Arabic Heritage Speakers in Non-Heritage Arabic Language Classrooms

Arabic language classes at universities are predominantly aimed at beginner students who have no prior knowledge of Arabic, however, as Arabic becomes more of a demand in higher education, the number of heritage speakers increases as well. One study at UC Berkeley showed that one in every four or five students in Arabic language classrooms is a heritage student.[1] This essay aims to highlight some of the issues faced by Arabic heritage speakers in non-heritage Arabic learning classrooms, as well as explore some solutions to these issues.

“”Heritage Speakers” refers to individuals who have been exposed to Arabic at home or when they were young, but have no reached the competence and literacy of a native speaker. Typically, these speakers do not use Arabic as the dominant language nor do they have full literacy in it. In addition, they also might display gaps in their knowledge of the culture. Heritage speakers differ in the degree of their fluency and extent of their use of spoken Arabic, but they are often limited to a range of daily life topics and sometimes even have a passive knowledge of the language, i.e. they understand it but do not speak, read or write it. This situation is complicated by the difference between Spoken Arabic (‘Ammiyya) and Modern Standard Arabic Fusha), with the latter being a variety learned at school.” [2]

As Arabic has many dialects,[3] these heritage speakers are most commonly more familiar with the dialect of their family and may only come into contact with Modern Standard Arabic when listening to the news or coming into contact with literature. [4]

Heritage speakers have different levels of Arabic knowledge and bring to the table a host of skills when entering an Arabic classroom of non-heritage speakers. They bring a vast array of vocabulary, listening skills and a sophisticated cultural understanding of the region.[5] However, the heritage speaker can be divided into different sub-groups:

1. The heritage speaker that is able to speak a dialect with near fluency, but has never learned to read or write in Arabic.

2. The heritage speaker that is able to speak colloquially in a fluent or near-fluent manner, can read and write, but not as fluently as speaking.

3. The heritage speaker that is able to speak with fluency, can read, but cannot write or has no sense of the grammatical structure of sentences.

4. The heritage speakers that can speak, but cannot read or write. They have a grasp of grammatical structure and can write Arabic in the Roman alphabet.

5. The heritage speaker that cannot read or write, has very good listening and comprehension skills, but cannot produce orally what they hear.

6. The heritage speaker that cannot read or write, has very good listening and comprehension skills and can produce what they hear orally.

7. The heritage speaker that can read and write but is incapable of producing orally what they hear and comprehend.

  

There may be other subcategories of heritage speakers as every heritage speaker comes from a different Arabic-knowledge background.[6]

As well as bringing to the table positive skills, they also are at a disadvantage in certain areas. They may have to unlearn certain vocabulary or grammatical sentence structures and even pronunciation, in particular, the sounds letters make, variations in short vowel sounds, as well as the duration of long vowels. They are also disadvantaged by being overly confident in their colloquial Arabic skills and may reject or be unaware of the differences in Modern Standard Arabic or on the other end of the spectrum; they may feel insecure by their lack of fluency in colloquial Arabic.[7]

Arabic heritage speakers learn Modern Standard Arabic for various reasons. Some may want to learn more about their culture, others may want to learn to read religious texts or understand what the religious texts are reading and reciting. Some students may want to improve their vocabulary, reading, writing or speaking skills and other students want to be able to communicate with their family members more fluently. Others learn Arabic in order to read literature, news and understand songs. [8] [9]

“Arabic is a diglossic language.” It “contains two grammatically and functionally distinct forms of the language—High or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Low or “dialects.””[10] Some heritage learners have some knowledge of one of the dialects, such as the Egyptian, Levantine, or Moroccan dialect.[11] Some may have never taken a formal Arabic class before entering university. Many first and second-generation heritage students are familiar with one Arabic dialect but were never exposed to Modern Standard Arabic, including at home. Usually, students in Arab countries are exposed to colloquial and Modern Standard Arabic at around the same time, which helps them distinguish between both, but many second-generation heritage students do not have this advantage outside of their ethnic homeland.[12] Therefore, most of heritage learners do not have prior knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic. At home, they use their parents’ dialect to communicate with their family. Any Arabic dialect is considerably different than Modern Standard Arabic, despite many dialects claiming to be the “closest dialect to Modern Standard Arabic.” There is a big difference in vocabulary, grammar and structure between Modern Standard Arabic and the many different Arabic dialects. The difference between Modern Standard Arabic and dialect is not similar to many other languages. In some countries, Arabic dialects are being considered and taught as a new/different language due to the extreme difference and variations between both. [13] [14] [15] [16]

