Taking a new approach to Arabic dialect instruction at the University of Pittsburgh

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Amani Attia is the Arabic Language Program Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh and a Senior Lecturer and Arabic Instructor of the Egyptian and Levantine dialects. In this interview, we will discuss the importance of Arabic Dialect instruction in universities and shed light on what the University of Pittsburgh is doing differently from others.

Universities have traditionally put a much greater emphasis on Modern Standard Arabic (FusHa) instruction over Arabic Dialect (Aamiya) instruction, which has been relegated to a type of elective in some programs. For years, this has sparked debate about the benefits and disadvantages of Fusha v. Dialect. Why has Fusha traditionally dominated in higher education Arabic instruction?

There are a couple of reasons: FusHa is the language of education in the Arab world. Arabic speakers’ mother tongue is the dialect spoken in the home/community. When they start schooling they learn Modern Standard Arabic/ FusHa. It is the language they are trained in. It is easier to teach than a variety for which there has been no formal grammar for a long time.

Secondly, Arabs associate FusHa with a higher form of the language, related to classical Arabic which is the language of the Quran. Culturally they feel protective of the language, and consider dialects impure forms. This is comparable to 15th century Britain when all important writing had to be done in Latin rather than English which they considered an improper vernacular. It is expected to focus on Modern Standard Arabic in the USA because FusHa is considered the proper form of the language.

Fusha and Dialect offer students of Arabic different tools and ways to use the language. For students currently studying or interested in studying Arabic, what can they gain from studying FusHa v. Dialect (personally and professionally) and vice-versa? Do you recommend studying one before the other, and why/why not?

It all depends on the program students are in, and the purpose of studying the language. In the university of Pittsburgh, our objective is to get students to emulate the language used by an educated Arab. This means students need to be exposed to both varieties, FusHa as well as at least one dialect of Arabic. This way they will be able to use an educated dialect in conversation, and Modern Standard Arabic in writing and more formal occasions.

In contrast to many Arabic programs, UPitt’s program offers six Levantine and Egyptian dialect courses that scale in level. Why did the program decide to invest in Dialect instruction and how has this been received by your students?

Dialect instruction is essential in order to be able to use the language in everyday communication. Prior to dialect instruction students who traveled overseas came back feeling they were shortchanged as their FusHa proved to be an odd language to use in everyday dealings. This would be analogous to using Shakespearean English to talk to people in a supermarket in the USA. Our purpose is to enhance speaking proficiency, impossible without dedicating part of the instruction we offer to the dialect.

For many years, Egyptian dialect was king in Arabic Dialect study v. Levantine. What was the reason for this and how have you seen this shift in recent years? Would you recommend students study one over the other?

Egypt has been a leading country in media and in education. Cinema, radio, Arabic songs were dominated by Egyptian artists. For that reason, Arabs everywhere would understand Egyptian easily though the opposite would not always be the case. Egyptian is still the most widely used dialect in the Arab world, followed by the Levantine dialect. In our program, we help students choose a dialect based on what they want to do with the language, sometimes also on their heritage.

Do you see Dialect instruction gaining greater importance in university programs in the future, and how much of that depends on the development of standard dialect instruction materials like those that exist for FusHa?

Definitely. When more schools boost dialect instruction, there will be an academic interest in providing textbooks and methodology, especially with the increasing number of American graduates of Arabic programs. The wheels are already in motion.

The Al-Kitaab textbook has been criticized for blending together Egyptian dialect with FusHa, teaching students to a hybrid form of Arabic. Is this as harmful as some people have made it out to be? And do you see any advantages or disadvantages to learning Arabic in this way / should students focus on FusHa and Dialect as if they are separate languages?

I do not think it is harmful at all. Blending is good as they are not really separate languages. I would say it is similar to teaching British versus American or Australian English. Teachers should point out differences between FusHa and various dialects, but not treat them as different languages. The purpose is to educate a non-Arabic speaker to use Arabic as an educated Arab, therefore both varieties are necessary.

What does UPitt’s Arabic program offer students that they won’t find elsewhere and what do you love most about your program’s instructors and staff?

We offer a combined program in FusHa and either the Egyptian or the Levantine dialect. We offer a number of content courses that offer learners a solid acquaintance of the literature, linguistics, and culture of Arabic. We also offer two Readings in Arabic courses that serve as fourth-year instruction in Arabic. In those courses, we focus on authentic fictional and non-fictional materials related to topics of contemporary interest.

What I appreciate about our Arabic faculty is their high-quality instruction, their success in creating a comfortable atmosphere in the Arabic classroom, and their dedication to the students.

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