What do Arabs in London speak?


Note: This research was submitted as an assignment for the MA Module “Patterns in Global Sociolinguistics” 

“Immigrants to a new country bring their language into contact with each other and with those of existing population” (Edwards 1994, 33)


There has been a long history of interaction and trade between Britain and the Arab world which can be traced back to the medieval time. During the nineteenth century, Yemeni sailors lived around the docks. Arab migrations to the UK substantially started in the 1930s and 1940s. The 2001 census found that over 106,000 Arabs lived in London. Arabic speakers from different Arabic countries live, study and work in London. The largest Arab communities in London come from Somalia, Iraq, Egypt and Morocco. There is a large Arab population in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea. (Museum of London, 2009)

Ethnic neighbourhoods provide social and cultural support for the new comers. In these neighbourhoods, immigrants get the chance to buy their food so and goods, and speak their languages which help them maintain some aspects of the life they were used in their countries and ease their transfer into the new country.   As Horvath (1998) states ethnic neighbourhoods help immigrants in finding a “place to speak” their languages within the host speech community (p.90). In London, Arabic is a minority language in contact with English, a dominant language, and other languages. When languages come into contact, they influence and change each other.

In this paper, I am focusing on Arabic speakers in London as a speech community. I will start by a brief description of the Arabic language and examine the question of Arabic diglossia. Then, I will study the language contact that happens among different dialects of Arabic which might require language accommodations.  In addition, I will study language contact between English and Arabic, examine bilingualism, and address the issue of language choice of bilinguals. I will address language maintenance factors and the question of Arabic as an identity.  Finally, a closer consideration is given to Arabic as a holy language and to the Islamic influence on Arabic. Given the limited length of my paper, I will not consider Arabic influence on English.

The Arabic Language:

Arabic is a Semitic language. In 22 Arabic countries in the Middle Eastern and North African, Arabic is an official language.  Some Arabic countries have a second official language such as French in Tunisia. Classical Arabic dates from the 6th century A.D., and maybe earlier (Haywood and Nahad, 2003). Classical Arabic is the language of classical poetry and the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. It is considered by Muslims to be God’s revelation to prophet Mohammed. Therefore, Classical Arabic holds a prestige high position in Arabic and Muslim countries.  However, Classical Arabic is considered a dead language because there are no speakers who have Classical Arabic as their First language. (Wardaugh 2006)

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is derived from classical Arabic and it is the official language of writing in the Arabic world. For the regular Arabic speaker, Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are the same; both called ‘Fusha’.

In addition to Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, there is a wide range of regional dialects across the Arab world.  Dialects vary a lot within each country and from one Arabic country to another. At some extent, they become mutually unintelligible among people from geographically far areas. These dialects are the varieties of language which all Arabic speakers learn as their first language before they start their education at school or their Islamic education. All school materials, in all subjects, are written in MSA. Also, news broadcasts, religious programmes, documentaries and historical dramas are all conducted in MSA. Therefore, Arabic speakers have long exposure to MSA through school and media. (Holes 1995)

Despite the various different dialects in the Arab world, Classical Arabic provides a unifying force that creates a feeling of “common Linguistics ancestry” among Arabic speakers. (Wardaugh 2006, 38).  In general, there are no grammatical differences between Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, only style and vocabulary. However, both classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are different from the regional dialects spoken by Arabs. For example, Moroccan Arabic differs from MSA in many aspects, as Bentahila (1983) argues,

The considerable difference between Moroccan and Classical Arabic, at the levels of phonology, grammar and vocabulary, should not be underestimated.  For instance, some of the phonemes of classical Arabic have no counterparts in Moroccan Arabic, which also lacks many of the inflections of classical Arabic, but exhibits more freedom in word order. Many lexical items existing in both varieties have different meanings in each, while Moroccan Arabic’s vocabulary also differs from that of Classical Arabic in the large number of words which have been borrowed into it from French and Spanish.(p.4)

Diglossia and Prestige of Arabic Varieties

According to Ferguson (1959) Arabic is a diglossic language. He states that Classical Arabic is the ‘High’ variety which is used in formal and written context, while spoken Arabic is the ‘Low’ variety.  His idea about language diglossia has been quoted in numerous sociolinguistics studies.

However, there have been so many arguments against his simplified, or oversimplified, description of Arabic.   For example, Edwards (1994) state that Arabic varieties range as a spectrum rather than the High and Low dichotomy described by Ferguson.  Both Edwards (1994, 86) and Holes (1995) agree with Badawi’s (1973) descriptions of the five levels of Arabic:

  1. Fusha al-turath: Classical Arabic, Ferguson’s H variety
  2. Fusha al-casr: Modern Standard Arabic, the current literary medium, only written
  3. Cammiyyat al-muthaqqafin: High Standard Colloquial, the usual spoken variety of educated people dealing with serious topics – part of Ferguson’s L
  4. Cammiyyat al mutanawwirin: Middle Standard Colloquial, the everyday language of the literate – part of Ferguson’s L
  5. Cammiyyat al-ummiyyin: Low Colloquial, the everyday language of the illiterate – part of Ferguson’s L. Edwards (1994, 86).

Furthermore, Eisele (2002) agrees with the argument of dividing the linguistic continuum up into various levels, rather than two only.  In addition, in his sociology of language, Fishman (1972) states that in general Classical Arabic is used for traditional Islamic studies, while a vernacular is used for informal conversations, and sometimes a Western language is used for “intragroup scientific or technological communication” (p.96). Fishman indicates that the verities used are more flexible and changeable than Ferguson Definition.

Moreover, in terms of perceived prestige and intelligibility, it is interesting to notice that some dialects, usually those of large metropolises such as Cairo and Damascus “are more widely understood than others and have acquired the status of prestige national or even international spoken standards.” (Holes 1995, p. 5) Personally, I come from a small town called Al-Nabik in the suburbs of Damascus. People there speak a local dialect that is unique to Nabik and it is even different from dialects in neighbouring towns and villages.  Speakers of the Nabki dialect switch to Damascus dialect when they talk to non-Nabki people.  However, when I meet a few Nabkis in London, there were other Arabic speakers around, and the Nabki people talked to me in Damascus dialect because it is considered a prestige dialect.

