Does a multidialectal approach mean teaching all of the dialects?

This is a question I get frequently when I advocate for a multidialectal approach to learning Arabic.  The short answer is no.

The longer answer is also no, but with a much lengthier explanation, which I thought I’d give in this post.  In general, there are two types of people who ask this question.  The first category is those who want to discredit dialect teaching completely (every village has its own dialect, how can you possibly choose, MSA is the answer). The second category is people who find the idea appealing, but the process confusing (does this mean teaching every word in major dialect groups? Isn’t that a lot to ask of students? How do you do this all in class?) This post is aimed at that second category, as those coming from the first have an ideological perspective I will always be at odds with.  

What is a multidialectal approach?

A multidialectal approach avoids this issue viewing “Arabic” as a group of linguistic resources employed in various ways according to a negotiation between the social context and learner choice and/or knowledge.  So what does this look like in practice? Below, I’ll discuss some principles of the multidialectal approach, my response to common objections, and also ongoing challenges in the classroom

Principles of a multidialectal approach

Distinguishing between receptive and productive abilities

For the most part, research on the mutual intelligibility of Arabic dialects indicates a high level of comprehensibility, that grows even higher when speakers are interacting with each other, and thus making linguistic accommodations to communicate. While speakers of less socially prestigious dialects certainly have to shift their speech more, the mutual comprehensibility is largely a result of the receptive abilities of the speakers, and their lifelong practice of understanding dialects other than their own. In my opinion, this distinction between receptive and productive skills is something that deserves a lot more attention in the Arabic classroom–we don’t need to expect students to produce every single dialect, but if their goal is interacting with Arabic speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds (and it often is!) we do need to work on our ability to understand multiple varieties.  In terms of actual classroom practice, this may mean watching videos of similar interactions in multiple dialects, to help learners develop this ability, while letting them choose the variety they want to use when they engage in the interaction themselves.

Developing meta-linguistic awareness

In order to develop these receptive and productive abilities, we also need to help students develop meta-lingusitic awareness.  While this is a lifelong skill, it’s important to train from the beginning.  Yes, there is a lot of variation in Arabic, but it’s not random, and practicing with highly salient and expected features from the beginning (e.g. q pronunciations, lexical variations for syntactic features like بتاع حق etc.) can be very beneficial.  The key word here is practice, simply telling students about the variation isn’t enough, they need to practice understanding it.  

Focus on social actions, rather linguistic varieties

Common Objections to a Multidialectal Approach

In terms of “mixing dialects in funny ways”, yes, students will do this.  They will also conjugate verbs in ways that sound funny to us, but do we use this as a reason not to teach verb conjugations? No, we just help them sort it out over time.  We might also want to question who gets to arbitrate what sounds “funny”–while certainly language learners make mistakes due to a lack of knowledge, having analyzed hundreds of online videos for the We Can Learn Arabic site and class, I feel quite confident that there is all kinds of dialect mixing in use in real life that might sounds “funny” to Arabic teachers used to separating linguistic varieties.  In fact, it was analyzing all of these videos that led me towards embracing a multidialectal approach–if this is what people do, who am I (or any teacher) to regulate it?  

It’s true that the teacher might not understand everything in a particular dialect or video, and this is certainly true for me.  It also has an easy solution–look it up or ask for help! In fact, I might argue that modeling how you do this is particularly useful for students, as it provides them with the ability to do the same thing themselves.  Even better, you get to learn new things, and what teacher doesn’t like that?

Ongoing Challenges of a Multidialectal Approach

While I think the objections mentioned above are spurious, I also don’t want to suggest that a multidialectal approach is without challenges, and so I wanted to also discuss two of these that I have struggled with in particular.

Language Ideologies: 

Meta-Linguistic Awareness: 

Having a very basic linguistics background (like understanding where sounds are made in your mouth, different syntactic structures, what morphemes are) makes teaching meta-linguistic awareness much, much easier.  Alas, unless a student is a Linguistics major or minor, they are unlikely to have studied this (all the more reason to teach Linguistics in primary and secondary education levels!).  Helping students develop this awareness, without turning the session into a Linguistics class, is also a challenge.  Although, as with linguistic ideologies, I often wonder what is more useful in the long term–a little more Arabic, or meta-linguistic knowledge that can be applied to any language, including ones we already know?

So, that is my very long answer to the question “Does a multidialectal approach mean teaching all of the dialects?” If you have tried a multidialectal approach, or would like to try it, I’d love to hear how it’s going, or what challenges you’re facing. Let me know in the comments or via email!


4 responses to “Does a multidialectal approach mean teaching all of the dialects?”

  1. Karin Ryding Avatar
    Karin Ryding

    Bravo, Emma! This is a central sticking-point that faces all attempts to teach Arabic as a foreign language as well as all theories about how best to do it. Keep up the good work.

    1. Emma Trentman Avatar
      Emma Trentman

      Thank you!

  2. Rasha Soliman Avatar
    Rasha Soliman

    Thank you Emma! We need to keep promoting this until it is adopted by more and more teachers. This variationist approach should be the way forward in teaching any L2. It’s not only that it resembles real language use/comprehension and responds to learning needs, but it also fights dialectal bias and discrimination. Learners who are exposed to multiple varieties are more tolerant and open to dialectal diversity.

    1. Emma Trentman Avatar
      Emma Trentman

      Thank you and also for your wonderful research in this area!

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