Pathways toward Increased Sociolinguistic Competence in Arabic
Panel XI-20, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am
An increasing number of Arabic programs have adopted curricula that include training in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) as well as some form of colloquial Arabic (CA). The goal of these curricula is to help learners develop sociolinguistic competence, the ability to understand MSA and CA, and to move on the MSA-CA continuum in different communicative contexts. This panel aims to investigate the relationship between training in different varieties of Arabic, on the one hand, and different aspects of second-language (L2) Arabic communicative competence, on the other. Some of the questions we will address include:
- For advanced learners receiving multidialectal training, is there an interaction between the variety of Arabic they learned during their first year, their metasociolinguistic awareness, their personal variety preference, and their variety use in both oral and written productions?
- Given that “MSA+1 colloquial” approaches are common, and specifically the choice for MSA+Egyptian or MSA+Levantine is widespread, how can multiple colloquials be incorporated to enable greater linguistic and cultural diversification? What role can project-based learning play here?
- Can learners acquire sociolinguistic variation at the novice level, and if so, how does this acquisition interact with the integration format (MSA+CA), sequential format (MSA followed by CA), and traditional format (MSA only)?
Through investigating these questions, this panel aims to contribute to our understanding of the role of multidialectal training in L2 Arabic sociolinguistic competence, and consequently, in communicative competence.
As instruction in colloquial Arabic has increasingly become part of collegiate Arabic language programs, the primary colloquials taught have overwhelmingly been Egyptian and some form of Levantine Arabic. While the “MSA+Egyptian/Levantine” model has certainly contributed to improvements in students’ sociolinguistic competence, it inadvertently has sustained erasures. Specifically, the “MSA+Egyptian/Levantine” model reinforces imaginings of an Arab world in which cultural and political centers like Cairo and Damascus and their Arabic varieties are deemed the most valuable objects of study, consigning other areas of the region to the periphery. Those areas remain relatively invisible in the curriculum, both linguistically and culturally. In the twenty-first century Arab world, increased intraregional flows of people and technologically mediated communication have rendered the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region more accessible to scholars and students, making curricula focused on the practices of a few “central” areas increasingly anachronistic.
In recent years, some linguists of Arabic have proposed multidialectal approaches to the teaching of Arabic. Their goal is to improve students’ receptive skills in multiple dialects, and to foster students’ meta-linguistic awareness of the wide-ranging linguistic variation in the language (Soliman, in press; Trentman, 2022; Trentman & Shiri, 2020). So far, proponents of multidialectal approaches have not yet foregrounded the potential of these approaches to include more systemic engagement with the cultural diversity of the Arab world. As cultural practices vary based on the same factors that determine linguistic variety (Kubota, 2003), it follows that multidialectal approaches will be most impactful if the multicultural content of course materials in various colloquials receives equal attention as the comparative study of colloquial features.
This paper examines the contribution multidialectal approaches to the teaching of Arabic can make to curricular diversification that is both linguistic and cultural in nature. To that end, it discusses two examples of project-based learning that aim to substantially expand learners’ focus on diverse Arabic colloquials and cultural practices. The presenter will discuss the design and objectives of each project, their implementation with twenty Intermediate-level learners of Arabic, the role of learning technologies in each project, and results based on assessment and student reflections. The paper concludes with concrete recommendations for maximizing the potential of multidialectal approaches.
Developing sociolinguistic competence in Arabic can be a complex process given how Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Colloquial Arabic (CA) are used within a changing sociolinguistic environment in Arabic-speaking communities. Findings from empirical research suggest that second language (L2) Arabic learners who receive multidialectal training in MSA and CA can gain awareness of context-related sociolinguistic expectations. However, research is yet to examine the association between L2 Arabic learners’ profiles, the type of first year Arabic instruction, and their metasociolinguistic awareness and code preferences as shown in their metasociolinguistic reflections. It also needs to examine how such association manifests itself in learners’ oral and written productions. The current study addresses these questions. Six advanced students receiving multidialectal training participated in the study. The data comprised a language learning history survey, reflections on sociolinguistic variation, and oral and written productions. All the data were analyzed qualitatively, and MSA-CA use in the participants’ productions was also analyzed quantitatively. The findings show that initial training was sometimes associated with participants’ MSA-CA use. However, learners’ personal preference, the type of task, topic, and interpersonal cues interacted with the type of training to influence how participants use MSA-CA, providing evidence of the participants’ rich, multifaceted sociolinguistic competence and agency that enable them to navigate tasks and contexts. This study offers important pedagogical implications for the L2 Arabic classroom.
The richness of Arabic sociolinguistic variation (SLV) offers unique opportunities and challenges for second language learners and instructors (Al-Batal, 2018). Despite this linguistic reality, the Arabic as a Foreign Language (AFL) community is torn over how and when to introduce SLV to students. Although many language functions at even the novice proficiency level necessitate SLV awareness (ACTFL, 2012), most existing research into this topic explores outcomes with intermediate and advanced learners of Arabic (Nassif & Al Masaeed, 2020; Soliman, 2014; Trentman & S’hiri, 2020). The current study expands this area of research by investigating the acquisition of SLV at the initial stages of learning. 56 novice participants studied mini-Arabii, a miniature language (e.g. Cross et al., 2020; Mueller, 2006) which mimics lexical SLV between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic (ECA). The training conditions operationalize different AFL curricular approaches: 1) Integrated (MSA and ECA taught side-by-side, representing a classroom that introduces SLV early on); 2) Sequential (MSA taught first, ECA taught second, representing traditional instruction followed by study abroad or a dialect elective), and 3) Traditional (MSA-only). Acquisition across the three conditions was measured throughout the three-day, web-based experiment in terms of accuracy (both absolutely as a binary score and approximately utilizing the Levenshtein Distance) and processing speed (reaction time). Initial findings reveal mixed results: learners appear to process words more quickly in the Integrated condition than the Sequential condition, yet accuracy is roughly equal between all three conditions. The results shed light not only on how L2 learners of Arabic can acquire and process SLV through a psycholinguistic lens, but furthermore how these outcomes are influenced by current curricular approaches.