Rethinking Diglossia: a short writing encouraging learners of Arabic to reconsider the biggest challenge in learning the language, diglossia.

In 1959, Charles Ferguson published his article Diglossia, in which he also coined the English term from the French diglossie. He writes that he is studying “a particular kind of standardization where two varieties of a language exist side by side throughout the community, with each having a definite role to play.” Wikipedia also summarizes his article, saying that, “diglossia refers to a situation in which two dialects or usually closely related languages are used by a single language community. In addition to the community's everyday or vernacular language variety (labelled "L" or "low" variety), a second, highly codified variety (labelled "H" or "high") is used in certain situations such as literature, formal education, or other specific settings, but not used for ordinary conversation.” For Arabic, what this means is that there is a "High Dialect", which is called Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, Literary Arabic, and other names, and a number of colloquials (around fifty according to some studies). The High Dialect is used in writing, news, formal speechs, and other similar situations, while the colloquials are used in most everyday situations.

Arabic is described as “having” diglossia, as though it were a plague of some kind that it can't get ride of. Definitely, diglossia posses challenges for any learner of Arabic , and for any student who wants to be fully operational in Arabic, he must essentially learn two languages and be at least familiar with other dialects. In fact, I'd argue that, despite how much students complain of grammar, letters that are hard to pronounce, lack of vowels/diacritic marks put on words, conjugation, gender and agreement, and all that other jazz, the most difficult aspect of Arabic, and in fact what is at the root of many of these difficulties, is diglossia. For instance, the grammatical and phonetic focus found in Classical Arabic classes is probably due to how teaching Arabic originally stems from efforts to preserve the dialects (yes, that is a plural) that were spoken by the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries. And there is nothing else to focus on, really, except grammar, reading, and writing; since no one normally speaks Classical Arabic, it can't be effectively taught through conversation classes. Additionally, it goes without saying that diglossia would pose challenges even for native speakers and influence literacy rates.

Despite these challenges, diglossia is not something inherently bad. In fact, it is at the heart of what makes Arabic such an amazing language. Modern Standard Arabic (or Classical Arabic), is amazing because it stretches across centuries, and with it one has access to pre-Islamic poetry and modern literature, and texts that stretch from the Gulf to Al-Andalus. In other words, it covers a huge period of time and a massive stretch land; in the contemporary world, it lets peoples in places as diverse Morocco, Sudan, Iraq, and the Oman watch the same news, read the same books and articles, travel and work in each other's countries, and in general acts as a unifying force across the region, allowing diverse peoples to share in each other's cultures. How else could students who are studying such different areas, whether in history or geography or both, find themselves in the same classroom studying the same language? That by itself is wonderful gift, something that is definitely worth considering when bashing Arabic (though, as a student who has struggled with Arabic since early childhood, by all means bash away if it helps relieve some of that stress).

On the other hand there are the dialects, which are rich in idiosyncrasies and help make each country unique. The dialects represent each area's particular culture. (I am reluctant to say country's because there are often several dialects in a country, depending on how one defines a dialect). Examining a dialect closely can often tell one about the socio-cultural history of the area because words from other languages can be found. For instance, in the Egyptian dialect there are many Greek and Coptic words, as well as the clear influence of French, Italian, and English. Children's songs are an interesting representation of a dialect. For example, Sadok Masliyah writes in the article The Folk Songs of Iraqi Children: Part One:

“The folk songs of Iraqi children (as well as those of other countries) have been constantly shaped and passed from one young generation to the next, a process that added a unique flavour. The Iraqi children did not acquire the majority of these songs through their parents or teachers, but from other children and, as a result, the tunes retained old words and speech that were specific only to young people at a certain time. In the course of time many words were added and omitted with slight variations in melody, but most importantly, the substance and the spirit of these songs remained unchanged and the songs continued to serve as a window through which Iraqi children look at themselves and their surroundings.” Much the same can about dialects in general, that they are learned orally and simply passed from one generation to the next. As languages that are not “officially” written, they are fluid and represent what is one of the most fun aspects of language --- the improvisation, the use of non-transparent phrases and proverbs, the borrowing of foreign words and Arabizing them (or not and just using them as is).

So yes, Arabic is frustrating. But would you really be studying the language if it wasn't so cool? The challenge for learners of Arabic is how to balance all this when learning the language, and how to really re-conceive the language because, let's be honest, traditionally teaching methods for this language definitely don't work.