In order to observe the various levels of Arabic in London, I went to London Central Mosque where I could find a majority of Muslim Arabs, and where I could find the ‘High’ level of Arabic in the religious context. All prayers are held in Arabic, and the Friday ceremonies, khotbuah, are presented in Arabic then in English. The speech of an Egyptian imam was a good illustration of Arabic various levels. For example, he used ‘Fusha al-turath’ when reciting for Qur’an, ‘Fusha al-casr’ when leading a Friday ceremony, ‘Cammiyyat al-muthaqqafin’ when talking with other Imams, and ‘Cammiyyat al mutanawwirin’ when speaking with his young son. However, during one of his ceremonies, he switched from ‘Fusha al-casr’ to ‘Cammiyyat al mutanawwirin’ when he was talking about the importance of Islamic education for the younger generations. Level switching is a common phenomenon in Arabic when speakers modify the level of the speech to adapt to their interlocutor, or to show a situational change. A famous example of level switching is Gamal Abdul Nasser, a charismatic Egyptian president, who was “particularly adept at exploiting the connotative and social meanings of different language levels in order to achieve his rhetorical, and indirectly, his political purposes.” (Holes 1995, 283)

In sum, the idea of Arabic being a diglossic language might sound correct at first glance. However a deeper consideration of the various uses of Arabic shows more complicated hierarchy of Arabic varieties than Ferguson’s dichotomy. The suggestions of continuum, range, or spectrum are more effective descriptions. Therefore, the main five levels presented by Badawi offer a more reasonable classification.  In addition, Dialects in the capitals of Arabic countries are usually perceived with more prestige.

Arabic speakers coming in contact

The Arabic speech community in London constitutes of speakers of various dialects. English can function as a lingua franca among them because of their dialectical differences.  However, most Arabs prefer speaking Arabic because it creates a community sense and serves as an evidence of a shared Arabic identity. When they communicate together, some language accommodations take place to ensure mutual intelligibility.

Among the Myths Ferguson mentions about Arabic in his article “Myths about Arabic,” is that whenever an Arabic speaker is asked which dialect is the closest to classical Arabic, the speaker’s answer is most likely to be his own dialect. This is a common view, and from my own experience living with Arabs in American and European diaspora, I have witnessed endless arguments among Arabic speakers from different countries each trying to prove that their own dialect is the closest to Classical Arabic. In addition, Wardhaugh (2006) argues that it is hard to find a standard spoken Arabic because “almost certainly, any Arab will tell you that the variety he or she speaks is the best”(p. 39).

The only exception is that some people from the west of the Arabic world, such as Morocco, Libya, and Algeria, acknowledge that they language has been influenced by the indigenous Berber languages, and by French because of the French colonization. However, Egyptian Arabic and Levantine Arabic are widely understood because of the massive exposure to them through the media and the arts.  Therefore, they do not usually tend to modify their language when speaking with people from other countries.

Abu Melhim (1991) argues that Arabs converse in MSA when they meet, as a linguistic accommodation.  He considers speaking in MSA and bilingual code switching as interdialectal accommodation strategies. However, Holes (1995) states that MSA serves as a “communally-owned linguistic reservoir” where speakers can borrow a word or a phrase to ensure mutual intelligibility. But, in face to face conversation, “a blanket switch to pure MSA is rare indeed” (p.39). Also, Sonia S’hiri (2002) strongly disagrees with Abu Melhim’s argument of using Modern Standard Arabic in interdialectal conversation.

S’hiri conducts a study of the language spoken by some Tunisian journalists and broadcasters living in London when they come in contact with their Arabic speaking Middle Eastern colleagues. They all work at agencies where Arabic is the medium of broadcasting.  The finding of her study is that Tunisians tend to linguistically converge toward their interlocutors.  As a language accommodation, Tunisians modify their language to adapt to their interlocutors and to achieve easier more efficient communications. Moreover, they insist of speaking Arabic to identify with other Arabic speakers and to show friendly attitude. Also, they sometimes switch to English to maintain intelligibility, but eliminate code switching between French and Arabic when talking to people from the Middle East.

All in All, Arabic speakers in London are a speech community that has many sub-communities of spoken dialects. Some Arabic varieties, such Egyptian Arabic, tend to be more easily understood than others. To insure a community sense and a highlight language bond, Arabic speaker is Diaspora speak Arabic with some language accommodations.  However, they rarely speak Modern Standard Arabic in conversations.


In her study of bilingualism among Iraqis in London, Farida Abu Haidar (2002) finds “the bilingualism varies from complete mastery to minimal competence” (p.289). This finding is applicable to the general Arabic community in London. For example, some of the elderly have little interaction with the English speaking community and have all their needs satisfied in their Arabic neighbourhoods.  Therefore, they maintained their Arabic language skills and gained very limited competency of English in limited domains only. However, younger generations, in particular, those born in the UK and educated in English, are competent speakers of English, and they use Arabic in limited domains, at home or at the mosque. Some of them might only know little Arabic vocabulary such as food items or ‘Habibi’, a common Arabic word for “sweetheart”. In between these two extreme levels are Arabic speakers who have competency in both Arabic and English.

Fishman (1972) differentiates between stable and unstable multilingualism. He mentions the example about immigrants in the United States.  They had unstable bilingualism because “English was the only language of values outside of the home” (p.52). Similar scenario applies to many Arabic speakers in London where children become increasingly monolingual in English because of their English education, their interaction with the English speech community, and as they grow older and become more involved with their English social life and English careers. A similar view held by Edwards (1994) in his statement that “the classical pattern for new comers to the United States, for example, was bilingualism (mother tongue and English) by the second generation and English mono lingual by the third” (p.83). Even though this might be the case for some second and third generations Arab in London, there are effective various factors and language maintained efforts, such as constant reinforcement, Arabic media, Arabic schools, and language loyalty as a part of culture loyalty. Islam in particular has an important role in maintaining the Arabic language. I am discussing these factors in the coming parts.

