Note: These are parts of my Master’s dissertation “Arabic Language Maintenance Without Maintaining Spoken Arabic: A case study of ‘speaking Fusha’ at a weekend school in London”.  I was awarded a distinction on this research. I am hoping it will help answer some questions about Arabic sociolinguistics. I am also attaching the complete Dissertation.

Arabic language


This study explores a unique case of language maintenance at an Arabic weekend school in London. The school is run by devoted non-linguist native Arabic speakers and it has a policy of speaking Fusha, the literary variety of Arabic, inside classrooms. In addition, Spoken Arabic is usually corrected and considered inappropriate to the extent that the school administration prefers speaking English rather than Spoken Arabic inside the classrooms.

In investigating this paradoxical situation, this study aimed at exploring attitudes and perceptions about Arabic varieties among parents, students, teachers, and the school administration, observing the Arabic varieties spoken at the school and investigating their influence on the Arabic language maintenance efforts.

This study indicates that the multifaceted aspects of Arabic diglossia and Arabic various regional spoken dialects have an enormous influence on the school. Fusha is considered as superior to Spoken Arabic, even though Fusha is not often used as a spoken variety. All participants showed favorable attitudes toward Fusha and seemed to believe that Spoken Arabic is only learned at home. Furthermore, given the highly diverse background of students and teachers, the school is a centre for language interactions among various regional spoken dialects of Arabic. These dialects are sometimes mutually unintelligible. The findings suggest that instead of contextualizing the school’s efforts toward effective language maintenance, the school’s policy of speaking Fusha seems to effect students’ perceptions of Spoken Arabic which might weaken, rather than foster, the continuity of Spoken Arabic among the Arab-British students.

A source of inspiration

Starting my teaching career as an English Teacher at a university in Syria, I had the perception that teachers who are native speakers of English tend to have a different status in the profession. I then decided to teach Arabic, my native language.  I joined a University in the United States of America and I was looking forward to becoming the native-speaker teacher. That university, however, offered classes in Modern Standard Arabic, MSA, and it was my first time that I was supposed to speak MSA. Only at that time did I realize that I was not a fluent speaker of MSA. I was confused and upset. I kept wondering: “How is it possible that I am not fluent in my ‘native language’?!!”

I lived in Syria most of my life until I was twenty. At school, we studied all subjects in Arabic, with the exception of English Language classes which we attended for only two or three hours a week. I spent years learning Arabic grammar and I was a top student in my Arabic classes. However, we never had to speak MSA at school, like the majority of schools in Syria. After I started teaching MSA courses, I came to realize that speaking MSA in spontaneous conversation requires more than knowing the rules of Arabic grammar.

Furthermore, I was not the only one confused and frustrated with speaking MSA. Some of my students, whom we refer to as heritage students, spoke or had Arabic spoken at their homes. Some of those students were struggling in the Arabic classes because they had to modify the way they spoke at home to fit the MSA classes. The general pattern for heritage students of any language is that they speak their heritage language at home, and they learn how to read and write through educational institutes. However, for Arabic heritage students, it is a different situation.

After my initial confusion, I became more aware of the diglossic nature of Arabic and the challenges teaching Arabic resulting from the varieties of Arabic. My particular interest in teaching Arabic to heritage students led to the present study which is conducted at an Arabic weekend school in London where most of students have Arabic roots.

Varieties of Arabic:

The Arabic linguistic and sociolinguistic situation is characterized by a wide range of varieties, both horizontal and vertical, to use Eisele’s (2002) terminology. The multifaceted aspects of Arabic varieties are described in terms of diglossia and numerous regional spoken dialects.


In his well known article ‘Diglossia’, Ferguson (1959) introduces the term diglossia, modeled on the French diglossie, and argues that the Arabic language is diglossic because of the existence of both Classical Arabic and Spoken Arabic which are used for certain purposes and in certain contexts in the Arabic speech community. He lists Modern Greek, Swiss German, and Haitian Creole as diglossic languages. Ferguson (1959, p.244) defines diglossia as:

“Diglossia is a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which might include a standard or regional standards), there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation.”