Arabic heritage speakers use grammar when speaking in their dialects, but are not aware of the grammar rules they are using. They are also unaware of the terminology used for grammar rules. In addition, as stated earlier, the grammar in Modern Standard Arabic is different than the grammar of dialects and students must unlearn the grammar they are using in favour of the Modern Standard Arabic grammar. This can be difficult as heritage speakers are used to utilizing the grammar as opposed to taking it apart, analysing their errors and adapting their new knowledge. The heritage learner encounters many language learning obstacles that their non-heritage speaker counterparts do not face, as the heritage speaker is forced to correct recurring blunders of the language to get to the level of language proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic that the non-heritage speaker does not face since they start learning Arabic with a clean slate. [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]

Heritage speakers want to learn to read and write or improve their reading and writing, while non-heritage speakers often want to learn to communicate, speak and understand.[22] Speaking in dialect will typically come easier to the heritage-speaker than the non-heritage speaker; however, in both dialect and Modern Standard Arabic, heritage speakers are more likely to have the necessary vocabulary to speak autobiographically and to an extent about politics or world occurrences. Conversely, they may not have the acquired language skills to speak fluently or more in-depth about these and other academic topics. They typically will also not be able to express themselves in writing to the same extent they would be able to express themselves in their first language. The heritage speaker’s perceived fluency by the non-heritage speaker in the language learning classroom can seem daunting, intimidating or even demoralizing to the non-heritage speakers, as they may feel inferior in comparison. This, in turn, can cause friction amongst classmates. [23] [24]

If possible, there should be separate classes for heritage learners where all the above issues should be addressed more adequately.[25] Heritage speaking students need emphasis on writing and reading skills more than oral and aural skills. In addition, the heritage students should use books addressed to them and not the textbooks that are used for non-heritage students. Heritage students have some knowledge of the language and culture and therefore, they should use materials that interest them; material that provides more in-depth cultural examination. Columbia University is one of the few institutions to offer Arabic classes specifically tailored for the heritage speaker, however, it is unclear as to what materials they are using for this class. Seeing as Arabic classes tailored for heritage speakers are rare and there are a considerable amount of heritage speakers who want to learn Modern Standard Arabic, this class offering could be quite successful. [26] [27]

If it is not possible to have different classes for heritage students, dividing the mixed class of heritage and non-heritage speakers into different groups and having the in-class assignments be based on students’ levels and needs would be appropriate. The subject covered in class could be the same, but the activities could be divided to suit different levels. The activities for heritage students should address their language and cultural needs. While some heritage students may be able to start at a beginner level with non-heritage students if they have very limited prior exposure to Arabic, the only way to place students in an appropriate class level is to conduct placement exams. Placement exams should test students on their reading, writing, listening, speaking and grammar knowledge. An advantage to testing students in these five categories lends itself to another classroom breakdown. Distinguishing and separating reading, writing, speaking, listening and grammar into five separate classes would give heritage students the opportunity to be in a lower level writing class, middle-level grammar class and a higher level speaking class– or any other combination of classes and levels. [28] [29] [30]

Teachers must be aware that there are gaps within a heritage student’s Arabic knowledge and teachers should not assume that students know certain vocabulary or grammatical concepts,[31] but on the other hand, teachers should not assume that the heritage student does not know the lesson or topic at hand. Teachers then have the difficult task of constantly assessing and monitoring the level of their heritage students in order for the heritage student to get the most out of the class. Secondly, teachers also have the responsibility of ensuring that they, themselves, as well as the students, only speak in Modern Standard Arabic when they are in class. The tendency of a teacher to fall into dialect will encourage heritage-speaking students to speak in dialect as opposed to speaking in Modern Standard Arabic. [32]

The argument can be made that more individualized plans would be beneficial to the heritage speaker, as every heritage speaker is unique in their background knowledge, but heritage students can certainly benefit from being in a classroom with non-heritage students by participating in class discussion. However, immersion programs and study abroad programs are incredibly beneficial to language learning for both the heritage and non-heritage speaking students.[33]

There is very little research about guiding Arabic dialect speakers to use their linguistic advantages in studying Modern Standard Arabic. The previously mentioned UC Berkeley study states “heritage speakers of Arabic are not heritage speakers of Modern Standard Arabic. Heritage speakers of Arabic dialects should only be considered heritage speakers if they enrol in a class that teaches their dialect… Students who speak or understand Arabic dialects and who take Standard Arabic should be perceived as students taking a sister language, not a heritage language. They have the advantages and challenges of speakers of sister languages not those of heritage speakers.” It is, however, unclear as to how this re-classification would be enacted and how teaching practices would differ. [34]

 