Language choice of Bilinguals

In Fishman terms (1972), the Arabic and English bilingualism in London is better described as bilingualism without diglossia, like the common pattern of bilingualism among immigrants to a new country.  Furthermore, an important element in studying language contact and conflict between Arabic and English is examining language choice and change among Arabic and English bilinguals. Edwards (1994) states that “language choice is non random, and heavily influenced by external constraints” (p.72).

Edwards (1994) and Rouchdy (2002), indicate that three phenomena happen in language contact: borrowing, interference and code switching. To start with code switching, it is very common among competent Arabic and English bilinguals.  As explained by Rouchdy (2002). Code switching happens when both speaker and listener know the two languages involved well enough and they both can differentiate from which language each part of the conversation is. Unlike code switching, borrowing “involves the transfer of lexical items from one language to another” (Rouchdy 2002, p. 163) Also, borrowing is different from interference which is “deviation from the norms of wither languages” Edwards (1994, p. 72).

A common example of interference is a person saying “fanashna” to indicate “we finished” This person maintained the Arabic structure but used the English word “finish”. Another common example of interference is the use of the Arabic definite article (al) with English words, “rayeh ‘ala al-university” to indicate “going to the University.” Unlike interference, when borrowing, a speaker might use an English word within the Arabic sentence without changing it. For example, the Words “fax” or “computer” are borrowed from English into Arabic. In general, borrowing between Arabic and English has a long standing history that is beyond the scope of this paper.

All these three levels of language change are very common and used for different reasons such as change of emphasis, change of the speech situation, changes in content or degree of intimacy.

Language Maintenance and constant reinforcement:

The Arabic speech community in London might not be very different from other immigrants communities, whether in the United Kingdom, or the United States where English is the dominant Language.  Similar to the situation with other minority speech communities, there have been considerable efforts of language maintenance. The main factor is constant reinforcement, either through marriage with people who are Arabic native speakers, or through contact with new comers. Fishman (1991) states that newcomers often “serve as a language learning resource for youngsters”(p. 216).  Furthermore, Arabic cultural establishments and organizations, such as Arab cultural centre and the Arab Club of Great Britain, play an essential role in maintaining the cultural and social activities in London.  These cultural evens and activities contribute to educating people and reconnecting them with their homeland and the homeland of their parents.

Arabic media in London:

A unique thing about London is that it is a centre for Arabic Media. Many Arabic papers and magazines are produced in London, and several TV stations are based in London. Furthermore, the BBC has been broadcasting in Arabic since 1930s.  Hafez (2002) talks about London’s pre-eminence as an Arab Media Centre.  He states that “London is a centre to which Arab journalist, opposition groups and media players have flocked in order to produce newspaper copy, to issue political publications, and to make television programmes and, more recently, to set up internet information services that communicate to the vast Arab Diaspora around the world, as well as to the Arab living in their homeland” (p. 25).

Arabic at schools and universities:

In addition to the previous factors, Arabic schools play an important role in learning and maintaining the Arabic language among Arabs in London. There are about twenty five Arabic schools in London. Also, many universities offer Arabic courses for various levels.

From my experience teaching Arabic at schools and universities both in the United States and the United Kingdom, and from my discussion with other Arabic teachers, there is nowadays an increasing interest in learning Arabic.  It might be due to changing political and economical situations in the world and the increasing importance of the Middle East.  However, many of the students enrolled in Arabic courses at universities are heritage students who want to learn the language of their ancestors and reconnect with their cultural and ethnic identity.

In her studies of seventy nine Arab-American students studying Arabic at Wayne State University, Rouchdy (2002) finds that the reason for studying Arabic for 38% was ethnic identity, and 34% were religious affiliation, and 24% were importance of Arabic from a global perspective.  I believe similar patter can be found among Arabic students in London, but further empirical studies are essential to confirm it.

Arabic as Identity

Maintaining the Arabic language can be a sign of desire to maintain the Arabic identity among Arabs in London. Wardhaugh (2006) states that Language can be a “profound indicator of identity” (p. 6).  As I discussed earlier, for speakers of the different varieties of colloquial Arabic, their Arabic is a common Linguistic ancestry. It creates a sense of ethnic identity among Arab.  Furthermore, the desire to speak and learn Arabic by second and third generations of British Arab can be part of cultural loyalty, not merely language loyalty, in order to re reconnect with their roots, as argued by Edward (1994).

When considering Arabic language in the American Diaspora, Rouchdy (2002) concludes that “it might be affected linguistically by English to the point where it ceases to be used among some Arab American, but it will never die.” (p.143). According to Rouchdy (2002), speaking Arabic is an expression of identity. Standard Arabic is a common denominator that is bringing Arab speakers together, whether in the Arab world or among ethnic group in Diaspora.  Similar views are expressed by Boumans and Ruiter (2002) who study aspects of Moroccan Arabic in European Diaspora: They conclude that code switching between Arabic, Berber and the dominant language, will remain a “feature of the Moroccan communities in Europe.” An important aspect is “the use of Moroccan discourse markers and formulaic expressions as a means of expressing ethnic identity and solidarity.” (p. 282)

The discussion of Arabic language and Arabic identity in London is highly connected to the issue of pluralism and assimilation. When immigrants live in a new country they are encouraged to fully participate in the national life, which might be considered as invitation for assimilation. On the other hand, considering Multiculturalism and plurality requires supporting the immigrants’ communities in maintaining their languages and cultures. London is considered by many as a multicultural diverse city and therefore Arabs are more likely to maintain their Arabic identity, I believe.