He also states that children learn the Low variety L first as their mother tongue while the High variety H is learned through formal education. Therefore, “the speaker is at home in L to a degree he almost never achieves in H.” Ferguson (1959, p. 239) discusses differences between H and L varieties in term of forms and functions. For example, grammar in the H variety is more complex and “it is learned in terms of ‘rules’ and norms to be imitated.” On the other hand, grammar in the L variety tends to be simpler and it “is learned without explicit discussion of grammatical concepts”. Furthermore, Ferguson (1995, p.236) lists specific functions for each variety. For example, H is used in formal situations such as a sermon in a church or a mosque, political speech, and university lectures, while L is used for informal situations such as giving instructions to servants and talking with friends and family. He emphasises the importance of “using the right variety for the right situation… A member of the speech community who uses H in a purely conversational situation or in an informal activity like shopping is equally an object of ridicule.”

In his description of Arabic diglossia, Ferguson (1995) argues that Classical Arabic is the ‘high’ variety, H. It is the literary variety of the Arabic language. On the other hand, spoken Arabic which is used for daily communication and has no official written form is the ‘low’ variety, L. Furthermore, Ferguson (1995, p.247) highlights the high status of Classical Arabic for native Arabic speakers. They view it as a unifying factor that “connects the community with its glorious past or with the world community”. On the contrary, the various spoken dialects are viewed as “divisive.” Furthermore, Classical Arabic is viewed as a prestigious ‘heavenly’ language because it is the language of the Quran, the holy book of Islam which is considered as God’s revelation in God’s actual words.

However, many scholars find Ferguson’s classification to be an inaccurate account of Arabic varieties. For example, Fishman (1972) states that the use of Arabic varieties is more flexible and changeable than Ferguson’s dichotomy.  Badawi (1994) argues that instead of only two varieties there are five levels of Arabic: 1) Classical Arabic 2) Modern Standard Arabic 3) High Standard Colloquial 4) Middle Standard Colloquial 5) Low Colloquial. Holes (1995, p.39) considers Ferguson’s categorization of High and Low as a ‘misleading oversimplification’. Many scholars prefer the description of the Arabic linguistics as a spectrum, a continuum, or a diglossic continuum ( al-B atal, 1992; Edwards, 1994; Holes 1995; Kaye, 2001; Elisele, 2002; Wilsmen, 2006; Wahba, 2006; Younes, 2006).  For the present study, I will be referring to the diglossic nature of Arabic indicating a diglossic continuum.

In recent years, the term Modern Standard Arabic, MSA, has been widely used. As Holes (1995) explains, MSA is the modern descendent of Classical Arabic and shares with it most of the grammar, with some variation in vocabulary and phraseology. MSA is the literary variety currently used for writing and reading across the Arab countries. It is generally used for speaking in very formal situations, and in some TV programmes and news reports.  Almost all native Arabic speakers learn Spoken Arabic as their first language and then learn MSA when they start their school education or religious education. Holes (1995) also states that all school materials are written in MSA.

Furthermore, the terminology Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are used mainly among Western scholars, while for ordinary native speakers of Arabic both Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are referred to as Fusha (Holes, 1995; Wilmsen, 2006).  Badawi (1973) uses the term ‘contemporary Fusha’ to refer to MSA. Since many participants in the present study are native Arabic speakers, I will be using the term ‘Fusha’ as it is used by most native Arabic speakers referring to both Classical Arabic and MSA. It is more practical to use the terminology that the participants are familiar with.

Spoken Arabic Varieties:

Spoken Arabic, SA, refers to language varieties used for daily oral communications and most native speakers of Arabic learn their spoken dialects as their mother tongue. Furthermore, SA is not one variety; it is a collective term used when referring to the various regional spoken dialects. The Arabic word for SA is Ammiyah.

