Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
My name is Nour Kweider and I have just completed my masters in linguistics where I focused on an area that is near and dear to my heart. I was born and raised in Syria up until the age of nine and then settled in Southern California in 1995. Being a Syrian American, I wanted to give back to my community, so I conducted a study on learners of Arabic in the United States. Arabic speaking children living in a non-Arabic speaking country are considered to be heritage language learners because although their first language, Arabic, is the language used at home, it is also a minority language in the country, which causes the language to slowly start losing its functionality outside the home and declines in usage over the years.
How did your interest in heritage language learners and the Arabic language begin?
During college, I was a volunteer at a weekend heritage language school that taught Arabic, Quran, and Islamic studies. As I watched the students struggle with their Arabic literacy skills, it reminded me of my own experiences growing up. Climbing the literacy ladder in Arabic was always challenging and stressful. I deeply sympathized with the students at the heritage language school as I watched them not only struggle with learning the language but also lose interest in the language. There has been a long tradition of parents heavily instilling the importance of learning Arabic not only because it is a method of communication, but also because it is highly connected to the children’s cultural heritage and Islamic tradition. The students’ lack of interest in the language eventually translates into a sense of shame because they are no longer able to connect to a language that their value system deems to be of high importance. This seems to be a common phenomenon whether among heritage language learners abroad or Arabic language learners living in the Arab world. This is when I became inspired to help and support this population of language learners and decided to take on this project.
Can you explain the term diglossia and why the Arabic language is an example?
Arabic is considered to be an example of diglossia where there is a standard “high” form of the language and a colloquial “low” form. In Arabic the standard form, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is the form that is used in reading and writing by all Arabic speakers and spoken in formal settings such as lectures, newscast, and radio shows. In the Arab world, it is referred to as “Fus’ha”. On the other hand, the colloquial form of the language is a strictly spoken dialect that is almost never used in writing, especially not formal writing. Unlike MSA, the colloquial form is not just one unified dialect, but it is made up of many different sub-dialects that are region and country specific. Additionally, the colloquial form is the form that children learn as their first language at home, while learning MSA later on when they begin learning how to read and write at school. Children may get some exposure to MSA before they begin school through TV or radio, but it is very minimal. This is even more problematic for heritage language learners because of lack of opportunities to speak and listen to MSA.
What are some challenges heritage language learners face when reading/writing Arabic vs speaking it?
Research on reading comprehension among Arabic speakers has proven that this diglossic situation is a possible cause for issues in reading comprehension as well as development. This issue occurs because MSA and the colloquial dialect differ substantially in vocabulary, grammar, and phonology. These differences create a gap between the spoken form that children acquire at home and the literary form they need to learn to begin the reading and writing process. For example, in English, when a child begins his formal education, he uses whatever language he acquired at home as the basis to start the reading and writing process; however, for an Arabic speaking child, he will have to read and write in a dialect that is very different than the one he acquired at home, so he has very little foundation to help him through the reading and writing process. The child will have to deal unfamiliar vocabulary, foreign sentence structures (e.g., the boy ate an apple versus ate the boy an apple), and having to connect shapes of letters to sounds he has never heard before. This becomes an issue early on in reading and will delay reading comprehension.
What advice do you have for schools interested in bridging this gap?
Studies have shown that exposure to MSA will increase a child’s listening comprehension which increases a child’s reading comprehension. The more a child is exposed to MSA, the more familiar he will become with the vocabulary, grammar, and phonology of the language. This requires putting together a curriculum that has a focused and intentional aim for MSA exposure. In Addition, creating opportunities both in and outside the classroom for students to engage in MSA. Above all the emphasis on the importance of Arabic as the language of heritage and faith needs to be complemented with an emphasis on the value of the language as a resource and an asset for future success as well as the benefits of becoming a bilingual speaker.
What advice do you have for parents who are interested in bridging the gap?
There are two parts to bridging the gap, 1) by shifting our perspective on why it is important to learn the language, and 2) by increasing exposure to MSA. Those two parts go hand in hand. Learning a language by association plays a central role in some cases of language acquisition. When MSA is usually always connected to the maintenance of culture and heritage, it may feel like a burden. When kids grow up associating a specific language, with an identity and a culture they cannot connect with and the negative feedback they’ve received because of that, they will most likely want to deviate away from the language. My advice to all my parent friends is that make Arabic the language of love or fun at home. Do bed time stories in MSA. Do Ice cream hour where you go out for ice cream with the condition of only speaking MSA during that hour. Invest in children’s programs that are in MSA. Speak more MSA at home rather than just the colloquial dialect. By increasing exposure to MSA and creating memorable moments with it, you give your children the need and want to connect to the language. The legacy of carrying tradition through language is a big responsibility that we unintentionally place on our children. We need to help them carry that responsibility.
What role can technology play in enhancing curriculum to better meet the needs of heritage language learners learning Arabic?
It is important to engage our youth with their own language, which is the language of technology. Arabic has a rich script and a complex orthography, which also contributes to issues in reading and writing. All words in Arabic come from root words. Sometimes one root word is made up of only three consonant sounds, but eight different words can be derived from that root using different combination of long and short vowels. We can use technology to help kids with building a strong foundation of Arabic’s morphology. By creating apps and computer games that target these complex and dense language areas, not only will we help children learn and develop their language foundation, but because it was done in a fun and attainable way for them, they will benefit so much more from these activities. Students can also create their own stores, share digital book reviews and build online communities that support one another in sharing what they are reading. Furthermore, apps like Explain Everything are great for students to practice reading and take ownership of their progress. iPadEducators recently completed a wonderful two part series sharing ways technology can enhance this process for individuals and schools.
What are some of the next steps for you after completing this research?
After completing this study, I had a better understanding and appreciation for research on the Arabic language. My research was only the beginning of a complex and extensive area of study that must be investigated and explored in order to begin scratching the surface and uncovering the many yet to be answer questions. I would like to continue working in this field not only to uncover answers, but to also be able to find and create solutions, specifically curriculum to help educators and parents.
Nour, it's been a privilege to speak with you, thanks for making time for us and we wish you success in all your future endeavors
Nour can be reached at email@example.com.
The full research study conducted by Nour can be found here.