Arabic and Islam:

For the majority of Muslims, Arabic is part of their religious identity. It is the language of Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.  Muslims believe that the Quran is God’s words revealed to prophet Mohammad. Therefore, Arabic has a high status among Muslims since it is ‘the divine’ language of heaven. Also, the Qur’an is believed to be the ‘the miracle of Muhammad’ and the only evidence he had to convince people that he is the messenger of God.

In addition, all Muslims are encouraged to learned Arabic in order to read Qur’an to fulfill their religious duties.  Even though, there are many interpretations and translations of the Qur’an into various languages, it is a common view that these interpretations are not accurate and can’t convey the exact meaning of Qur’an.  As Abdul-Raof (2004) states in his article “an English Quran is a translational impossibility”(p. 106).  Furthermore, there is a consensus among Muslim scholars that the Qur’an must be read in Arabic during prayers by Arab and Non-Arab Muslims.

In London, there are over 603,000 Muslims.  The majority of London’s Muslims comes from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. (Museum of London, 2009).  In addition, there are more than 150 Mosques in London. These mosques are places for the prayers and worship, in addition to being community centres. Most mosques offer Islamic studies and Arabic classes. Therefore, there is a community encouragement and a religious motivation to learning Arabic for all Muslims since it is part of their religious practice.  (Gailani 2000)

Furthermore, since Arabic is considered a holy language that God choose to reveal his massage to mankind, there has been almost no change to Arabic grammar since 6th century A.D.  and it still applies to present Modern Standard Arabic. (Haywood and Nahad, 2003). A similar view presented by Fishman (2002) in his discussion of holy languages:

On the whole, however, secular vernaculars have come and gone throughout human history, whereas religious classical and the vernaculars that they influenced most thoroughly (e.g., the “Luther Bible” of trilingual Old Order Amish) seem to dig-in and hang-on almost ‘eternally’(p. 23).


The Arab Immigrants to London brought their language into contact with each other and with other languages. Within the Arabic speech community various levels of Language contact take place between different dialects.  Also Language choice can vary according to the context and the interlocutors. The Ferguson’s idea of diglossia can perfectly describe the uses of Arabic language if it is extended to distinguishing various hierarchal levels, instead of a simple high and low dichotomy.

Furthermore, different levels of bilingualism exist among Arabs in London, and the use of both English and Arabic is determined by sociological factors. Even though, English is a dominant language and Arabic is a minority language, Arabic speakers maintained their language for many reason and with the help of various factors, in particular because Arabic is viewed as part of their identity. In addition, Arabic is considered a holy language for both Arab and non Arab Muslims.


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Varieties of the Arabic Language


Note: These are parts of my Master’s dissertation “Arabic Language Maintenance Without Maintaining Spoken Arabic: A case study of ‘speaking Fusha’ at a weekend school in London”.  I was awarded a distinction on this research. I am hoping it will help answer some questions about Arabic sociolinguistics. I am also attaching the complete Dissertation.


This study explores a unique case of language maintenance at an Arabic weekend school in London. The school is run by devoted non-linguist native Arabic speakers and it has a policy of speaking Fusha, the literary variety of Arabic, inside classrooms. In addition, Spoken Arabic is usually corrected and considered inappropriate to the extent that the school administration prefers speaking English rather than Spoken Arabic inside the classrooms.

In investigating this paradoxical situation, this study aimed at exploring attitudes and perceptions about Arabic varieties among parents, students, teachers, and the school administration, observing the Arabic varieties spoken at the school and investigating their influence on the Arabic language maintenance efforts.

This study indicates that the multifaceted aspects of Arabic diglossia and Arabic various regional spoken dialects have an enormous influence on the school. Fusha is considered as superior to Spoken Arabic, even though Fusha is not often used as a spoken variety. All participants showed favorable attitudes toward Fusha and seemed to believe that Spoken Arabic is only learned at home. Furthermore, given the highly diverse background of students and teachers, the school is a centre for language interactions among various regional spoken dialects of Arabic. These dialects are sometimes mutually unintelligible. The findings suggest that instead of contextualizing the school’s efforts toward effective language maintenance, the school’s policy of speaking Fusha seems to effect students’ perceptions of Spoken Arabic which might weaken, rather than foster, the continuity of Spoken Arabic among the Arab-British students.

A source of inspiration

Starting my teaching career as an English Teacher at a university in Syria, I had the perception that teachers who are native speakers of English tend to have a different status in the profession. I then decided to teach Arabic, my native language.  I joined a University in the United States of America and I was looking forward to becoming the native-speaker teacher. That university, however, offered classes in Modern Standard Arabic, MSA, and it was my first time that I was supposed to speak MSA. Only at that time did I realize that I was not a fluent speaker of MSA. I was confused and upset. I kept wondering: “How is it possible that I am not fluent in my ‘native language’?!!”

I lived in Syria most of my life until I was twenty. At school, we studied all subjects in Arabic, with the exception of English Language classes which we attended for only two or three hours a week. I spent years learning Arabic grammar and I was a top student in my Arabic classes. However, we never had to speak MSA at school, like the majority of schools in Syria. After I started teaching MSA courses, I came to realize that speaking MSA in spontaneous conversation requires more than knowing the rules of Arabic grammar.

Furthermore, I was not the only one confused and frustrated with speaking MSA. Some of my students, whom we refer to as heritage students, spoke or had Arabic spoken at their homes. Some of those students were struggling in the Arabic classes because they had to modify the way they spoke at home to fit the MSA classes. The general pattern for heritage students of any language is that they speak their heritage language at home, and they learn how to read and write through educational institutes. However, for Arabic heritage students, it is a different situation.

After my initial confusion, I became more aware of the diglossic nature of Arabic and the challenges teaching Arabic resulting from the varieties of Arabic. My particular interest in teaching Arabic to heritage students led to the present study which is conducted at an Arabic weekend school in London where most of students have Arabic roots.

