An Approach to Teaching Arabic as a Diglossic Language to Young Kids

I wrote this originally to lay out for myself how to teach my son Arabic as he starts to go to school. The underlying challenge is that he needs to be able to balance between the spoken dialect and al-Fusha (Classical or Modern Standard Arabic) while growing stronger in both. The approach laid out below gives an alternative route that treats both dialect and al-Fusha to help children bridge between the two forms of the language. It is worth noting that this approach also builds up to al-Fusha over years: I would not expect a child to be conversant in al-Fusha before middle school at the earliest.

This approach should be (briefly) contrasted with some of the common approaches to teaching al-Fusha

  1. Most Arabic language courses focus only on teaching al-Fusha. These classes tend to be grammar intensive and drive children away from the language instead of toward it. It has no focus on natural, spoken language, focusing instead of grammar, reading, and writing
  2. Some Arabic language schools focus on rote memorization, particularly those that only see Arabic as needed for Islam religion. Sometimes, this rote memorization approach does not even teach meaning except for the occasional explanation from the teacher. Students are not empowered to use the language and have no sense of ownership of it.

Learning Goals for Kindergarten

  1. Letters: Basic letters, sounds, and connected forms
  2. Basic reading (sight words)
  3. Math (counting, shapes, basic math concepts)
  4. Songs, rhythm, rhyming
  5. Speaking mechanisms, phrases, tools
  6. Fusha-3ammiyyah
    1. Understanding basic words in al-Fusha
    2. Understanding basic differences (like qaal and 2aal)
    3. Laying the foundation to use more al-Fusha while also growing stronger in dialect.

How to

  1. Keep it fun. This remains the most important point for success. If the language learning becomes miserable, kids will reject the learning and likely the language as well.
  2. Treat the colloquial as a respectable language. Do not look down on colloquial. Teaching kids to look down on their native languages is essentially teaching them to look down on themselves, their families, and the cultures they come from.
  3. Children should be helped to bridge between colloquial and al-Fusha. The latter should not be forced on kids, and similarities can be capitalized on to help kids slowly (over years) build up to al-Fusha.
  4. Letters and spelling can be made relatively consistent between al-Fusha and 3ammiyya if the focus is on shared words. A word like إذا should not be written إزا. However, Pronunciation differences can be explained as “accent”, and in fact other “accents” can be explained (especially if there are kids with different backgrounds together), and kids should not be made to feel that saying 2iza instead of 2idha is wrong.
    1. This also implies an important point about harakat: leave most of it out. The extra markings just confuses children. Minimal harakat should be used, mainly the shadda is important to differentiate between certain words. The vast majority of harakat can be left out for early levels to simplify the language and allow flexibility in pronunciation.
  5. At younger ages, the differences between al-Fusha and colloquial should be minimized so that bridging between the two can be easier. The children’s reading book فرفر وفيفي is a good example of what not to do (do not use words like تناول الغداء , keep it simple with تغدى, do not use a word like مثلّجات , keep it simple as بوظة or whatever the common word is for it ). In particular, while basic phonetic differences can be explained as “accent,” lexical (vocabulary), morphological, and syntactical differences should be minimized so the child does not feel overwhelmed with learning a foreign language.
    1. This point refers to language structures that are entirely foreign to the child and make the language alien and unapproachable; it does not refer to learning things like names for animals or other, what might be considered, regular learning if this were a non-diglossic language.
  6. New vocabulary words can be introduced in al-Fusha, such as names for animals, and “technical” terms like “shading” (in art) that kids might be unfamiliar with. However, there is no need to do this to the exclusion of colloquial names. Many animals have multiple names in al-Fusha and in different dialects, a quality common in all languages. On this point, al-Fusha often incorporates the common (colloquial) names for animals and plants.
  7. Teach content in Arabic instead of focusing on grammar. However, correct speech and writing should be emphasized. Correct does not mean strict al-Fusha, though. Correct speech in dialect is also important, so focusing on the basics, such as proper gender agreement, is key.
  8. A lot of these goals can be understood in terms of control of the language. Control includes how to separate between al-Fusha and colloquial. It also includes how to rhyme, how to use new words and phrases, and how to tell stories.
  9. Proper language should be understood as something that is accessible to children. This can be the al-Fusha that overlaps with colloquial, for instance, or the child’s native colloquial. It is not a super foreign al-Fusha that children do not understand at all, and it is not a colloquial different from the child’s (unless it is close to the child’s).
  10. No where in here is mention of Islam, Qur’an, hadith, or religion in general. Religious- focused lessons can be incorporated based on this outline. One note in particular stands out: it is easier to teach a child stories than it is to teach abstract language. In contrast, the current approach to teaching the Qur’an, for instance, is to teach the suras at the end of the Qur’an first because they are shorter. These suras tend to be very abstract and hard for children to grasp (although meaning is often not taught to kids, rather only
  11. recitation is taught). However, There is nothing religiously wrong focusing on stories, such as by picking verses and suras from the middle of the Qur’an. The stories are more concrete and engaging for children, although language-wise the Qur’an remains a complex book, even for adults. The same concept can be applied to teaching stories about prophets and other historical religious figures.

Notes on how to use different exercises.

