Incorporating Arabic Varieties in the Communicative Classroom

Qatar Foundation International (QFI) works with educators and classrooms across the world. We are committed to promoting teaching Arabic in a communicative way, one that supports the various modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, presentational, and intercultural), and in classrooms that demonstrate traits of 21st-century skills and global competency in action – classrooms that are interactive, student-centered, and those that encourage critical thinking. QFI strongly believes that classrooms must be engaging environments that connect learners with the world around them. When it comes to teaching Arabic and centered on this communicative approach, QFI views Arabic as one language that encompasses all its varieties. Working globally, we understand each context is unique, and as such applicability of this approach must be catered to that specific context. However, in every context, QFI expects that a focus should be placed on communication and pedagogies that are based on communicative teaching.

In order to realize this approach and allow students to develop their communication skills more fully, we encourage the teaching of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and an Arabic dialect, together, in the classroom. Since Arabic speakers across the Arab world function in both MSA and a dialect, it is natural and expected that any learner of Arabic is exposed to and learns to use both varieties appropriately, from first year Arabic and onward. And in contexts where learners are Arabic heritage students with proficiency in one Arabic dialect, focus in instruction may be placed on writing and reading skills in MSA but still within a communicative framework.

This approach reflects the integration that happens naturally to a native Arabic speaker. Teachers should keep in mind how communicative tasks and functions are performed in a real-world context and to strive to introduce language that is appropriate for that context. For example, speaking to a taxi driver is done in dialect, so role-playing that involves taking a taxi in an Arab country would be done in a dialect. Formal writing is typically done in MSA, so a letter to the editor about an environmental issue should be expected to be composed in MSA. It is incumbent on the teacher, to model both varieties of Arabic naturally to your students, as the use of both in the Arab world is natural and seamless. The teacher is a role model of how to use the language and as such, the teacher will best serve the students by emphasizing that both MSA and the dialects constitute one language and share a great deal in common. Therefore, both MSA and dialect need to be present in any communicative classroom from the onset. Educators should be sure to validate all varieties of Arabic. For example, this may include drawing from expressions that heritage students in your class may have learned at home or using your own dialect in your teaching. Ultimately, QFI believes that students who are taught in programs that integrate MSA and an Arabic dialect will be well prepared to thrive in a variety of social, academic, and professional settings.

Questions and Answers on Incorporating Arabic Varieties in the “Communicative” Classroom

  • What is the reason behind Qatar Foundation International’s (QFI) stance to include dialects in the Arabic classroom?

QFI’s approach to expose learners of the Arabic language to an Arabic dialect alongside MSA is based on two main reasons. First, native speakers of Arabic living in the Arabic-speaking world use both MSA and a dialect daily. Therefore, it only makes sense for us to mimic these real-world situations by exposing our students to authentic uses of the language at an early stage of the learning process of Arabic. This approach adopted by QFI also comes in line with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) National Standards for Foreign Language Education that states the following: “In oral communication, contemporary speakers of Arabic do not observe a strict separation between fusHa and ‘ammiya, but mix them in varying degrees depending on the level of formality of the situation, the complexity of the subject matter, the identity of co-participants in the conversation, and their own levels of control of fusHa. An essential part of knowing Arabic is knowing both the fusHa and one or more ‘ammiyas, and mastering how, when, and to what extent to mix them, either by introducing colloquialisms into fusHa or by bringing fusHa structures into ‘ammiya. Being aware of this continuum of language use will serve teachers well since it applies to heritage language speakers and to those who are learning it as a foreign language” (NSFLEP, 2006, p. 116). Incorporating a dialect within the classroom better reflects the realities of the Arabic sociolinguistic situation where a mixture of both formal and colloquial Arabic is used in everyday speaking situations, mass media, and more increasingly in writing. In recent years, we have seen increased evidence that Arabic dialects are becoming part of the literary scene; some novels have been written entirely in an Arabic dialect, while others exhibit a mix between MSA for narration and a dialect for dialogues. MSA and Arabic dialects coexist, interact and influence one another daily. It is imperative that Arabic teaching and learning demonstrate these variations inside the classroom, so that learners of Arabic may have full exposure to a wide variety of communicative contexts in Arabic. An extension of this includes teaching a variety of vocabulary. For example, words such as عندي instead of لديَّ and the يلبس instead of يرتدي are words used in MSA and the dialects and in each instance, both can be taught and included in the classroom. This helps to underscore the connection between these varieties of Arabic. Exposure to such words, and others, will take place at the higher levels as the learners are exposed to more written and spoken texts. Second, one cannot learn a language without learning about the cultures that come with that language. Culture and language are thus inexplicably connected. Learners who are learning Arabic should have good knowledge and understanding of Arab culture. QFI believes that incorporating an Arabic dialect into the classroom at an early stage will allow students to have a better and broader understanding of Arab cultures. The absence of dialect from a classroom is tantamount to depriving learners from an essential cultural experience that exists in any language classroom. Teaching about the cultures of the Arab world comes through when teaching Arabic – teaching culture is not an add on, or separate, from the teaching of Arabic.