Varieties of Arabic:

The Arabic linguistic and sociolinguistic situation is characterized by a wide range of varieties, both horizontal and vertical, to use Eisele’s (2002) terminology. The multifaceted aspects of Arabic varieties are described in terms of diglossia and numerous regional spoken dialects.

1 Diglossia:

In his well known article ‘Diglossia’, Ferguson (1959) introduces the term diglossia, modeled on the French diglossie, and argues that the Arabic language is diglossic because of the existence of both Classical Arabic and Spoken Arabic which are used for certain purposes and in certain contexts in the Arabic speech community. He lists Modern Greek, Swiss German, and Haitian Creole as diglossic languages. Ferguson (1959, p.244) defines diglossia as:

“Diglossia is a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which might include a standard or regional standards), 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, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation.”

He also states that children learn the Low variety L first as their mother tongue while the High variety H is learned through formal education. Therefore, “the speaker is at home in L to a degree he almost never achieves in H.” Ferguson (1959, p. 239) discusses differences between H and L varieties in term of forms and functions. For example, grammar in the H variety is more complex and “it is learned in terms of ‘rules’ and norms to be imitated.” On the other hand, grammar in the L variety tends to be simpler and it “is learned without explicit discussion of grammatical concepts”. Furthermore, Ferguson (1995, p.236) lists specific functions for each variety. For example, H is used in formal situations such as a sermon in a church or a mosque, political speech, and university lectures, while L is used for informal situations such as giving instructions to servants and talking with friends and family. He emphasises the importance of “using the right variety for the right situation… A member of the speech community who uses H in a purely conversational situation or in an informal activity like shopping is equally an object of ridicule.”

In his description of Arabic diglossia, Ferguson (1995) argues that Classical Arabic is the ‘high’ variety, H. It is the literary variety of the Arabic language. On the other hand, spoken Arabic which is used for daily communication and has no official written form is the ‘low’ variety, L. Furthermore, Ferguson (1995, p.247) highlights the high status of Classical Arabic for native Arabic speakers. They view it as a unifying factor that “connects the community with its glorious past or with the world community”. On the contrary, the various spoken dialects are viewed as “divisive.” Furthermore, Classical Arabic is viewed as a prestigious ‘heavenly’ language because it is the language of the Quran, the holy book of Islam which is considered as God’s revelation in God’s actual words.

However, many scholars find Ferguson’s classification to be an inaccurate account of Arabic varieties. For example, Fishman (1972) states that the use of Arabic varieties is more flexible and changeable than Ferguson’s dichotomy.  Badawi (1994) argues that instead of only two varieties there are five levels of Arabic: 1) Classical Arabic 2) Modern Standard Arabic 3) High Standard Colloquial 4) Middle Standard Colloquial 5) Low Colloquial. Holes (1995, p.39) considers Ferguson’s categorization of High and Low as a ‘misleading oversimplification’. Many scholars prefer the description of the Arabic linguistics as a spectrum, a continuum, or a diglossic continuum ( al-B atal, 1992; Edwards, 1994; Holes 1995; Kaye, 2001; Elisele, 2002; Wilsmen, 2006; Wahba, 2006; Younes, 2006).  For the present study, I will be referring to the diglossic nature of Arabic indicating a diglossic continuum.

In recent years, the term Modern Standard Arabic, MSA, has been widely used. As Holes (1995) explains, MSA is the modern descendent of Classical Arabic and shares with it most of the grammar, with some variation in vocabulary and phraseology. MSA is the literary variety currently used for writing and reading across the Arab countries. It is generally used for speaking in very formal situations, and in some TV programmes and news reports.  Almost all native Arabic speakers learn Spoken Arabic as their first language and then learn MSA when they start their school education or religious education. Holes (1995) also states that all school materials are written in MSA.

Furthermore, the terminology Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are used mainly among Western scholars, while for ordinary native speakers of Arabic both Classical Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are referred to as Fusha (Holes, 1995; Wilmsen, 2006).  Badawi (1973) uses the term ‘contemporary Fusha’ to refer to MSA. Since many participants in the present study are native Arabic speakers, I will be using the term ‘Fusha’ as it is used by most native Arabic speakers referring to both Classical Arabic and MSA. It is more practical to use the terminology that the participants are familiar with.

2 Spoken Arabic Varieties:

Spoken Arabic, SA, refers to language varieties used for daily oral communications and most native speakers of Arabic learn their spoken dialects as their mother tongue. Furthermore, SA is not one variety; it is a collective term used when referring to the various regional spoken dialects. The Arabic word for SA is Ammiyah.

Some linguists who conducted observation about the language use of native Arabic speakers have concluded that SA is spoken in a wider context than initially expressed by Ferguson (1959). For example, Wilmsen (2006, p.131) conducted fieldwork for a PhD dissertation the focus of which was modes of speech of educated speakers of Arabic, mainly their conversation at work and at conferences and other discussion sessions. His main finding was that “The vehicle for discourse of the educated professionals whom I observed and with whom I interacted was vernacular Arabic… Thus, even intellectuals and language professionals, whose very work requires them to write and declaim at the highest standards of formal Arabic, spent most of their professional lives (and their home lives as well) steeped in another variety of Arabic: the vernacular.” A similar observation was made by Badawi (1973) who stated that a university professor in the Arab world “writes in CF (contemporary Fusha) but usually delivers his lectures in the vernacular of the educated” (cited in Wilsmen, 2006, p. 150).

