Queen Rania Foundation

The Significance of Diglossia

Diglossia has been defined (Ferguson 1959) as the existence of two varieties of the same language side-by-side in a speech community, each variety having a specialized function. Arabic is an example of a diglossic language alongside Greek, Swiss German and Haitian Creole.

In Arabic, one variety (regional dialects or Amiyyah) is used for every day, informal oral interaction and communication. Arabic dialects are largely mutually intelligible, but they do vary from one speech community to another. The degree of variation is mostly influenced and observed through geographical proximity. The other variety, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or Faseeha, exists alongside the spoken dialects. MSA is mostly written, has limited oral use and is restricted mainly to formal situations.

Every native speaker of Arabic acquires his/her own regional/local dialect including Jordanian, Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Emirati, among many others found across the Arab world. Dialects are considered to be of low prestige (L) within this diglossic situation.   Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is taught in all schools across the Arab world starting in Grade 1.  All written communication is done in MSA, including textbooks, newspapers, magazines, official letters, formal speeches, bills, etc. However, with the advent of social media and chat platforms such as Face book, Twitter, Instagram and Google Chat, many have started using dialects as a writing genre on this informal level.

It is important to understand the concept of Diglossia in Arabic and how it affects learning MSA in schools. Many researchers agree that the distance between the various dialects and MSA can decrease or increase depending on how much MSA children are exposed to before their formal schooling starts. It is currently the pedagogical belief that early and frequent oral exposure to MSA through listening to stories, having adults read children’s literature to them, listening to songs, watching cartoons in MSA and other forms of oral exposure, are linked to gains in children’s development of MSA knowledge, and reading comprehension.

Because Arab children mostly encounter MSA when they start school, they might experience some difficulties when they make that first shift from the home dialect to MSA. Thus, it is crucial that parents and caregivers are aware of this phenomenon in Arabic. Giving children a boost by simply reading to them in MSA or exposing them to songs, cartoons and other child friendly venues that use MSA can make a huge difference in their preparedness for, and eventual general success, in school.

This is of utmost importance given that the language of all instruction in most public schools across the Arab world is in MSA. Struggling to read and comprehend text in MSA will not only impede students’ learning of the language, but it will negatively affect their learning in all other subjects including Math, science and even learning a second language.

Researchers recognize the breadth and significance of the concept of Arabic Diglossia at the level of early childhood institutions and in schools and universities. However, this awareness within the Arabic literacy research community has not always been matched by teachers, parents, policy makers and others who are involved in the day-to-day delivery of quality educational experiences to Arab learners.

The research we are doing with the support of the Queen Rania Foundation will begin to raise awareness of this important issue, while also meeting the need for up-to-date and comprehensive answers to the practical questions that policy makers and practitioners face.

To our knowledge, we will be the first to deploy the methodology of a systematic review to the topic of Arabic diglossia. This will allow us to rigorously understand the map of existing knowledge and key gaps in understanding – gaps where, to borrow a phrase, ‘more research is needed.’

This is a topic that all who care about the future of learning in the Arab region should pay attention to. Because of this, at key milestones in this project we will be sharing the insights as they emerge. We hope this blog post is a useful start.