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Arabic as a Heritage Language

Prototypical Characteristics of Arabic HLLs and Their Contexts of Acquisition

The linguistic characteristics of heritage language learners (HLLs) are complex and have generated considerable debate among scholars. To address the challenge of wide variability of proficiency in the heritage language and HLL connection to heritage culture, some scholars have argued that HLLs should be understood in terms of a prototypical learner, which can then be compared to a range within that prototype (Zyzik 2016). Here, we outline some prototypical characteristics of Arabic HLLs.

​Like heritage learners of other languages, most Arabic HLLs acquire colloquial Arabic (al-‘āmiyya or ad-darija—we use “dialect” and “colloquial” interchangeably here) as their first language. The linguistic input they receive and, thus, the amount of Arabic they acquire is influenced by socio-contextual factors which include: the ethnolinguistic vitality of Arabic speakers in their community, group size (which varies regionally), community investment in the maintenance of the heritage language, attitudinal and motivational factors particular to heritage speakers and their families, and the opportunities for language use inside and outside home (Albirini 2013).
Given the naturalistic context of acquisition, Arabic HLLs are more proficient in their Arabic dialect than most L2 learners (with exceptions) and tend to display native-like phonology. Some HLLs may demonstrate advanced level skills in their dialect. HLLs might attend weekend schools where rudimentary skills in MSA are taught (Albirini 2013). Often, Arabic HLLs may study Arabic for religious purposes.

HLLs have many reasons for learning Arabic in the US which include: the desire to connect with one’s roots, to build on religious and familial ties, as well as to live, work, and travel abroad. However, HLLs also face several challenges in the US. The push for monoculturalism and monolingualism as well as global and local political issues conspire against language maintenance. Arabic heritage speakers are often reluctant to use Arabic outside of their local community of fellow Arabic speakers. Outside the home, youth language exchanges tend to be completely monolingual in English, and even first-generation Arabic speakers often prefer to speak English in public (Albirini 2014). Hence, some second-generation Arabic speakers prefer to use English for most topics of conversation. The commonly held belief among Arab families that introducing Arabic to children might hamper their status as “native English speakers” and thus jeopardize their economic opportunities, leads some parents to limit their children’s exposure to Arabic, even at home. For many Arabic HLLs, English eventually becomes the dominant language. Sometimes, the acquisition of English begins simultaneously with the acquisition of Arabic through interaction with non-Arabic speaking children and adults in their communities, or with older siblings who may speak English at home. English on TV and other media reinforces this process.

Interdialectal language attitudes impact how Arabic HLLs understand their own language use, as well as affect their confidence in being able to communicate with others. Strong ideas and prejudices about the “proper language” or which dialects are “closer” to MSA than others impact how speakers interact with one another. Ideas about a language are often ideas we have about speakers of those languages, as the concept of “language ideologies” has shown (Woolard & Schieffelin 1994). For example, it is not uncommon to hear Arabic speakers from the Arab World East comment upon how Moroccan Arabic is “not real Arabic” and that they are unable to understand a word of it. These attitudes may leave Moroccan-speaking HLLs feeling like they don’t belong with other Arabic speakers even though Moroccan Arabic is most definitely a variety of Arabic. It is important to emphasize that all languages (including varieties commonly referred to as “dialects”) are linguistically equal—i.e., no language is intrinsically better or worse than any other. However, negative attitudes toward a particular dialect may result in many Arabic HLLs not taking full advantage of the diverse dialects in their communities as a means to enrich their experience in learning the language (Chakrani 2015).

Scholars of Arabic as a heritage language have debated whether Muslims from non-Arabic speaking countries should be considered Arabic HLLs (Ibrahim & Allam 2006) since many students who decide to study Arabic at the college level have had some education in Arabic literacy for religious purposes. But whereas these students may be able to read and write in the Arabic script, their comprehension of the meaning of the words is often quite limited. This is because the focus of this type of literacy is often on the memorization and recitation of sounds, instead of the comprehension of content. Hence, we may be able to categorize two groups of learners with a different set of linguistic skills that Arabic heritage programs may accommodate:

  1. Learners who can speak and understand a colloquial variety of Arabic to varying degrees and
  2. learners who originate from non-Arabic speaking countries but have been exposed to Classical Arabic from the Qur’an in a religious context. For the purposes of the Arabic Heritage eBook project, we focus on the former, that is, heritage language learners who have been exposed to a colloquial variety of Arabic at home.

Ways Instructors Can Draw on the Knowledge that Arabic HLLs Bring to the Classroom

Arabic HLLs bring many linguistic and socio-cultural skills to the classroom, and it is essential that instructors build on these strengths instead of focusing exclusively on “gaps” in their knowledge. There are three strong skills that most Arabic HLLs demonstrate due to the context of acquisition: they generally have well-developed phonological skills, good listening comprehension, and extensive vocabularies within familiar contexts. Instructors can leverage this knowledge by exposing learners to a rich variety of aural input such as videos from news websites, films, songs, etc. These will help HLLs solidify the syntax and morphology that they already know, learn new lexical items, and become familiar with a wider variety of contexts and content. A less developed skill in the case of vocabulary is the ability to retrieve lexical items. That is, vocabulary knowledge might be mostly passive and Arabic HLLs may need practice and further exposure to be able to retrieve lexical items quickly and easily.