Some linguists who conducted observation about the language use of native Arabic speakers have concluded that SA is spoken in a wider context than initially expressed by Ferguson (1959). For example, Wilmsen (2006, p.131) conducted fieldwork for a PhD dissertation the focus of which was modes of speech of educated speakers of Arabic, mainly their conversation at work and at conferences and other discussion sessions. His main finding was that “The vehicle for discourse of the educated professionals whom I observed and with whom I interacted was vernacular Arabic… Thus, even intellectuals and language professionals, whose very work requires them to write and declaim at the highest standards of formal Arabic, spent most of their professional lives (and their home lives as well) steeped in another variety of Arabic: the vernacular.” A similar observation was made by Badawi (1973) who stated that a university professor in the Arab world “writes in CF (contemporary Fusha) but usually delivers his lectures in the vernacular of the educated” (cited in Wilsmen, 2006, p. 150).

It is well agreed that the domains for speaking MSA or SA are not rigidly defined. (al-B atal, 1992; Edwards, 1994; Holes 1995; Kaye, 2001; Elisele, 2002; Wilsmen, 2006; Wahba, 2006; Younes, 2006).  Some Arabs might use SA in formal occasions. However, speaking MSA in intimate domains or for bargaining in the market is perceived as absurd and ludicrous (Holes, 1995). There is only one exception, as Kaye (2001, p.120) explains. Non-Arab sometimes can and do use MSA in domains where it is not expect, and they “get away with it” without being laughed at because this is part of the “natives tolerance of the speech of non-natives”. Also Kaye (2002, p.120) describes the use of MSA by non-Arabs as being part of ‘foreign Talk’”. This argument is very relevant to the present study and it highlights the contradictory situation of requiring Arabic heritage children to speak MSA as part of language maintenance efforts when speaking MSA has ‘foreignness’ implication.

Furthermore, Holes (1995) also explains that speakers from geographically close areas do not have difficulty understanding each other’s dialect. However, mutual intelligibility becomes harder among speakers of geographically remote areas. Holes (1995, p. 5) states that “Geographically, these dialects might be thought of as being distributed along innumerable sets of intersecting continua.” In addition, some dialects such as Egyptian and Levant dialects are generally understood by speakers of other dialects because of popular TV programs and songs. Also, dialects of capital cities such as Cairo and Damascus are “more widely understood than others, and have acquired the status of ‘prestige’ national or even international spoken dialects.”

Given the wide variation of SA, one would wonder what happens when speakers of different dialects come together. There are a few studies about Arabic inter-dialectal conversations.  Holes (1995) argues that Arabic speakers of different dialects resort to language accommodation strategies such as reducing the use of words that are particular to specific dialect and might not be understood by speakers of other dialects and using words that are common among dialects and more likely to be understood.   Similarly, S’hiri (2002) concluded from her study of language spoken by Tunisian journalists to Levant journalists at a media agency in London that Tunisian speakers tend to linguistically converge toward their interlocutors. They modify the way they speak to make it easier for their interlocutors to understand them. They also eliminate code switching to French. Furthermore, both Holes (1995) and S’hiri (2002) state that native Arabic speakers hardly ever speak MSA in face-to-face conversations.

The emerging Middle variety:

In his discussion about stability of Diglossia, Ferguson (1959, p.240) predicts that some factors might affect the stability of diglossia and lead to the emergence of a “relatively uncodified, unstable, intermediate form.” He describes the ‘anticipated’ intermediate form of Arabic as “a kind of spoken Arabic much used in certain semi-formal or cross-dialectal situations has a highly classical vocabulary with few or no inflectional endings, with certain features of classical syntax, and a generous admixture of colloquial vocabulary.”

Currently, many scholars talk about a change that is happening to the diglossic situation of Arabic by the emerging middle variety (Mitchell, 1987; Ryding, 1991; Stevens 2006; Wahba, 2006). There is no consensus about the name or the exact description of this middle variety. It is, however, viewed as a solution for intelligibility during inter-dialectal conversations, and for teaching Arabic as a foreign language. For example, Mitchell (1987, p.8) argues for the existence of Educated Spoken Arabic, ESA, a variety of the language that incorporates features from both MSA and the SA. He states that “it is the interplay between written Arabic and vernacular Arabic(s) that creates and maintains Educated Spoken Arabic both nationally and internationally.”  Another name for the middle variety is Formal Spoken Arabic, which is described by Ryding (1991, p.212) as “a supra-regional, prestige form of spoken Arabic practical as a means of communication throughout the Arabic speaking world.”