It is well agreed that the domains for speaking MSA or SA are not rigidly defined. (al-B atal, 1992; Edwards, 1994; Holes 1995; Kaye, 2001; Elisele, 2002; Wilsmen, 2006; Wahba, 2006; Younes, 2006).  Some Arabs might use SA in formal occasions. However, speaking MSA in intimate domains or for bargaining in the market is perceived as absurd and ludicrous (Holes, 1995). There is only one exception, as Kaye (2001, p.120) explains. Non-Arab sometimes can and do use MSA in domains where it is not expect, and they “get away with it” without being laughed at because this is part of the “natives tolerance of the speech of non-natives”. Also Kaye (2002, p.120) describes the use of MSA by non-Arabs as being part of ‘foreign Talk’”. This argument is very relevant to the present study and it highlights the contradictory situation of requiring Arabic heritage children to speak MSA as part of language maintenance efforts when speaking MSA has ‘foreignness’ implication.

Furthermore, Holes (1995) also explains that speakers from geographically close areas do not have difficulty understanding each other’s dialect. However, mutual intelligibility becomes harder among speakers of geographically remote areas. Holes (1995, p. 5) states that “Geographically, these dialects might be thought of as being distributed along innumerable sets of intersecting continua.” In addition, some dialects such as Egyptian and Levant dialects are generally understood by speakers of other dialects because of popular TV programs and songs. Also, dialects of capital cities such as Cairo and Damascus are “more widely understood than others, and have acquired the status of ‘prestige’ national or even international spoken dialects.”

Given the wide variation of SA, one would wonder what happens when speakers of different dialects come together. There are a few studies about Arabic inter-dialectal conversations.  Holes (1995) argues that Arabic speakers of different dialects resort to language accommodation strategies such as reducing the use of words that are particular to specific dialect and might not be understood by speakers of other dialects and using words that are common among dialects and more likely to be understood.   Similarly, S’hiri (2002) concluded from her study of language spoken by Tunisian journalists to Levant journalists at a media agency in London that Tunisian speakers tend to linguistically converge toward their interlocutors. They modify the way they speak to make it easier for their interlocutors to understand them. They also eliminate code switching to French. Furthermore, both Holes (1995) and S’hiri (2002) state that native Arabic speakers hardly ever speak MSA in face-to-face conversations.

3 The emerging Middle variety:

In his discussion about stability of Diglossia, Ferguson (1959, p.240) predicts that some factors might affect the stability of diglossia and lead to the emergence of a “relatively uncodified, unstable, intermediate form.” He describes the ‘anticipated’ intermediate form of Arabic as “a kind of spoken Arabic much used in certain semi-formal or cross-dialectal situations has a highly classical vocabulary with few or no inflectional endings, with certain features of classical syntax, and a generous admixture of colloquial vocabulary.”

Currently, many scholars talk about a change that is happening to the diglossic situation of Arabic by the emerging middle variety (Mitchell, 1987; Ryding, 1991; Stevens 2006; Wahba, 2006). There is no consensus about the name or the exact description of this middle variety. It is, however, viewed as a solution for intelligibility during inter-dialectal conversations, and for teaching Arabic as a foreign language. For example, Mitchell (1987, p.8) argues for the existence of Educated Spoken Arabic, ESA, a variety of the language that incorporates features from both MSA and the SA. He states that “it is the interplay between written Arabic and vernacular Arabic(s) that creates and maintains Educated Spoken Arabic both nationally and internationally.”  Another name for the middle variety is Formal Spoken Arabic, which is described by Ryding (1991, p.212) as “a supra-regional, prestige form of spoken Arabic practical as a means of communication throughout the Arabic speaking world.”

In addition to being a potential solution for inter-dialectal conversations, the semi-formal characteristics of Educated Spoken Arabic solve the problem for Arabs who do not speak “a fully inflected MSA with a high degree of proficiency or accuracy” because they can speak the “so-called ‘pause forms,’ in which the complex inflections of formal Literary Arabic are greatly reduced” (Stevens 2006, p. 56). Furthermore, Educated Spoken Arabic also serves as a bridge between MSA and SA, and facilitates the learning process of Arabic as a foreign language (Stevens, 2006; Ryding, 1991)

4 Arabic inflectional case endings:

As discussed above, there is a big difference between MSA and SA in phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. In general, MSA grammar is more complicated and is learned through formal education. Therefore, not all Arabic speakers are aware of the detailed rules of MSA. As Stevens (2006, p.56) explains “there are many rules not well known to the nonspecialists that are found only in written, and except for formal spoken contexts, are never encountered in everyday spoken Arabic. As a result, native speakers of Arabic, even educated ones, are often unsure of MSA grammatical rules and can’t give correct examples (let alone explain rules).” A similar observation was made by Badawi (2002, p160) that educated native speakers of Arabic rarely speak formal literary Arabic, and if they do, “they usually deviate from the prescriptive rules.”

One of the major differences between MSA and SA, and which makes speaking MSA in spontaneous conversations difficult, is the use of case endings. As explained by Stevens (2006, p.43), nouns in MSA are inflected according to their position in the sentence (nominative, accusative, genitive) and according to their state (definite or indefinite). “When definite, the noun takes the definite article ‘al and one of the three case endings without final –n; when indefinite, it takes no article and the same three case endings with final –n. Thus al-kitābu, al-kitāba, al-kitābi ‘the book’ contrast with kitābun, kitāban, kitābin ‘a book’”.

On the other hand, nouns in SA do not take case endings. Thus, ‘a book’ versus ‘the book’ is expressed kitāb versus il-kitāb.  Therefore, it is a lot easier for speakers because they do not have to worry about the correct case endings while speaking. In his study of the history of Arabic varieties, and the evolution of SA, Holes (1995, p.30) states that the Arabic used in everyday speech of Arabs probably had begun to lose the final short vowel endings indicating mood and case “by the late seventh century.”

5 The influence of Arabic varieties on learning Arabic:

There are very few studies about learning Arabic as an immigrant language. For the present study, the researcher spent a tremendous amount of time looking for research about the influence of diglossia on the language acquisition of young heritage learners of Arabic without finding any. The researcher also searched for studies that investigate any potential correlation between speaking MSA and students’ reading abilities, and could not find anything.  Therefore, given the lack of research about Arabic acquisition and learning by heritage students, it was necessary to look at the available literature about learning Arabic by native Arabic speaker children, and learning Arabic as a foreign language. This literature has been approached with extreme caution because these are relatively different contexts. However, this literature was the only available resources, and it is relevant to the present study, in particular, the discussion about teaching MSA.

