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Critical Dialect Awareness (relationship between dialects and MSA)

Most Arabic HLLs have been exposed to at least one variety of colloquial Arabic in the family setting, yet the amount of Modern Standard or Classical Arabic that they have had contact with varies significantly. Many Arabic HLLs have never thought about how their own experiences with particular varieties of the Arabic language fit into larger structures that characterize the Arabic speaking world, such as the system of value measuring regional and local “dialects” against each other, and against MSA and Qur’anic Arabic. This system reflects values related to class and education level, and attitudes toward the practice of code-mixing with other languages. In addition, living in immigrant communities that have religious, ethnic/racial, and socioeconomic minority status in the US impacts the language practices of Arabic HLLs. It is not uncommon for Arabic heritage classrooms to contain students who speak different colloquial Arabic varieties (Egyptian, Palestinian, Sudanese, Lebanese, Syrian, Yemeni, Moroccan, etc.). In such a context, interdialectical prestige influences how HLLs perceive their own language and that of others. Most Arabic language programs in the US, including those for heritage students, have focused on teaching MSA instead of the regional vernaculars (Mango 2011), even though one can argue that there are nearly no ‘native’ speakers of MSA anywhere in the world (Haeri, 2000).

The theoretical frameworks of critical language awareness (Alim, 2005) and classroom based dialect awareness (Martinez, 2003) may provide a way to address how Arabic HLLs—many of whom have conducted most, if not all, of their education in English speaking contexts— understand and confront questions of Arabic sociolinguistics in the classroom. Alim’s[ma1]  (2005) critical language awareness “take[s] student’s language into account but also it accounts for the interconnectedness of language with larger sociopolitical and sociohistorical phenomena that help to maintain unequal power relations” (p. 24). Martinez (2003) argues:

Heritage language students arrive at the university with deep-seated emotional issues about their heritage language. They have been taught, and in many cases have internalized, a feeling of inferiority about their heritage language. Throughout their schooling experience of some twelve or thirteen years, they have been programmed with what Haugen refers to as ‘linguistic self hate.’ This phenomenon translates into a heightened sense of linguistic insecurity and inhibition that directly interferes with the language development process. (p. 7)

By explicitly addressing the language ideologies that HLLs bring into the classroom, instructors can help students develop a critical awareness of how their views about language are connected to other power structures that impact their lives.


Explicit and implicit knowledge

While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of explicit instruction on the linguistic development of heritage learners, it is important to consider what to teach explicitly and why to teach explicitly.


Grammar: There is conflicting evidence on the effectiveness of explicit instruction of grammar topics on the improvement of accuracy in the language of HLLs. Since each HLL has different needs with respect to accuracy, and since proficiency develops globally, we believe that the best use of instruction time is to provide input and to work with output at the appropriate proficiency level instead of focusing on “teaching” selected grammar rules to the class as a whole.

Literacy: Many components of writing can be made explicit to writers to assist them in developing proficiency. For example, writers can be shown the difference between strings of sentences and paragraphs. Stylistic and discourse conventions are a matter of literacy rather than language acquisition, and as such, they are more effectively developed through explicit instruction.


Some groups of learners might need to develop metalinguistic vocabulary due to their professional goals. For example, teacher candidates will benefit from learning metalinguistic terms since textbooks are typically organized around explicit grammar instruction. On the other hand, if HLLs are in a class to develop proficiency and literacy in the HLL for more general professional, social, or artistic purposes, metalinguistic knowledge might not be useful at all.

A clear idea of the what and why will help optimize limited instructional time.


Heritage Language Learner

A student who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speaks or at least understands the language, and who is to some degree bilingual in that language and in English. Based on Valdés 2000 (Read more on Heritage Learners here.)



The language a person listens to, hears, or sees (in the case of sign language) that has communicative intent.


Language Acquisition

We adhere to the theory that acquiring a language entails the development of an implicit linguistic system and that such development does not take place without input (Krashen 1982). These theoretical ideas have important implications for instruction, the most salient of which is the need to include multiple opportunities for input processing in the curriculum. The type of input—oral and/or written—will depend on the course’s learning goals.


The process of meaning-making, in our case, from and through language, that is both creative and critical. As the multiliteracies movement advocates, meaning-making “should be regarded as a dynamic process of transformation, rather than process of reproduction.” Writers, in this sense, are not just replicating conventions, but questioning and transforming them.