In addition to being a potential solution for inter-dialectal conversations, the semi-formal characteristics of Educated Spoken Arabic solve the problem for Arabs who do not speak “a fully inflected MSA with a high degree of proficiency or accuracy” because they can speak the “so-called ‘pause forms,’ in which the complex inflections of formal Literary Arabic are greatly reduced” (Stevens 2006, p. 56). Furthermore, Educated Spoken Arabic also serves as a bridge between MSA and SA, and facilitates the learning process of Arabic as a foreign language (Stevens, 2006; Ryding, 1991)

Arabic inflectional case endings:

As discussed above, there is a big difference between MSA and SA in phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. In general, MSA grammar is more complicated and is learned through formal education. Therefore, not all Arabic speakers are aware of the detailed rules of MSA. As Stevens (2006, p.56) explains “there are many rules not well known to the nonspecialists that are found only in written, and except for formal spoken contexts, are never encountered in everyday spoken Arabic. As a result, native speakers of Arabic, even educated ones, are often unsure of MSA grammatical rules and can’t give correct examples (let alone explain rules).” A similar observation was made by Badawi (2002, p160) that educated native speakers of Arabic rarely speak formal literary Arabic, and if they do, “they usually deviate from the prescriptive rules.”

One of the major differences between MSA and SA, and which makes speaking MSA in spontaneous conversations difficult, is the use of case endings. As explained by Stevens (2006, p.43), nouns in MSA are inflected according to their position in the sentence (nominative, accusative, genitive) and according to their state (definite or indefinite). “When definite, the noun takes the definite article ‘al and one of the three case endings without final –n; when indefinite, it takes no article and the same three case endings with final –n. Thus al-kitābu, al-kitāba, al-kitābi ‘the book’ contrast with kitābun, kitāban, kitābin ‘a book’”.

On the other hand, nouns in SA do not take case endings. Thus, ‘a book’ versus ‘the book’ is expressed kitāb versus il-kitāb.  Therefore, it is a lot easier for speakers because they do not have to worry about the correct case endings while speaking. In his study of the history of Arabic varieties, and the evolution of SA, Holes (1995, p.30) states that the Arabic used in everyday speech of Arabs probably had begun to lose the final short vowel endings indicating mood and case “by the late seventh century.”

The influence of Arabic varieties on learning Arabic:

There are very few studies about learning Arabic as an immigrant language. For the present study, the researcher spent a tremendous amount of time looking for research about the influence of diglossia on the language acquisition of young heritage learners of Arabic without finding any. The researcher also searched for studies that investigate any potential correlation between speaking MSA and students’ reading abilities, and could not find anything.  Therefore, given the lack of research about Arabic acquisition and learning by heritage students, it was necessary to look at the available literature about learning Arabic by native Arabic speaker children, and learning Arabic as a foreign language. This literature has been approached with extreme caution because these are relatively different contexts. However, this literature was the only available resources, and it is relevant to the present study, in particular, the discussion about teaching MSA.

To start with, Arabic native speaker children are born into a complicated linguistic context: They grow up speaking their native dialect and then learn to read and write in MSA.  Al-Jabiri (2003) talks about the difficulties Arab children face in learning MSA because it is like learning ‘a new Language’.  Also, he states that students do not use this new language, MSA, in their everyday life outside the school, which adds to the complication of the situation. Furthermore, in their study, ‘Is Literary Arabic a Second Language for Native Arab Speakers?: Evidence from Semantic Priming Study,’ Ibrahim and Aharon-Peretz (2005) compared the semantic priming effects in auditory lexical decision within Spoken Arabic, SA, with the effects found across languages with Literary Arabic, LA, or in Hebrew. The Study concluded that “despite the intensive daily use adult native Arabic speakers make of SA and LA, and despite their shared origin, the two languages retain their status as first and second languages in the cognitive system.”(Ibrahim and Aharon-Peretz, 2005, p.51)

Moreover, Mahmoud (1986, pp.241-242) discusses the educational impact of diglossia in contexts where Arabic is in a direct competition with a foreign or a second language, especially in the North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. He states that diglossia makes Arabic hard to master and diglossia is one of the reasons why “French had violently usurped most of the social, educational, administrative and most importantly, the economic and technological functions of Arabic.”

