Is it better for your children to be reading in colloquial Arabic?

Many believe writing children’s literature in dialect would be the beginning of the end for standard Arabic. But is it more beneficial?

A young girl reading a book.
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A study has found that for Emirati parents in Abu Dhabi reading to young children means practicing “eloquence and grammar” rather than cracking open a book of fairy tales.

The study, Triglossia and promoting Arabic literacy in the United Arab Emirates, includes interviews with 22 mothers about their children’s reading habits and the use of Modern Standard Arabic at home.

It was undertaken by Kevin Carroll, Bashar Al Kahwaji and David Litz, who taught at the Emirates College for Advanced Education. The study found participants rarely used standard Arabic at home, unless they were discussing the Quran and formal education.

And, although all of the parents in the study agreed reading was beneficial, only two of the 22 mothers interviewed read to their children – of ages 5 to 12 – more than three times a week.

“My biggest concern, and I think this is Bashar’s biggest concern too, is what if students come into school and they’re taught to read in standard Arabic but they don’t connect with it because it is ‘foreign’, because it is not the language that is used at home?” asks Carroll, one of the study’s authors.

One of the first hurdles, the study suggests, is the fun factor – or the lack of it.

“All of the references to the benefits of reading were linked to improving children’s vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar,” the study says. “There were literally no references to engaging in literacy practices for enjoyment or to learning about different cultures, people or places.”

The study makes a controversial suggestion – teach children to read in colloquial Emirati Arabic.

To many this is out of the question. Dozens of variations of Arabic are spoken across the region, with many mutually unintelligible. Arabic is united by standard Arabic, the formal language of literature, media and scholarship that is close to the classical Arabic of the Quran. Many believe writing children’s literature in dialect would be the beginning of the end for standard Arabic.

It is a divisive issue. Even the study’s authors take different views.

Carroll, an American who was an assistant professor at ECAE from 2014 until last year, believes if children learn to read with familiar vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, it will give them confidence and foster a love of reading. This approach is supported by research on second-language acquisition.

Al Kahwaji is a Syrian scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies with a PhD in education methods. He believes reading in colloquial Arabic will widen the differences in regional Arabic dialects.

“Let us concentrate on standard Arabic,” says Al Kahwaji. “The Arabic language is our identity. If we do not concentrate on this language, it will disappear and we risk our identity. Once kids try to write in colloquial, we cannot reach the absolute standard. You know the gap will grow more and more.”

The situation in classrooms became trickier when English was added to the mix in the 2010 curriculum overhaul. To prepare students for a globalised world, the Abu Dhabi Education Council introduced a bilingual curriculum whereby maths and science were taught in English. Many participants fear that English means standard Arabic will fall by the wayside.

“Colloquial Emirati Arabic and modern standard Arabic have existed together for hundreds of years and they’ve been able to coexist peacefully with no problem,” says Carroll, who is associate professor in the department of graduate studies in the college of education at the University of Puerto Rico.

“It only comes with increase of education that these problems start to arise. When more people become literate and the goal is to create a literate society able to compete on a global level with the rest of the world, things have to give.

“It’s kind of a catch-22. If the government promotes local colloquial Arabic for literacy purposes, do they feel that they are betraying something? That is the real question. It is a really tough call and it is controversial but it really starts the conversation and I think the conversation has to be had. It is the elephant in the room.”

The paper has several policy suggestions that do not involve writing in colloquial dialects.

One is to make proficiency in standard Arabic a mandatory admission requirement for higher education institutes and government jobs. This would enhance standard Arabic’s prestige. “It is kind of important that standard Arabic is seen as something that is needed,” says Carroll.

“Otherwise, students are not going to spend a whole lot of time learning it.”

A second suggestion is to increase standard Arabic use in the classroom and student-centred approaches in Arabic classes. Currently, teachers switch between standard Arabic and colloquial and rely on rote learning to teach standard Arabic. The results are predictable – students begin to lose confidence and motivation.

“We have to increase Arabic in schools,” says Al Kahwaji, who has lived in the UAE for 39 years. “We have to promote speaking, writing and reading because I think maybe after 10 or 15 years, maybe at this rate, Arabic will disappear.”


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For publishers, it simply makes sense to publish in standard Arabic so books have wider appeal.

“If we publish a book in the Emirati dialect, people will buy it but only in one country,” says Yuser Kamal, the publishing manager at Al Hudhud Publishing and Distribution, a Dubai publisher whose children’s books are all in standard Arabic. “I think we have to make the books more interesting for kids and make them love reading more. This is my aim.”

Tamer Saeed, the managing director at Kalimat Publishing in Sharjah, agrees. “I believe as long as the content is good, no matter which language it is written in, either in fussha or spoken dialogue, people will receive it. Our aim is to make reading a daily habit for kids, so I think it is more about presenting to them the content in a creative way, in a new way.”

Kalimat is trying to lead a change in the children’s book industry. Arabic children’s books have come a long way in the past five and 10 years. They are less didactic, more colourful, engaging and telling stories that are more relatable to today’s children.

One example is Maitha Al Khayat's story Grandma Moudi, in which children travel to Venice with their unfashionable grandmother, only to loose her in the crowd before discovering that she has won first prize at a masquerade for her burqa.

As traditional tales gain popularity, dialect may too. Kalimat books use dialect through the context of songs, rhymes and dialogue, as in the book Sweet Ahmed by Marwa Al Agroobi. Narration, however, is always in Fussha.

Zayed University's two collections of Emirati folklore, Story Mile and New Fairytales & Fables from the UAE, were published in Emirati dialect.

“This is a heritage project and it is really important that the language of the characters is authentic,” says Brione LaThrop, the creator of New Fairytales & Fables from the UAE. “The other thing that I found is really true of my students is they are losing so much of their language, often when they interact with elders they don’t even understand all of the words they are saying. It is not the fluency it once was, so I think for that purpose it is really critical.”

The second book was compiled from hundreds of stories submitted by students. Of course, the vast majority of these submissions were in English. LaThrop hopes that if more children enjoy reading in Arabic, it will have a positive affect on literacy across the board.

Kalimat has already seen a large increase in submissions from local writers and expects to have about 350 children’s titles by the end of the year.

“A writing era has started and we see an increase in the number of writers, illustrators, publishers,” says Saeed. “The whole scene is changing. It takes time. As a publisher working here I see the results of past initiatives and I see the impact and I think it is going to get better.”