Notes

[1] Shiri, Sonia. “Questioning the “Heritage Speaker:” Arabic, Multiglossia, and Language Ideology.” Near
[2] “MESAAS | Languages | Arabic Program | Arabic for Heritage Speakers.” MESAAS | Languages | Arabic Program | Arabic for Heritage Speakers. N.p., n.d. Web.
[3] Versteegh, Kees. “The Arabic Language.” NITLE Arab World Project. N.p., 1997. Web.
[4] Andrew Freeman’s Perspectives on Arabic Diglossia.” http://www.innerbrat.org/Andyf/Articles/Diglossia/digl_96.htm (1996): n. pag. Print.
[5] Shiri, Sonia

[6] Lee, Jin Sook. “Through the Learners’ Eyes: Reconceptualizing the Heritage and Non-Heritage Learner of the Less Commonly Taught Languages.” Foreign Language Annals 38.4 (2005): 554-63. Print.
[7] Lee, Jin Sook
[8] Shiri, Sonia

[9] Husseinali, G. (2006), Who is Studying Arabic and Why? A Survey of Arabic Students’ Orientations at a Major University. Foreign Language Annals, 39: 395–412. doi: 10.1111/j.1944-9720.2006.tb02896.x
[10] Shiri, Sonia
[11] “Andrew Freeman’s Perspectives on Arabic Diglossia.” http://www.innerbrat.org/Andyf/Articles/Diglossia/digl_96.htm (1996): n. pag. Print.

[12] Zitouni, Imed, Introduction to Arabic Natural Language Processing N. Y. Habash. Morgan & Claypool (synthesis lectures on human language technologies, vol. 10), 2010, xvii+167pp; isbn 978-1-59829-795-9, ebook isbn 978-1-59829-796-6, Computational Linguistics, v.37 n.3, p.623-625, September 2011
[13] Schiffman, Harold. “Diglossia and Language Shift.” Diglossia and Language Shift. N.p., 1997. Web.

[14] Schiffman, Harold. “Shifting Domains and Diglossia.” Shifting Domains and Diglossia. N.p., 1997. Web.

[15] Kaye, A. 1970. Modern Standard Arabic and the Colloquials, Lingua 24: 374-412
[16] Kaye, Alan S. “The Verb ‘See’ In Arabic Dialects.” The Fergusonian Impact: In Honor of Charles A. Ferguson on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. By Charles A. Ferguson and Joshua A. Fishman. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 1986. N. pag. Print.

[17] Ferguson, Ch. 1989. Grammatical Agreement in Classical Arabic and the Modern Dialects: A Response to Pidginization Hypothesis, Al-Arabiyya, 22: 5-18
[18] Holes, Clive. Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2004. Print.

[19] Montrul, Silvina (2010). Current Issues in Heritage Language Acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, pp 3-23. doi:10.1017/S0267190510000103.
[20] Montrul, Silvina
[21] Albirini, Abdulkafi, Benmamoun, Elabbas and Chakrani, Brahim, Gender and number agreement in the oral production of Arabic Heritage speakers, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 2013, 16, 01, 1

[22] Montrul, Silvina
[23] Shiri, Sonia
[24] Clément, Richard, Zoltán Dörnyei, and Kimberly A. Noels. “Motivation, Self-confidence, and Group Cohesion in the Foreign Language Classroom.” Language Learning 44.3 (1994): 417-48. Print.
[25] Malone, Margaret E., Benjamin Rifkin, Donna Christian, and Dora E. Johnson. “ATTAINING HIGH LEVELS OF PROFICIENCY: CHALLENGES FOR LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN THE UNITED STATES.” Conference on Global Challenges and U.S. Higher Education (2003): n. pag. Web.
[26] “MESAAS | Languages | Arabic Program | Arabic for Heritage Speakers.” MESAAS | Languages | Arabic Program | Arabic for Heritage Speakers. N.p., n.d. Web.
[27] Schwarzer, David, and Maria Petrón. “Heritage Language Instruction at the College Level: Reality and Possibilities.” Foreign Language Annals 38.4 (2005): 568-78. Print.

[28] Llosa, Lorena, Assessing Heritage Language Learners, The Companion to Language Assessment.

[29] Fairclough, Marta. “Language Placement Exams for Heritage Speakers of Spanish: Learning from Students’ Mistakes.” Foreign Language Annals 39.4 (2006): 595-604. Print.
[30] Wahba, Kassem M., Zeinab A. Taha, and Liz England. Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals in the 21st Century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006. Print.

