is the direct method which "attempts to simulate learning a language as if the students found themselves in a foreign country without anyone except natives to speak to." 12 Finally there is the audio-lingual teaching method which "is based on the assumption that language is acquired mainly through imitation, repetition, and reinforcement." 13 It certainly seems that Standard Arabic lends itself very readily to the grammar-translation style of teaching. When trying to incorporate other language teaching methods the course designer is faced with the ridiculous prospect of producing a set of audio-lingual style dialogues, for situations in which Standard Arabic is never used, such as arranging a movie date or watching a soccer match. The direct method is used for studying Arabic in the United States by having special summer sessions in the Arabic speaking world.

The de facto arrangement which exists at most universities in the United States is that the primary focus is on Modern Standard Arabic and the Classical Arabic of the Middle Ages. Then with varying degrees of intensity there will be a certain number of courses on "Spoken Arabic". For example, Harvard offers a single semester course in "Levantine Arabic" 14. UC Berkeley offers a two semster sequence called "Spoken Arabic". The dialect taught will vary 15. In the school year 1990-91 it was the Egyptian dialect, in 1991-92 it was the Levantine dialect. The University of Michigan offers two semesters each of Egyptian and Syrian Colloquial Arabic 16. The point is that the spoken language is given much less emphasis than the literary language. To underscore this situation, at UC Berkeley even advanced Arabic classes are taught almost entirely in English. The one class that is taught entirely in Arabic, "Survey of Arabic Literature" 17 rates a special notation in the course catalog. This is a very curious situation indeed, since speaking is the primary linguistic activity in which people engage. Can it be said that a given person is linguistically competent in a language if this person does not speak that language competently? The two halves of the language are being taught seperately, and the spoken form is taught sort of as an aside. Contrast this with how Romance languages are taught. For instance at Harvard University almost every class in the French department beyond the elementary level is conducted entirely in French. The same is true for Spanish and Portuguese at Harvard.

So the question is not only which form of Arabic should be taught but how should it be taught? Obviously every student of Arabic has their own reasons for wanting to learn Arabic. Not every student wants to visit the same part of the Arab world, nor are they all interested in reading the same kinds of texts. Opinion varies on the importance of teaching what is called "formal Spoken Arabic". Wallace Erwin makes the point "When students are encouraged to practice speaking and listening to the same material they are learning to read and write, each of the four activities helps to solidify achievement in the other three" 18. In the book Conversations in Modern Arabic, from which the preceding quote was taken, the authors go right ahead and present "slices of life" where the imaginary characters speak to each other using Standard Arabic in very informal settings.

Is there a workable solution, which reflects the linguistic realities of Arabic? Can we teach Classical Arabic side by side with Colloquial Arabic, as part of the same set of courses? Shouldn't it be possible to teach Arabic, in Arabic, once the students have reached a certain level of competency?

I have heard the suggestion that Arabic be taught with an integrated set of materials. My vision of this is that the textbooks would be divided into a set of textbooks for teaching Classical Arabic and sets of textbooks for teaching different dialects. There would be examples of formal and informal situations, with the appropriate formality of language for the respective situations. Courseware designed in this way would reflect the true situation in the Arabic speaking world. Such a set of courseware would of necessity, need to be designed in a modular way. With a sufficient degree of modularity, the texts, workbooks and audio-visual materials from the desired Colloquial language module could be combined in a seamless way with the corresponding Classical language module. Then the student could learn Classical and Colloquial Arabic concurrently. It would still probably be two seperate courses, a five semester unit Colloquial Arabic class alongside of a three or five semester unit Classical Arabic class. Importance would be attached to getting the students far enough along so that "classroom business" could be conducted in Standard Arabic as much as is possible. The university classroom is one of those formal situations where Standard Arabic is commonly used.