To start with, Arabic native speaker children are born into a complicated linguistic context: They grow up speaking their native dialect and then learn to read and write in MSA.  Al-Jabiri (2003) talks about the difficulties Arab children face in learning MSA because it is like learning ‘a new Language’.  Also, he states that students do not use this new language, MSA, in their everyday life outside the school, which adds to the complication of the situation. Furthermore, in their study, ‘Is Literary Arabic a Second Language for Native Arab Speakers?: Evidence from Semantic Priming Study,’ Ibrahim and Aharon-Peretz (2005) compared the semantic priming effects in auditory lexical decision within Spoken Arabic, SA, with the effects found across languages with Literary Arabic, LA, or in Hebrew. The Study concluded that “despite the intensive daily use adult native Arabic speakers make of SA and LA, and despite their shared origin, the two languages retain their status as first and second languages in the cognitive system.”(Ibrahim and Aharon-Peretz, 2005, p.51)

Moreover, Mahmoud (1986, pp.241-242) discusses the educational impact of diglossia in contexts where Arabic is in a direct competition with a foreign or a second language, especially in the North African countries of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. He states that diglossia makes Arabic hard to master and diglossia is one of the reasons why “French had violently usurped most of the social, educational, administrative and most importantly, the economic and technological functions of Arabic.”

Furthermore, according to the United States Foreign Services Institute’s (FSI) ranking (1986), Arabic was among the most difficult languages to learn (cited in Stevens 2006, p. 36). In addressing the question of what makes Arabic difficult to learn, Stevens (2006) argues that there are numerous reasons for this classification. Among these reasons are the spoken/written dichotomy, orthography, and morphology (derivational and inflectional). In addition, there are more difficulties related to pedagogical factors such as the scarcity of professional teachers and teaching materials and the teaching methodology where some native-speaker Arabic teachers tend to teach Arabic the same way they learned it as a native language.

Stevens (2006, p.56) explains the difficulty of learning Arabic because of the spoken/written dichotomy that more efforts are required from the students to learn both speaking and writing varieties and to differentiate between them. He also suggests that “there must be a certain difficulty psychologically in acquiring two closely related systems and keeping them separate while the acquisition process goes on. Perhaps it might be easier to learn two unrelated languages simultaneously than two closely related systems.” Ferguson (1971) has similarly argued that learning Arabic might seem to the students as learning two languages in one.

6 Challenges and Implications of Teaching MSA:

Given the complexity of Arabic varieties, it is common for Arabic as a Foreign Language programs to teach only MSA for both oral and literary function. There are many challenges and negative implications of this practice. Wilmsen (2006, p125) states: “It is an open secret in the Arabic teaching profession that the language taught in the classroom is not the same as that usually used in speech”. In addition, teaching only MSA requires artificial situations because students learn to use MSA in situations and domains where it is not used in the daily life, such as greeting, introducing people and ordering food. Teaching MSA only limits the chance of teaching Arabic culture because Arabic songs, TV shows, folk cultural elements are mostly in SA.

Furthermore, speaking MSA in the Arabic classrooms places more pressure on teachers, even if they are native Arabic speakers because they are not used to, and sometimes not able, to speak MSA in conversations. A testimony by Younes (2006, p.163) after teaching and developing the Arabic program at Cornell University for over fourteen years clarifies these difficulties and explains how it affects classrooms’ atmosphere:

But writing as one who has been subjected to the forced use of Fusha for speaking, where I felt completely unnatural and inappropriate, and as one who has witnessed countless instances of Arabic instructors confused and overwhelmed by feelings of guilt as they struggle to  cope with the requirements of ‘i’rab (case and mood ending) while trying to think of what to say, it is my strong belief that the insistence on using Fusha for speaking in the Arabic language classroom takes the joy and spontaneity out of teaching the language and takes the meaning out of a classroom discussion. The reason for that is simple: instead of focusing one’s energy and attention on the message he or she is trying to convey, the focus is shifted to form.

In addition to the classroom implications, teaching only MSA has negative implications on the learning outcome as well. Wilmsen (2006, pp.132-141) argues that given the sociolinguistic situation of Arabic varieties, “relying on one variety ignores the dynamic aspect of communication for the language learners (users)”. Therefore, he states that Arabic programs that teach only MSA produce “a disabled learner who cannot communicate adequately.”  Therefore, he concludes that teaching only MSA is a waste of time. This opinion was also expressed by Badawi (2002). Furthermore, Stevens (2006, p.61) points out the paradoxical situation that achieving high proficiency in MSA takes a long time and actually involves “surpassing true ‘nativelike’ performance.”

Recently, there have been some arguments that students should learn Arabic varieties as they are spoken by native Arabic speakers in real-life situations. Wahba (2006, p.151) states that the Arabic programs’ objectives should be directed toward producing a competent diglossic user of Arabic “who has the linguistic knowledge (linguistic and cultural) and the communicative ability to use Arabic language in its social context.” Similarly, Younes (2006, p.164) argues that Arabic should be treated as “one system of communication with a spoken side and a written side and a common core” because it would be a more accurate reflection of the sociolinguistic realities of Arabic and pedagogically more effective. Even though, it might seem difficult and confusing for students to differentiate between varieties of Arabic, Al-Batal (1992, p.302) argues that this potential confusion “should be regarded as part of the total experience of learning Arabic.”