  • What is meant by including both MSA and an Arabic dialect inside the classroom? Does this mean that we should teach students each vocabulary item and structure in both MSA and dialect?

Teachers should not provide their students with two different forms of each vocabulary item, phrase, or structure, as this is not feasible and is quite unrealistic. Rather, a curriculum must be developed to include a component of one dialect. For example, when students are asked to create a skit where they are pretending to buy clothes, it is important to learn some dialect words and phrases (from the dialect chosen by the teacher for his/her classroom) that are used in such real- world contexts, which should bring the conversation as close as possible to an everyday situation. As such, this exchange should contain words and phrases from MSA alongside words and phrases from a dialect which mirrors how native Arabic speakers in similar situations and contexts speak. This should enable students to be proficient in both levels of the language.

The dialect component will not be the same across all programs and classrooms but will vary from one program to another according to the program’s overall specific objectives, teachers’ and students’ needs, and the total number of hours of learning. What is critical, however, is that dialect is included in the curriculum as a core linguistic and cultural component along with MSA. Such integration will help enhance students’ linguistic capabilities, particularly in speaking and listening. The incorporation of dialect into the classroom should also be manifested in the teacher’s conversation with the students and the phrases he/she uses to give instructions and to encourage and motivate them. Teachers should not be afraid of exposing students to dialect because it is only natural and realistic, and because dialect is a core component of the Arabic language. Students’ exposure to dialect will lead to deepening and broadening their knowledge and understanding of Arabic and its cultures.

  • Why not rely solely on teaching MSA? Isn’t it the common language used by and comprehensible to all native Arabic speakers?

Over the past two decades, mass media in the Arab world has contributed to creating a new Arabic linguistic scene, where MSA and dialect interact on a broader and deeper scale, as we see in the language used on Twitter, Facebook, billboards, and in TV commercials, programs and dramas. Such programs offer viewers exposure to many Arabic dialects that may have sounded foreign to them not long ago or that they may not have been previously exposed to in their daily lives. This new language reality clearly shows us that when native Arabic speakers interact with each other in everyday casual situations, they mostly communicate in their own dialects or adjusted versions of their dialects, but they do not use MSA as the sole way of communicating. It is true that they use MSA in formal situations like reading and writing, listening to the news, and in a formal speech, but claiming that MSA is the spoken language among Arabs who speak different dialects is inaccurate and far from true. It is also natural that elements of MSA will exist in spoken language, but that does not mean that MSA is the exclusive variety of communication. Although differences exist in sounds, vocabulary and structure, many Arabic dialects still have many characteristics in common with MSA, which does makes communication easier. Speaking in MSA in many everyday situations is possible, and that is what historically most programs that teach Arabic have done, but it is unnatural and does not reflect the real-world situation of the uses of Arabic. Therefore, in order to train our students to communicate more authentically, we should think about ways to make their spoken Arabic as close as possible to the language of native Arabic speakers.