Because of the nature of the acquisition of Arabic as a heritage language (being mostly at home with limited formal educational experiences in Arabic), many HLLs may feel most comfortable when they encounter themes and topics about familiar contexts (such as the home, community, etc.) in the classroom. In order to push Arabic HLLs to higher levels of proficiency, instructors should help them expand their vocabularies and contexts of communication, while using what they already have as a base for doing so. Most Arabic HLLs have higher proficiencies in their dialect than in MSA, and many Arabic HLLs may have no experience with MSA whatsoever prior to entering the college classroom. Knowledge of an Arabic dialect is beneficial for MSA acquisition since they share a fair amount of vocabulary, phonological features, and some similar syntactical and morphological structures. It is essential that Arabic HLLs see their dialect backgrounds as a resource in the classroom, not as an obstruction or hindrance to the acquisition of MSA.

Finally, Arabic HLLs often have wide-ranging intercultural competence. The activities on this website aim to help instructors utilize this knowledge in order to provide authentic input that is culturally pertinent as well as creating opportunities for Arabic HLLs to explore their unique cultural and linguistic experiences with other students of similar backgrounds, sometimes for the first time. Since many of the leading Arabic textbooks in the US today have audiences in mind that may have little to no background knowledge of the Arabic-speaking world, these textbooks are often either boring or seen as stereotypical for Arabic HLLs. Hence, the materials on this website are structured so instructors and students can acknowledge and enhance the linguistic and intercultural knowledge that Arabic HLLs bring to the classroom from their own cultural communities and practices.

Socio-political, Cultural, and Psycho-Social Dynamics That Impact the Linguistic Practices of Arabic HLLs

It is important to keep in mind the diglossic nature of Arabic and how it impacts the ways in which Arabic HLLs use language in their lives. Diglossia refers to the existence of two varieties of a language within one speech community: a “high” (H) variety and a “low” (L) variety. The H and L varieties are used for different purposes and in distinct contexts, often with prestige and power associated with the H variety (Ferguson 1959). In the Arabic-speaking world, MSA is the H variety, and is used (at least theoretically) in governmental, educational, religious and other official capacities. “Dialects” are of the L variety; the everyday language used in nearly all other contexts. Typically, in the US, MSA is not used in the home or community. Interdialectical interactions between Arabic speakers in the US rarely draw upon MSA in conversation, and thus, leave limited opportunities for HLLs to hear MSA as a spoken language in interaction (Elsaadany 2003). Arabic HLLs may be exposed to MSA incidentally on the internet or TV, or perhaps in Sunday schools. However, for many Arabic HLLs, the only Arabic they have ever known is their colloquial language or “dialect.” Thus, many Arabic HLLs are surprised, disappointed, and/or frustrated when they enter the college Arabic classroom and discover that MSA, which differs greatly from their colloquial varieties, is the language in which they are expected to perform. The confidence of many Arabic HLLs in their linguistic skills suffers when they find that their cultural and linguistic backgrounds don’t necessarily result in success in the classroom. Instructors sometimes make HLLs feel even more insecure by holding them to higher standards than non-heritage speakers. Being mindful of the difficulties that Arabic HLLs face in the college Arabic classroom, instructors can help their students navigate insecurities by emphasizing that, although the study of Arabic is challenging, HLLs possess unique tools to help them along the way.

The Relationship Between Standard and Colloquial Varieties of Arabic in the Classroom

Scholars of Arabic language acquisition have offered different perspectives on how to address the relationship between MSA and colloquial Arabic varieties in the classroom. According to Wahba (2006), one of the central objectives of communicative Arabic teaching is to help students approximate the model of speaking “mixed language varieties” (142) as is done in the Arabic speaking world (see definition for “Mixed Language Varieties” under Glossary for more information). Similarly, Younes (2006) argues for an integrated approach to Arabic study in which reading, writing, speaking and listening are treated as equally important skills and is based on the assumption that MSA and spoken dialects form “one complete and indivisible system of communication…[where] the similarities between these two components of the system far outnumber the differences, and with the exclusion of a limited number of unrelated vocabulary items, most differences are predictable and can be expressed by simple rules” (162). Other scholars have argued that “register control”—i.e., a speaker’s ability to switch between different registers in one’s linguistic repertoire in socially appropriate ways—is a key objective of Arabic instruction (Albirini & Chakrani 2016).

This project takes the position that colloquial varieties of Arabic are as important in the HL classroom as MSA. While this may be a somewhat controversial position, it is essential for instructors to acknowledge that having communicative competence in Arabic means being able to communicate in both MSA and colloquial Arabic. Keeping this in mind, we maintain that Arabic HLLs not only need exposure to MSA in order to develop literacy skills; they need a space in which to further develop their dialects, where linguistic insecurities are addressed, where issues of language and identity are explored, and where they are encouraged to draw upon their full linguistic repertoires for communication.

The activities on this website aim to help instructors utilize their students’ knowledge of colloquial Arabic as a bridge toward literacy in MSA. While literacy in MSA is an end-goal in and of itself, there are other important purposes for the Arabic heritage classroom. These include linguistic awareness and communicative competency, which constitute the ability to speak and understand more than one colloquial variety. Several of the activities on this website ask students to write in colloquial Arabic and then translate their texts into MSA. Certainly, the challenge in these activities is that colloquial Arabic has not yet been codified into a standardized writing or pronunciation system. The result is that every student will write differently. However, by incorporating translation exercises into our activities, we encourage instructors to let this non-standardized writing system for colloquial Arabic develop into genuine communicative experimentation and to allow students authentic literary exploration in their colloquial varieties while teaching them standard writing conventions simultaneously.