Furthermore, according to the United States Foreign Services Institute’s (FSI) ranking (1986), Arabic was among the most difficult languages to learn (cited in Stevens 2006, p. 36). In addressing the question of what makes Arabic difficult to learn, Stevens (2006) argues that there are numerous reasons for this classification. Among these reasons are the spoken/written dichotomy, orthography, and morphology (derivational and inflectional). In addition, there are more difficulties related to pedagogical factors such as the scarcity of professional teachers and teaching materials and the teaching methodology where some native-speaker Arabic teachers tend to teach Arabic the same way they learned it as a native language.

Stevens (2006, p.56) explains the difficulty of learning Arabic because of the spoken/written dichotomy that more efforts are required from the students to learn both speaking and writing varieties and to differentiate between them. He also suggests that “there must be a certain difficulty psychologically in acquiring two closely related systems and keeping them separate while the acquisition process goes on. Perhaps it might be easier to learn two unrelated languages simultaneously than two closely related systems.” Ferguson (1971) has similarly argued that learning Arabic might seem to the students as learning two languages in one.

Challenges and Implications of Teaching MSA:

Given the complexity of Arabic varieties, it is common for Arabic as a Foreign Language programs to teach only MSA for both oral and literary function. There are many challenges and negative implications of this practice. Wilmsen (2006, p125) states: “It is an open secret in the Arabic teaching profession that the language taught in the classroom is not the same as that usually used in speech”. In addition, teaching only MSA requires artificial situations because students learn to use MSA in situations and domains where it is not used in the daily life, such as greeting, introducing people and ordering food. Teaching MSA only limits the chance of teaching Arabic culture because Arabic songs, TV shows, folk cultural elements are mostly in SA.

Furthermore, speaking MSA in the Arabic classrooms places more pressure on teachers, even if they are native Arabic speakers because they are not used to, and sometimes not able, to speak MSA in conversations. A testimony by Younes (2006, p.163) after teaching and developing the Arabic program at Cornell University for over fourteen years clarifies these difficulties and explains how it affects classrooms’ atmosphere:

But writing as one who has been subjected to the forced use of Fusha for speaking, where I felt completely unnatural and inappropriate, and as one who has witnessed countless instances of Arabic instructors confused and overwhelmed by feelings of guilt as they struggle to  cope with the requirements of ‘i’rab (case and mood ending) while trying to think of what to say, it is my strong belief that the insistence on using Fusha for speaking in the Arabic language classroom takes the joy and spontaneity out of teaching the language and takes the meaning out of a classroom discussion. The reason for that is simple: instead of focusing one’s energy and attention on the message he or she is trying to convey, the focus is shifted to form.

In addition to the classroom implications, teaching only MSA has negative implications on the learning outcome as well. Wilmsen (2006, pp.132-141) argues that given the sociolinguistic situation of Arabic varieties, “relying on one variety ignores the dynamic aspect of communication for the language learners (users)”. Therefore, he states that Arabic programs that teach only MSA produce “a disabled learner who cannot communicate adequately.”  Therefore, he concludes that teaching only MSA is a waste of time. This opinion was also expressed by Badawi (2002). Furthermore, Stevens (2006, p.61) points out the paradoxical situation that achieving high proficiency in MSA takes a long time and actually involves “surpassing true ‘nativelike’ performance.”

Recently, there have been some arguments that students should learn Arabic varieties as they are spoken by native Arabic speakers in real-life situations. Wahba (2006, p.151) states that the Arabic programs’ objectives should be directed toward producing a competent diglossic user of Arabic “who has the linguistic knowledge (linguistic and cultural) and the communicative ability to use Arabic language in its social context.” Similarly, Younes (2006, p.164) argues that Arabic should be treated as “one system of communication with a spoken side and a written side and a common core” because it would be a more accurate reflection of the sociolinguistic realities of Arabic and pedagogically more effective. Even though, it might seem difficult and confusing for students to differentiate between varieties of Arabic, Al-Batal (1992, p.302) argues that this potential confusion “should be regarded as part of the total experience of learning Arabic.”



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