  • Why do we need to focus on incorporating an Arabic dialect inside the classroom? Why not wait until students travel to the Arab World where they will learn the country’s local dialect?

When a student learns a language, they are also demonstrating an increased interest in not only speaking the language but also understanding more about the cultures associated with the language, including learning about the countries and peoples where this language is spoken. We should not ignore why one learns a language and focus solely on teaching MSA only because it is a variety comprehensible to all Arabic speakers, or because they need to take a certain examination, or say that students will get a chance to learn an Arabic dialect once they travel to the Arab World. The problem is that, by insisting on MSA-based conversations in everyday speaking situations, and by eliminating dialect from the learners’ spoken language, we are creating an artificial and fake mode of communication that does not exist. We are required today to reconsider how we teach Arabic because we cannot continue to use the same old techniques, approaches and practices in teaching the language and perceiving it.

  • Which dialect should I use in communicating with my students inside the classroom? How do I decide which dialect works best for them?

There are many Arabic dialects and exposing students to them may confuse them and cause them to be overwhelmed. Some teachers believe it is important to incorporate a dialect inside the classroom, but they are not sure about which dialect to choose, or they feel their own dialect might be too difficult for learners, or that they struggle in teaching MSA let alone adding in a dialect! The answer to this question is simple: the dialect that can be used inside an Arabic classroom is the dialect spoken by the teacher or any other dialect that the teacher has basic knowledge of its vocabulary and expressions. Some teachers are capable of speaking in more than one Arabic dialect; hence they have the option to incorporate the dialect of their choice in their programs. All Arabic dialects are equally important. There is no one dialect that is significant or adequate than another. It does not matter which dialect we choose, but what matters most is for students to be exposed to one Arabic dialect. This exposure is manifested through the teacher, who presents a role model of a person speaking this dialect alongside MSA in relevant situations. This way, learners can have firsthand experience of how Arabic speakers employ different varieties of Arabic based on context and circumstances. It is important to remember that we should focus on one dialect only, in addition to MSA at early stages, while taking into account that students will be exposed to more than one dialect in the future if they continue to study Arabic, have further interactions with native Arabic speakers, and get the opportunity to travel to different Arabic-speaking countries. Our goal here is to enable students to use an Arabic dialect alongside MSA, so that they use Arabic in a natural way in communicating with other Arabic speakers and learn how to adjust the way they speak in a way that allows them to communicate with others effectively. The adjustments made by speakers of Arabic in their spoken language based on the context they are in, represent an important strategy used by native speakers of Arabic. Our role is to provide our students with the opportunity to fully develop this strategy as part of their speaking skills in addition to their listening, reading and writing skills.

  • As a teacher, what is the ideal way to incorporate an Arabic dialect inside the classroom?

There is no one correct way or approach to incorporate dialect into a curriculum but deciding on how much dialect and the method of incorporating it inside the classroom depends on the respective program and its goals. We explained that the goal here is to expose students to dialect inputs in the same way they are exposed to MSA inputs based on the context. Say we choose to teach a song in an Arabic dialect, this song will represent the linguistic input that students will be exposed to, and we should treat the song as a text with vocabulary and structure, which in this case will be an Arabic dialect. If we present an excerpt from a video of a lecture in which a person speaks in MSA, this text will represent the vocabulary and structure inputs we treat as MSA in a formal context. This means that students are consistently exposed to inputs in MSA or a dialect, and our role as teachers is to highlight the relevant vocabulary and structure to develop students’ ability to use these elements and inputs easily, fluently, confidently and as close as possible to everyday communication. We expect that students will produce a language where dialect and MSA overlap (because this is what Arabic speakers naturally do!), and this is not something we should fear if communication takes place and the meaning is comprehensible to both teachers and students. Experimenting with both MSA and dialect is natural at early stages of learning. At times, Arabic learners may make mistakes as they experiment or not sound authentic in the ways they mix MSA and dialect. We should have trust and faith that with time, more training, practice and exposure to the varieties, students will reach a level where they have full understanding of contexts where MSA and dialects are used. They will also gain knowledge of when and how to best mix MSA and dialect similar to Arabic speakers.