  1. Basic writing exercises (letter exercises, basic words) are necessary for teaching literacy, but should not be made the exclusive, or even the main, tool for teaching the language.
  2. Basic reading books (I am Still looking for a good series. The أصالة series seems good, as does لغتي النامية by أمل فريجي ).
    1. While doing reading and writing, the point about highlighting letter pronunciation differences while minimizing vocabulary differences should be taken into account. I see no reason why most words cannot be read with a colloquial accent at this level, and slowly -- over the course of years -- the idea of a al-Fusha accent can be built up to.
  3. Singing songs in 3ammiyyah
    1. The focus should be kept on 3ammiyyah at this point to keep the songs more accessible and so that the student is not focusing on new words and pronunciation too much. Al-Fusha songs that use vocabulary a child can understand are also an option.
    2. Emphasize rhyme, how to have fun with the language, and jokes. A song like طيزو طيزو is great for kids even if most schools would have a heart attack.
  4. Story time: Story time is a great tool for encouraging engagement with the language in a fun way. However:
    1. Many stories in Arabic are in rigid al-Fusha that kids cannot understand. These stories should be avoided.
    2. Colloquial books and stories are great if you can find them, but there are few available. Teachers can translate some on their own, and some translated versions are available online.
    3. For al-Fusha books, focus should be given to books that are in a al-Fusha that overlaps a lot with dialect. Teachers should be willing to change some of the words and sentences to make them easier for kids, depending on level and ability. This can be done using colloquial words, but it often does not require going outside of al-Fusha -- al-Fusha structures and words can still be used, but should be kept in a language approachable for kids. Each class and teacher can develop a different approach. However, the key point is that a teacher should not have to explain every sentence to kids.
    4. There is nothing wrong with introducing new vocabulary for stories. This is obviously common in every language. However, if every al-Fusha sentence needs to be explained, there is no point to story time.
    5. All that said, there is also nothing wrong with using 3ammiyyah, or even doing entire stories in 3ammiyyah. However, to keep the tie to writing, if a child is
    6. looking at the book (and pointing at the words as the teacher reads), the words that are shared between al-Fusha and dialect should be written in the al-Fusha manner, even if the colloquial pronunciation is used, and even if the entire book is written in colloquial.
  5. Telling stories in Arabic
    1. Children should have the chance to tell and illustrate their own stories.
    2. Children should be encouraged to focus on narrative, how to create content, and how to tie a story together.
    3. This becomes a good point to teach children how to use and express time, if- then, and cause and effect.
    4. This is also a good time to focus on phrases, including colloquial phrases but also in al-Fusha. Both are important, and they should not be used to the exclusion of the other. Teachers should remember that a lot of narratives are purely in colloquial, and so children should be empowered to use colloquial.
    5. Children should not be criticized for using colloquial words, and teachers should be willing to help them use colloquial words and phrases. If writing is part of the exercise, they should also try to write the phrases, including colloquial phrases.
    6. While a child might mix al-Fusha and colloquial, teachers should help the students develop control and appropriateness of when to use each (this is more for older kids - kindergarteners have little reason to really use al-Fusha at this point).
    7. There are recorded stories in colloquial, such as Shalabiyat and Dar Onboz’s stories. There are also stories in al-Fusha, including an app called نحلة ونحيل , again with the caveat that things in alien al-Fusha should be avoided.
  6. Content in Arabic
    1. Instead of merely focusing on language, content should be taught in Arabic. Hence, it is perfectly fine to make an Arabic art lesson, a lesson making things from blocks or legos that is all in Arabic, or playing a sport regularly in Arabic. This is a great chance for kids to practice interaction in Arabic. It is also a chance to start to teach kids technical Arabic vocabulary. For instance, a science lesson can be done in Arabic, and kids can learn terms for animals and plants in Arabic. Or, in an art lesson, technical words like “shading” and “coloring” and “perspective” can be taught to kids.
    2. It is worth comparing this to something like National Geographic in Arabic, or Wild Kratts in Arabic. The language used in those is completely unapproachable for kids. In contrast, a lesson can be done mainly in colloquial, with just key words and phrases introduced in al-Fusha. This is the same way in English a teacher can start to introduce more technical words while keeping the language accessible to kids.
  7. Videos
    1. Videos remain an extremely thorny issue for Arabic. Outside of Egyptian, there is little content available in dialect, and even for Egyptian the content is relatively limited when compared to non-diglossic languages like French and English. The al-Fusha content is largely alien to children, and so they do not benefit at all from listening to it. Rather, they often learn to tune it out and avoid it, seeking out content in English or another more comfortable language. At best, there is limited benefit if the kids pick up a few phrases and gain some familiarity with the phonetic differences.
    2. Videos, overall, should be limited to things that are not alien to kids, since the alternative is to either pause the videos constantly to explain them, or just have the kids tune it out.
    3. Possible content includes more simple (language-wise) videos, videos in colloquial, and song videos that kids can learn and sing along with through repetition. Another option is for the teacher to create videos, such as by reading a story in colloquial and making a video for it.
  8. Games
    1. There are plenty of modern and traditional games that kids can play in Arabic. A “board” game like Barjis can help teach kids counting, strategy, and interaction. Jamal Mashi is another good one. But the games do not even have to be traditional games. Many modern games are easily translated into Arabic, or already have been, such as Snakes and Ladders (سلالم وحيايا). Again, the focus should be on fun and giving kids a chance to interact in Arabic so they feel comfortable and gain control in the language.
  9. Learning Apps
    1. There are few learning apps, which focus entirely on al-Fusha, but some are worthwhile for teaching basic letters and phonetics. The two best are probably إطعام الوحش and عنتورة والحروف . There is also a story book app (in al-Fusha) called نحلة ونحيل.
  10. Video games
    1. Video games may be frowned on by some parents, but setting aside Arabic-time to play a game remains a great tool to get kids engaged with each other and using Arabic. Some games are now available in Arabic, although finding them can be difficult, and finding ones with understandable Arabic can be harder. However, even playing a game like Mario Kart, but having the kids speak and interact in Arabic, can be a great exercise to encourage proper language usage and create positive associations between the language and having fun.