Queen Rania Foundation
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Diglossia Research

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What we’re doing

Diglossia is the phenomenon where there is a difference, a gap, between the formal language of communication (for example, used in books, newspapers or official statements) and everyday dialect. Arabic is a diglossic language where Faseeha, or Modern Standard Arabic, is used alongside the language of everyday, informal, communication and interaction. 

The Queen Rania Foundation is working with leading experts at Zayed University to carry out a systematic review into Arabic diglossia and the implications for teaching and learning. At the highest level, we are looking at existing research to understand what it tells us about - 

  1. The nature and extent of Arabic diglossia, with a focus on evidence about Jordanian (Levantine) dialect and its distance from MSA.
  2. The learning challenges that diglossia creates and their significance as barriers to student achievement.
  3. The implications for teaching and learning.

In doing this research, we are using a methodology called a systematic review that stresses comprehensiveness and explicit mechanisms to counter biases (for example, the tendency to look for evidence that supports your pre-existing beliefs). Although this requires patient and diligent work, we think the significance of this topic requires nothing less.

Why we are doing this 

The possible consequences of diglossia on teaching and learning are explained by the so-called ‘Simple View of Reading’ developed by Gough. In this model, success in being a fluent reader requires two high-level skills to come together. Decoding (or the relationship between letters and sounds) and Language Comprehension (or being able to understand the meaning of sounds).  Depending on the gap between dialect and MSA, a skilled decoder could find themselves in the top-left-hand quadrant of this map. That is, they can decode, but they don’t understand the meaning of the sounds produced - 

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However, despite all the discussion around the nature of diglossia and its importance in Arabic, there is no clear understanding about the impact diglossia has on teaching and learning that is fully based on evidence from the literature. For example, some research talks about MSA as being akin to learning a foreign language, whereas others point out ‘stepping stones’ that can be used to help learners reach between the two. 

When it comes to practical recommendations, the most commonly made are to maximize early exposure to MSA through stories, songs or cartoons. This is useful, but fails to accommodate other issues that may be involved - for instance, how diglossia may affect the identification of students with learning disorders, as opposed to a reading difficulty.  Or, other effective ways of responding to the challenge such as through explicit instruction and practice in vocabulary.

Our hope is that this research will shed more light on this, alongside highlighting key gaps in knowledge.