There are logistical problems with using this methodology. Students have a greater opportunity for getting the two forms mixed up early on. Colloquial Arabic really needs to be taught by a native speaker, and there may not be native speakers available for every dialect for which there is courseware and willing students.

I have described in some detail the problem of diglossia, which is one of the major obstacles facing any student of Modern Arabic. My proposal to teach Standard Arabic alongside of Colloquial Arabic at the beginners' level, with integrated courseware, is a major departure from the way it is currently taught. It is possible that it might not be the right way to go. It would have to be implemented first on a trial basis by teachers who believed that it was at least an improvement over the current situation. I believe that it has merit, if for no other reason than it explicitly prepares the student for the linguistic realities of the Arabic speaking world.


Baccouche, Belkacem and Azmi, Sanaa . Conversations in Modern Arabic, The Murray Printing Company, Westford, Massachusetts (1984)

Berkeley, University of California. General Catalog 1992-93

Cowell, Mark W. A Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic. Georgetown University Press(1964)

Finlay, Hugh. Jordan & Syria, A Travel Survival Kit. Lonely Planet Publications, Inc., Berkeley, Ca.(1987)

Francis, Tim. Access to Arabic, Arabic Script Version, Nelson Filmscan(1985)

Fromkin,Victoria and Rudman,Robert. An Intruduction to Language, 4th Ed.. Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1988)

Hamalainen, Pertti.Yemen, a Travel Survival Kit, Lonely Planet Publications, Inc., Berkeley, Ca.(1991)

Harvard University. Faculty of Arts and Scinces, Courses of Instruction 1992-93

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press(1991)

The Information Please Almanac.1994, Houghton & Miflin(1994)

Kimball, John C. The Arabs 1984/85, Atlas and Almanac.American Educational Trust, Washington D.C.(1984)

Merle, Robert. Ahmed Ben Bella, Walker and Co.(1967)

Mitchell, T.F. Colloquial Arabic, The Living Language of Egypt, The English Universities Press LTD.(1962)

Tritton, A. S., D.Litt. Teach Yourself Arabic, David McKay Company, Inc.(no date)

University of Michigan. The University of Michigan Bulletin, Volume II (1992)

1.John C. Kimball, The Arabs 1984/85, Atlas and Almanac, American Educational Trust, Washington D.C.(1984) return to text
2. The Information Please Almanac, 1994, Houghton & Miflin(1994), page 412 return to text
3 Hugh Finlay, Jordan & Syria, A Travel Survival Kit, Lonely Planet Publications, Inc., Berkeley, Ca.(1987), page 45return to text
4 A. S. Tritton, D.Litt.,Teach Yourself Arabic, David McKay Company, Inc.(no date), page ixreturn to text
5 Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press(1991), page 14 return to text
6 Mark W. Cowell, A Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic, Georgetown University Press(1964), vii return to text
7 T.F. Mitchell, Colloquial Arabic, The Living Language of Egypt, The English Universities Press LTD.(1962), page 12 return to text
8 Robert Merle, Ahmed Ben Bella, Walker and Co.(1967), page 91 return to text
9 Pertti Hamalainen, Yemen, a Travel Survival Kit, Lonely Planet Publications, Inc., Berkeley, Ca.(1991), page 45 return to text
10 Tim Francis, Access to Arabic, Arabic Script Version, Nelson Filmscan(1985), page 6 return to text
11 Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rudman, An Intruduction to Language, 4th Ed.,Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1988), page 390 return to text
12 ibid. return to text
13 ibid. return to text
14 Harvard University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Courses of Instruction 1992-93, page 551 return to text
15 Berkeley, University of California, General Catalog 1992-93, page 332 return to text
16 The University of Michigan, The University of Michigan Bulletin, Volume II (1992), page 275 return to text
17 Berkeley, University of California, op. cit., page 333 return to text
18 Belkacem Baccouche and Sanaa Azmi, Conversations in Modern Arabic, The Murray Printing Company, Westford, Massachusetts (1984), page iii return to text
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