  • What will happen to students who learn words and phrases in a certain Arabic dialect, and need to communicate with people who speak different dialects?

These students will be in a similar situation as Arabic speakers who speak a certain dialect and visit another Arab country that speaks a different dialect or has a friend from a different Arab country. In such situations, students are expected to use the Arabic they have learned, which is a mixture of both dialect and MSA, to communicate by using them and adjusting them just as Arabic speakers do. By communicating with speakers of other dialects, students will be able to learn words from the new dialect. Students will be able to adjust to the dialect of the respective country and learn new elements in the new dialect, making them even more proficient in Arabic. It is our role as teachers to prepare students for such situations by exposing them to real-life and natural contexts and get them ready to accept and use the variety of Arabic dialects, by highlighting common features and employing the strategies they learned to learn new language and cultural elements.

  • What will happen when students start writing in Arabic? Aren’t they going to use dialect words in writing? How will they be able to write in MSA later?

It is normal that when students learn certain elements of the language at an early stage, they will use these elements in writing. As teachers, we must encourage students to do so. If students are exposed to dialect in their learning of the language, it is natural and expected that in their writings, they will resort to using some dialect vocabulary and structure they learned in addition to MSA vocabulary and structure. This possibility should be welcomed and encouraged by teachers. Our focus should be on what students write to communicate their ideas, rather than seeking to draw distinctions between elements of MSA and dialects. This can come at later stages of learning. Below are some examples of a classroom where both varieties are taught. These examples shed light on student performance as a result of this teaching philosophy and approach. This first example is by a student after one month of Arabic, about 25 class hours (and about 25-35 of homework hours). The student wrote the following to introduce himself:

 أهلاً وسهلاً ومرحبا أنا اسمي… أنا من مدينة أفييون في تركيا. أنا طالب في جامعة … عندي أخت واحدة وعندي صديقة. اسمها ناتالي. أنا بحب صديقتي كثيراً. هي طالبة في جامعة. هي تحب الدجاج وشاي لكن أنا ما بحب الدجاج. هي مو مبسوطة مشان أنا ما قريب صاحبتي. بدي أروح تركيا لكن ما عندي مصاري. لازم أشوف صاحبتي. عندي مشكلة كبيرة. الله يسلمك


My name is … I am from the City of Afyon in Turkey. I am a student at … university. I have one sister and a girlfriend called Natalie. I love my girlfriend a lot. She likes chicken and tea, but I don’t like chicken. She ain’t happy cuz I am not close to my girlfriend. I wanna go to Turkey but I don’t have enough dough. I gotta see my girlfriend. I have a big problem. Goodbye!

Looking at this example, we can see that the student was able to express himself clearly, which makes his writing comprehensible to any Arabic speaker. It is obvious that he learned some dialect words and phrases while learning the Arabic letters and sounds. The student used these phrases appropriately to communicate with his readers. We also notice in this example that he used a small number of dialect words and phrases because there are many words and phrases that are shared by MSA and dialects. The student expressed himself in Arabic in a way that does not differ widely from how Arabic speakers write on Twitter, Facebook, and emails. He used a mixture of both dialect and MSA, thus bringing his writing closer to the spoken language. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the student succeeded in producing comprehensible language. This writing reflects the students’ capabilities in Arabic at a very early stage.