[31] Abdulkafi Albirini, Elabbas Benmamoun and Eman Saadah (2011). GRAMMATICAL FEATURES OF EGYPTIAN AND PALESTINIAN ARABIC HERITAGE SPEAKERS’ ORAL PRODUCTION. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 33, pp 273-303. doi:10.1017/S0272263110000768.
[32] Chamot, Anna Uhl. “Issues in Language Learning Strategy Research and Teaching.” Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching. N.p., 2004. Web.

[33] Malone and Rifkin 34 Shiri, Sonia

 

 

 

Works Cited

Albirini, Abdulkafi, Benmamoun, Elabbas and Chakrani, Brahim, Gender and number agreement in the oral production of Arabic Heritage speakers, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 2013, 16, 01, 1

Albirini, Abdulkafi, Benmamoun, Elabbas and Saadah, Eman (2011). GRAMMATICAL FEATURES OF EGYPTIAN AND PALESTINIAN ARABIC HERITAGE SPEAKERS’ ORAL PRODUCTION. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 33, pp 273-303. doi:10.1017/S0272263110000768.

“Andrew Freeman’s Perspectives on Arabic Diglossia.” http://www.innerbrat.org/Andyf/Articles/Diglossia/digl_96.htm (1996): n. pag. Print.

Chamot, Anna Uhl. “Issues in Language Learning Strategy Research and Teaching.” Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching. N.p., 2004. Web.

Clément, Richard, Zoltán Dörnyei, and Kimberly A. Noels. “Motivation, Self-confidence, and Group Cohesion in the Foreign Language Classroom.” Language Learning 44.3 (1994): 417-48. Print.

Fairclough, Marta. “Language Placement Exams for Heritage Speakers of Spanish: Learning from Students’ Mistakes.” Foreign Language Annals 39.4 (2006): 595-604. Print.

Ferguson, Ch. 1989. Grammatical Agreement in Classical Arabic and the Modern Dialects: A Response to Pidginization Hypothesis, Al-Arabiyya, 22: 5-18

Holes, Clive. Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2004. Print.

Husseinali, G. (2006), Who is Studying Arabic and Why? A Survey of Arabic Students’ Orientations at a Major University. Foreign Language Annals, 39: 395–412. doi: 10.1111/j.1944- 9720.2006.tb02896.x

Kaye, A. 1970. Modern Standard Arabic and the Colloquials, Lingua 24: 374-412

Kaye, Alan S. “The Verb ‘See’ In Arabic Dialects.” The Fergusonian Impact: In Honor of Charles A. Ferguson on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday. By Charles A. Ferguson and Joshua A. Fishman. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 1986. N. pag. Print.

Lee, Jin Sook. “Through the Learners’ Eyes: Reconceptualizing the Heritage and Non-Heritage Learner of the Less Commonly Taught Languages.” Foreign Language Annals 38.4 (2005): 554-63. Print.

Llosa, Lorena, Assessing Heritage Language Learners, The Companion to Language Assessment.

Malone, Margaret E., Benjamin Rifkin, Donna Christian, and Dora E. Johnson. “ATTAINING HIGH LEVELS OF PROFICIENCY: CHALLENGES FOR LANGUAGE EDUCATION IN THE UNITED STATES.” Conference on Global Challenges and U.S. Higher Education (2003): n. pag. Web.

“MESAAS | Languages | Arabic Program | Arabic for Heritage Speakers.” MESAAS | Languages |

Arabic Program | Arabic for Heritage Speakers. N.p., n.d. Web.
Montrul, Silvina (2010). Current Issues in Heritage Language Acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 30, pp 3-23. doi:10.1017/S0267190510000103.

Schiffman, Harold. “Diglossia and Language Shift.” Diglossia and Language Shift. N.p., 1997. Web.

Schiffman, Harold. “Shifting Domains and Diglossia.” Shifting Domains and Diglossia. N.p., 1997. Web.

Schwarzer, David, and Maria Petrón. “Heritage Language Instruction at the College Level: Reality and Possibilities.” Foreign Language Annals 38.4 (2005): 568-78. Print.

Shiri, Sonia. “Questioning the “Heritage Speaker:” Arabic, Multiglossia, and Language Ideology.” Near Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley. AAAL, Costa Mesa, Apr. 2007. Web.

Versteegh, Kees. “The Arabic Language.” NITLE Arab World Project. N.p., 1997. Web.
Wahba, Kassem M., Zeinab A. Taha, and Liz England.
Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching

Professionals in the 21st Century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006. Print.

Zitouni, Imed, Introduction to Arabic Natural Language Processing, N. Y. Habash. Morgan & Claypool (synthesis lectures on human language technologies, vol. 10), 2010, xvii+167pp; ISBN 978-1-59829-795-9, ebook ISBN 978-1-59829-796-6, Computational Linguistics, v.37 n.3, p.623- 625, September 2011

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