Literacy and Proficiency

Literacy and proficiency develop slowly and through repeated exposure and use. Proficiency does not presuppose literacy, while literacy does assume proficiency. Proficiency, according to ACTFL, “is the ability to use language in real world situations in a spontaneous interaction and non-rehearsed context and in a manner acceptable and appropriate to native speakers of the language. Proficiency demonstrates what a language user is able to do regardless of where, when or how the language was acquired.” ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners 2012, page 4.

Literacy, on the other hand, is the process of meaning-making, in our case, from and through language, that is both creative and critical. As the multiliteracies movement advocates, meaning-making “should be regarded as a dynamic process of transformation, rather than process of reproduction.” Writers, in this sense, are not just replicating conventions, but questioning and transforming them. ‘Multiliteracies’: New Literacies, New Learning Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, page 10.


Mixed Language Varieties

According to Wahba (2006), one of the central objectives of communicative Arabic teaching is to help students learn to be speakers of “mixed language varieties” (p. 142). Wahba writes that “in spoken language, it is possible to have a mixing of colloquial and standard phonological features. In addition, the interspersing of different varieties is not limited to phonological aspects of language, but extends to syntactic and morphological features” (p. 142). Instead of treating Arabic language practices in terms of the High versus Low language model of diglossia, Wahba argues that Arabic language practices consist of a “spectrum of mixed varieties that results from the social interactions among diglossic native speakers and…the communicative strategies that diglossic native speakers use in varying their speech across this spectrum” (p. 139). Wahba explores a communicative approach to Arabic teaching that includes more than one variety. He argues that “the communicative approach is based on the assumption that the goal of language teaching is to develop the learner’s ability to communicate with native speakers in real-life situations in the target language…and reflect the Arabic language varieties as they are used by the native Arabic speakers in real-life situations in the cultural aspects of language” (p. 140).

Modes of Communication

Traditionally, language teaching has been organized around the acquisition of the four main skills of language learning: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. However, as of 2012, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) now conceptualizes language teaching in terms of the different modes that language learners use to achieve certain communicative goals. These modes of communication are interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational.

The modes differ based on whether they involve (1) the active negotiation of meaning between two or more speakers (interpersonal), (2) the interpretation of a one-way (not actively negotiated) message produced by a third party (interpretive), or (3) the creation of a one-way message that is communicated to a third party (presentational). Each mode of communication requires different strategies on the part of the learner. Examples of the interpersonal mode of communication include a face-to-face conversation between two speakers where clarifying questions can be asked, and a text message conversation between two people. Examples of the interpretive mode of communication include reading information on a website, watching a video, or listening to a song. Examples of the presentational mode of communication include telling a story, writing a report, or giving a PowerPoint presentation. See page 7 of the 2012 ACTFL Performance Descriptors of Language Learners for more detail about modes of communication.


Proficiency vs. Performance

In a general sense, performance and proficiency both describe the knowledge and active skills that are necessary in language use. However, ACTFL distinguishes between the two terms, providing guidelines for three ranges of performance and proficiency: Novice, Intermediate and Advanced. Proficiency refers to how well a speaker can communicate in spontaneous, non-rehearsed interaction with native speakers in real-world situations. Assessing a speaker’s proficiency is not dependent on how, where and when these abilities were acquired (i.e., whether these abilities were learned at home or in the classroom setting). Performance, on the other hand, refers to a learner’s ability to use language that is learned and practiced in the classroom. Even though performance is practiced in classroom settings, instruction should nevertheless concentrate on tasks that resemble communication found in the real world. In the classroom, teachers should challenge their students using controlled and supported activities that target the next level of performance to help students gradually improve. This pdf document provides details descriptions of what speakers should be able to do with language in the various modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational) at the various ranges of performance (novice, intermediate, and advances). See pages 14-19 of ACTFL’s Performance Descriptors.

The assessment of proficiency and performance are therefore different. Assessment of a learner’s performance is based on the familiar content and contexts that she/he has learned, rehearsed and practiced in the classroom. Assessment of proficiency, on the other hand, is not based on specific skills or knowledge that is learned in the classroom; rather, it tests spontaneous language use, including the content-and context-knowledge that demonstrates the speaker’s range of proficiency (novice, intermediate or advanced). ACTFL provides detailed rubrics for language teachers to assess students’ proficiency and performance using a number of descriptive indicators.

Project-Based Learning

Project Based Learning (PBLL) is a student-centered pedagogy that focuses on meaning making in the target language. PBLL courses are organized around a complex question or problem. Learners develop linguistic and cultural competence by working toward addressing the question or problem.  See this very useful website: https://www.bie.org/about/what_pbl