This next example demonstrates how a student’s writing at a later stage (in the second semester for instance) will include more words and structures from MSA because by that time, they would have been exposed to additional inputs and would be more aware of the various levels of the language, and what language variety is considered appropriate for spoken versus written situations. The excerpt below is an example of a different student’s writing in their second semester of Arabic, where he writes about his daily routine. This example demonstrates how more formal elements are used in this piece of writing:

            يوم الجمعة يومي المفضل لأني أستطيع النوم أكثر وعندي محاضرتين فقط… صفي العربية يبدأ في ساعة الثاني عشر ونصف بعد الظهر. بعد هذا الصف أجلس خارج وآكل الغداء متى الطقس جميل وليس حار جداً.. بعد كل محاضراتي أعود الى البيت للعشاء وفي ساعة سادسة مساء أخرج الى الجامعة لنادي الطلاب وأعود حوالي السعة الثامنة في المساء وأعمل واجبي

Friday is my favorite day because I can sleep more, and I only have two lectures … My Arabic class starts at 12:30 in the afternoon. After this class, I sit outside and have lunch whenever the weather is beautiful and not very hot … After all my lectures, I return home for dinner. At 6:00 in the evening, I go out to the university to the student’s club, and return around 8:00 in the evening and do my homework…

Here, we see development in writing, with better understanding of the vocabulary and structures that can be used in writing versus speaking. For example, we notice that the word “mu” (not) which students learned at an earlier stage is replaced by “laysa” which they were exposed to at a later stage in their learning process. Students have become aware that “laysa” is the appropriate word to use in this context (formal writing) instead of “mu”. The example further shows us that students can learn the proper forms in MSA or dialect, and how to use them appropriately even if they are exposed to different forms and inputs. It is important to remember that it is extremely important to enable students from the very beginning to be able to communicate and express themselves comfortably in Arabic, and that dialect is part of the Arabic language. The use of dialect in writing or speaking does not indicate failure in communication. Learners of Arabic might use dialect phrases in their writing, a phenomenon that we see in the writings of many Arabic speakers today. We should accept it as an example of the linguistic development stages of the learner, while trusting that the student’s writing ability will develop and that he/she will be more capable of adjusting their language with time, and with exposure to new linguistic input.

  • What are the implications of using a mixture of both colloquial and formal Arabic on students’ reading abilities? Wouldn’t that negatively affect and limit their reading abilities?

As we have previously proposed, we must embrace dialect as an integral part of Arabic. We must trust that students’ knowledge of dialect will only help them communicate better with speakers of Arabic and develop a greater appreciation of Arab culture. MSA and the various dialects have much in common. Students’ abilities to handle reading and comprehending texts depends, to a large extent, on their vocabulary and their knowledge of roots and patterns, which apply to all varieties of Arabic. Exposing students to MSA and a dialect in an integrated approach will only result in expanded vocabulary, which will facilitate reading ability.

  • How should we handle the unnatural mixture of both MSA and dialect that will be inevitably manifested in students’ output especially at early stages of instruction?

There is no doubt that students’ output will contain some unnatural mixture of MSA and dialect, particularly in the earlier stages of learning. We will notice phrases such as “shuft el-film”, “sa- ‘aruuH ‘ila el-naadii” and “laa biddi”. This combination is natural and expected considering the variation’s students are exposed to. We propose looking at this mixture of combinations not as “errors” but as manifestation of one of the development stages in the student’s language learning process and indication of certain, even if still limited, communication abilities. Our role as teachers in such situations is to guide students towards self-correction, as we do with students who produce structures like “cindi sayyara kabiir”, “la katabtu al-waajib” and “ caa’ilati yaskunuun fi dallas.” It is important for us to have faith in the student’s ability to develop his/her language and produce it correctly, if we continue to expose them to proper linguistic inputs, guide them constantly, and allow them opportunities to self-correct. These seemingly unnatural structures that combine formal and vernacular speech are not different from any other issues’ learners face in pronunciation or grammatical structures; students can observe and focus on correcting these issues under a teacher’s guidance, follow up and assistance in reproducing them more appropriately.

  • How do we deal with the fact MSA has fixed and clear rules versus dialect that does not have specific and clear rules?

