Acquisition of Sociolinguistic Variation

Sociolinguistic variation is present in all languages, and refers to how speakers use linguistic elements to index social meaning, such as informality or belonging to a specific social group.  Language learners need to acquire sociolinguistic variation to understand these meanings and develop social relationships. A major question in the field of Arabic pedagogy is how to teach Arabic diglossia, which is one type of sociolinguistic variation in Arabic.  The tradition has been to teach only Modern Standard Arabic (although this is changing in recent years), but this method frustrates many students who go abroad and find this variety inappropriate for everyday exchanges.  

My first exploration of this topic was a 2011 article that looked at learners’ ability to comprehend unfamiliar dialects, since the differences between various regional dialects are often offered as a reason to not teach dialect, as students may study in different locations or teachers may be from a variety of dialect backgrounds.  My study found that for Egyptian and Levantine learners, their dialect knowledge was a better predictor of their ability to understand the other dialect than their MSA knowledge, indicating that it may not matter so much which dialect learners are taught, but that they are taught both MSA and a dialect.  

I’ve also examined dialect acquisition with regards to study abroad in a 2017 paper, where I found that learners who had not studied a dialect prior to their experience abroad made rapid gains in Egyptian dialect, including learners who did not make gains on general fluency measures while abroad.  This implies that dialect acquisition is an important feature of study abroad, and that it may be obscured when more general proficiency measures are used.  Despite their gains, the majority of these learners also said that they wished they had studied dialect prior to study abroad.  

Although this is certainly a topic that requires further research, based on the existing research, I believe that it is important to teach Arabic as a diglossic language from the beginning.  This is one reason that genre-based approaches appeal to me, because they emphasize connecting linguistic elements (including sociolinguistic ones) with particular contexts.  At the same time, I think it is important to recognize that the appropriate variety of Arabic depends not only on the context, but on the speaker, and that there is a continuum of speech between dialects and MSA, rather than an either/or choice.  In our Arabic classes at UNM, we teach MSA and Egyptian Arabic, but welcome the use of all varieties of Arabic.  Although this is not without its challenges, we try to use genre-based approaches and the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements to guide students to use the variety of Arabic most appropriate for the activity they are attempting to undertake and the identity they wish to display.