Diglossia And Teaching Of Arabic As A Foreign Language

Diglossia and the Teaching of Arabic as a Foreign Language

The linguistic situation in the Arab world is strongly characterized by diglossia, which refers to the existence of two forms of language: the formal and the vernacular. The differences between these two forms have both undermined the appeal of Arabic as a learnable and useful foreign language and weakened the effectiveness of Arabic language teaching. Instead of learning one language variant, students have to learn at least two if they wish both to be literate and to be able to converse about everyday topics. Teachers, on the other hand, should deal with questions like: Which Arabic variety should be taught? Should students be exposed to both MSA and a regional vernacular?


Defintion of Diglossia

Diglossia in Arabic

Problems of Teaching Diglossic Languages

Approaches to Arabic Diglossia

Definition of Diglossia

The term “diglossia” was introduced in 1959 by Charles Ferguson, who modeled it on the French “diglossie.” Ferguson defined diglossia as a “relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language, 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—that is learned largely by means if formal education and used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation.” The superposed variety is termed by Ferguson as the high (H) variety and the regional dialect as the low (L) variety.

Diglossia in Arabic

In Arabic, the written language is the high, “prestigious” variety while the spoken regional vernaculars constitute the low variety. The written variety, referred to as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is the formal literary Arabic. It is shared by all Arab communities and used in education, administration, literature, journalism, and so forth. Regional vernaculars form the informal colloquial Arabic. They are used in everyday informal transactions. Both varieties constitute two poles of a continuum of styles. Differences between them are widely exhibited in syntax, morphology, phonetics, and semantics.

Problems of Teaching Diglossic Languages

Learning Two Languages in OneIn diglossic languages, the teacher and the student alike must face the fact that there is more to be learned than one language; perhaps it is not as much as two full languages, but it is certainly more than is generally attempted in a single language course. This entails that students of these languages will have to learn double sets of vocabulary items and syntactic and morphological rules and sounds, as well as a whole set of skills involved in selection of the appropriate variety for a given context. The end result of this is that learners of a diglossic language will need to spend more time inside and outside the classroom to reach the required level pf proficiency in that language.

Choice of DialectThe problem of dialect choice is one that is unique to Arabic, since it has no standard dialect, as do other diglossic languages such as Haitian creole and Greek. An Arabic teacher who decides to teach an Arabic dialect will have to choose from a wide variety (Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Gulf, Moroccan, etc.).

Existence of Intermediate Forms of Language This problem pertains to the fact that native speakers often tend to mix elements from H- and L-varieties in a highly variable way. This poses the additional problem of how to teach the students to produce this mixing of utterances in a fashion similar to that done by native speakers.

Approaches to Arabic Diglossia

The Classical Arabic Approach: The oldest approach. Instruction according to this approach is based mainly on morphological and syntactic analyses of texts using the grammar-translation method with very limited attention paid to the oral component.

The MSA Approach: It is based on the exclusive use of MSA as language of instruction in Arabic classes. Most of the text materials developed for this approach used to place primary emphasis on the teaching of grammar and reading and continued to rely mainly on the grammar-translation method in the teaching of Arabic. However, due to the effects of the new developments in foreign language education in the late 1970's and early 1980's, the oral component of MSA courses began to receive increasing attention.

The Colloquial Approach: It is based on the teaching of a specific Arabic dialect (e.g. Iraqi, Egyptian, Syrian), or a specific regional dialectal group (e.g. Levantine, Gulf, North African) for oral use. The instruction usually does not require any knowledge of MSA, nor does it require knowledge of the Arabic script, since transliteration is used in most colloquial textbooks. The colloquial approach is suitable for the needs of those interested in the study of Arabic in one of its spoken varieties only.

The Middle Language Approach: This approach is based on the teaching of a variety of Arabic that is believed to exist between MSA and the dialects. This variety is referred to as Educated Spoken Arabic and also as al-Lugha al-Wusta (Middle Language).

The Simultaneous Approach: In this approach, students of Arabic are introduced to MSA and an Arabic dialect within the same program of instruction. This approach seems to provide an adequate answer to the question of how to deal with Arabic diglossia in the classroom.


Al-Batal, Mahmoud. “Diglossia Proficiency: The Need for an Alternative Approach to Teaching.” The Arabic Language in America. Ed. Aleya, Rouchdy. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1992. 284-304.

Fakhri, Ahmed. “Arabic as a Foreign Language: Bringing Diglossia into the Classroom.” The Foreign Language Classroom: Bridging Theory and Practice. Eds. Margaret Austin Haggstrom, Leslie Zarker Morgan, and Joseph A. Wieczorek. New York: Garland, 1995.