Some teachers think that dialect does not have rules, which is a false belief because all dialects, exactly like MSA, are governed by precise rules of grammar and pronunciation. Many speakers of these dialects are not aware of these rules theoretically because they acquired these dialects as their native language, while MSA is subsequently learned in school. In teaching Arabic, we must be able to give an idea to learners about dialect structures and rules without getting into details about these rules and irregularities. It is important to stress here that the array of rules introduced about MSA or dialects must depend on the level of students and the functions we want them to perform, so that the role of the rules is to primarily serve communication. When teaching rules, we must point out the many similarities between the structures of MSA and dialects (such as the IDaafa construction), because they are both part of one linguistic entity. We do not necessarily need to draw detailed comparisons and distinctions between MSA and dialect rules in each aspect we teach. Our focus should be from the beginning on introducing inputs and situations that students can simulate and use, to be revisited later in the learning process.

  • Could we depend on only MSA-focused Arabic programs?

As we have previously indicated, any Arabic teaching program must ground its vision and objectives first and foremost on the needs of its students. We may have students who are interested, for example, in studying Arabic for religious purposes (reading the Qur’an and classical literary texts). In such case, if we have enough students, we can offer a class that focuses on classical/formal Arabic (e.g. the Qur’anic language, its lexicon and structures). We may have other students who are interested in reading and translation. In such cases, the teacher does not need to focus on the spoken or cultural aspect of the language and may focus only on what the students want. Therefore, the teacher may decide that there is no need to focus on dialect or allocate time for it. However, considering what we currently see in programs for teaching Arabic, most learners are interested in speaking and communicating in Arabic and understanding the culture. Such interests make it incumbent on us to rethink the components of how we teach to align them with the needs, goals and interests of students.

  • What books/articles can I consult to enhance my understanding of this issue?

Over the past twenty years, several publications have appeared that deal with the issues discussed above. The following are some suggested readings:

Al-Batal, Mahmoud. 2018. Arabic as One: Integrating the Dialect in the Arabic Curriculum. Washington, D.C. Georgetown University Press.

Belnap, R. Kirk. 2006. “A Profile of Students of Arabic in U.S. Universities.” In Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals in the 21st Century, edited by Kassem M. Wahba, Zeinab A. Taha and Liz England, 169-78. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Heath, Peter. 1990. “Proficiency in Arabic Language learning: some Reflections on Basic Goals.” Al-cArabiyya 23: 31-48.

Husseinali, Ghassan. 2006. “Who is Studying Arabic and Why? A Survey of Arabic Students’ Orientations at a Major University.” Foreign Language Annals 39: 395-412.

National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project (NSFLEP). 2006. Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century, 3rd ed. Lawrence, KS: Allen Press.

Nicola, Michel. 1990. “Starting Arabic with Dialect.” In Diglossic Tension: Teaching Arabic for Communication, edited by Agius A. Dionisisu, 42-5. Leeds: Folia Scholastica.

Palmer, Jeremy. 2007. “Arabic Diglossia: Teaching Only the Standard Variety is a Disservice to Students.” Arizona Working Papers in SLA and Teaching 14: 111-22.

Parkinson, Dilworth. 1985. “Proficiency to Do What? Developing Proficiency in Students of Modern Standard Arabic.” Al-cArabiyya 18: 11-44.

Ryding, Karin C. 1991. “Proficiency Despite Diglossia: A New Approach for Arabic.” The Modern Language Journal 75: 212-8.

——-. 2006. “Teaching Arabic in the United States.” In Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals in the 21st Century, edited by Kassem M. Wahba, Zeinab A. Taha and Liz England, 13-20. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Shiri, Sonia. 2013. “Learners’ Attitudes Toward Regional Dialects and Destination Preferences in Study Abroad.” Foreign Language Annals 46: 565-87.

——. 2015. “Intercultural Communicative Competence Development During and After Language Study Abroad: Insights from Arabic.” Foreign Language Annals 48: 541-69.

Younes, Munther. 2015. The Integrated Approach to Arabic Instruction. London and New York: Routledge.

Wilmsen, David. 2006. “What is Communicative Arabic?” In Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals, edited by Kassem M. Wahba, Zeinab A. Taha and Liz England, 125-38. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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