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Andrea Duristova – Speaking other languages opens a gate to a different world

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By Fardous Bahbouh @FardousBahbouh

Andrea Duristova is a linguist working as a Public Service Interpreter of Slovak, Czech and Spanish in London. She specialises in legal interpreting and works mainly at courts, law firms, police stations, prisons, probation offices and social services. She is is on a mission to help people communicate  at various occasions and locations: courtrooms, prisons, hospitals,and weddings. In addition to interpreting, she teaches Community Interpreting and Met Test courses and she helps in organising workshops and seminars for interpreters. Andrea holds a Master’s Degree in Translation and Interpreting from Comenius University in Bratislava and a Diploma in Public Service Interpreting from the Chartered Institute of Linguists. She is currently preparing for her exams for a postgraduate course in conference interpreting.

I first met Andrea at one of my Arabic courses. She stood out as a funny, talented and  kind person. She likes learning languages, exploring different cultures, reading the Bible and building bridges among different cultures and religions. Andrea is very inspiring. She is dedicated, hard-working and super organi9sed. She has been self-employed for over seven years. Andrea always shares tips and advice on being self-employed with friends and colleagues. She told me “I admire all people who love unconditionally, who serve others and who believe that if the job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”

When did you come to London and how does its diversity influence your life and passion for languages?

I came to London for the first time during my gap year at university. From the very beginning, I was fascinated by the variety of nationalities and languages. I was listening to all the conversations in different languages on the bus and on the tube, trying to identify them. I also discovered the beauty of the BritishEnglish, and some of the British values. After an amazing year, I returned to Slovakia to finish my studies. I graduated in 2007 and came back to London and started working for the British Council

“there are so many similarities between our cultures. I wanted to learn the language and to utilise my skills to building bridges between the Christian and Muslim worlds.”

When did you first notice your interest and talent in languages?

I was interested in languages from a very young age. My primary school specialised in languages. I was among the first generation in Slovakia who were learning English, and not Russian! I started learning English at the age of 9, German at the age of 11, and Spanish at 14. My father thought it would be a good language to speak in the future. He was right! I have also started learning Arabic after my very positive experience in Jordan. I loved how friendly and welcoming the local people were. I was also fascinated by the Arabic sounds that do not exist in Slovak. I also realised there were so many similarities between our cultures. I wanted to learn the language and to utilise my skills to build bridges between the Christian and Muslim worlds. I have learnt that if you speak the language of the person you want to talk to, you will see, hear, and feel them in a different light.

Tell us please about your experience working as interpreter in various contexts.

I absolutely love interpreting, so I enjoy interpreting in almost every context. In public service interpreting, you offer your services to assist if there is ‘a problem.’ For example, a person needs your help when s/he is in pain in hospital awaiting an operation, or giving a testimony in courtroom. These situations could be stressful and emotional. In addition to language differences, the interpreter should be aware of different cultural backgrounds as well as life experiences and expectations of people involved in the communication.

“I do not only interpret the language, I also try to convey the solemn, joyful and moving tone of the speakers addressing the couple on the day”

Personally, I like interpreting at weddings, as they are happy and cheerful occasions. I have interpreted at English/American/Australian and Slovak weddings and I found them to be the happiest interpreting experiences. I believe that I have responsibility to help make the wedding day the most special day for the newlyweds. I do not only interpret the language, I also try to convey the solemn, joyful and moving tone of the speakers addressing the couple on the day.

You also train people in interpreting and intercultural communication. How would you describe these experiences?

I have delivered community-interpreting courses. I have also prepared students to work at police stations and in courts. It is very important that people understand that there is more to interpreting than speaking languages. If you want to work as an interpreter, you need to be aware of what are the values and beliefs of people you interpret for. It is also important to understand that no culture is superior to another. We are simply different. I strongly believe that only in the interacting with people who think or act differently to us, we can truly find out who we are and who we aspire to be.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of being self-employed linguist? What does it take to be successful?

I really enjoyed being self-employed. I work with numerous agencies. I absolutely love the thrill of travelling, meeting new people, and learning new things every day. The great advantage is that you can organise your day. I normally split my week between interpreting, teaching, translating and doing admin work. It gives you a sense of freedom to choose what you want to do and how you want to do it. It also pushes you to continuously look for new opportunities and to build your own network of clients.

On the other hand, if you are passionate about what you do, you may easily find yourself working around the clock and may end up putting yourself under unnecessary pressure. I believe that to be a successful self-employed interpreter, you need to be equipped with good organisational and people skills, you need to be prepared to constantly work on improving your skills and you simply must love your job. If you love what you do, you make yourself happy and if you are happy, you make everyone around you happy.

Tell us a funny or embarrassing thing that happened to you while working as an interpreter.

Sometimes, people tend to confuse what the interpreter says, and what other people say through the interpreter. My favourite story was in a hospital where I was asked to assist a pregnant lady who was having an ultrasound scan. The lady was lying on a couch while we were looking at a baby in her womb on the screen. When the doctor asked if she wanted to know the sex of her baby, she was very excited and said “yes please”. The doctor said that she will have a baby boy. Her immediate question was “and how do you know?” and I interpreted her question to the surprise of the doctor. In response, the doctor gave me a suspicious look and addressed me directly. “Madam Interpreter, considering your age, I would think that you know how I know that it is a boy.” Then he pointed at the screen at what is a clear distinguishing feature in boys compared to girls. I simply smiled, interpreted the bit about the ‘distinguishing feature’ and looked at the blissful face of the mother-to-be on my side.

Have you found love? Do language and cultural differences present a challenge or add a special value to the relationship?

I have found the love of my life. My partner is Portuguese and he comes from a lovely island – Madeira. I certainly believe that our languages and cultural backgrounds add a very special value to our relationship. We base our relationship on our faith in God, and this is a great advantage while facing the challenges of our life journey. I plan to start learning Portuguese soon and my partner has started learning Slovak. I do admire him a lot as Slovak is a difficult language to learn. Our wish is for our children to speak both of our mother tongues. We believe that speaking other languages opens a gate to a different world. We would like to open at least two gates for our children.

This interview first appeared at Migrant woman Magazine