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More on proficiency, and Arabic

Yesterday I wrote about foreign-language “proficiency.” Today, there’s an article in the Washington Post “Outlook” section about the United States’ shortage of proficient Arabic-speakers. This is a good article; it sums up the major issues in a nutshell pretty tidily.

This is interesting:

The Foreign Service classifies language ability into five levels, with “1″ being the lowest (able to handle only the very simplest social situations) and “5″ the highest (a level rarely assigned to anyone but a native speaker).

From a public diplomacy standpoint, the key distinction is between a “3″ and a “4.” We have a fairly good supply of 3’s in Arabic, almost 200 as of August 2004 (the latest State Department data available). A level 3 can handle one-on-one situations, or something like a ministry meeting in a subject area they know well. But a level 3 speaker would flounder in a complex situation. If you put a 3 in a public meeting where many excited people are speaking on top of one another, for example, or in a coffee shop conversation with college students arguing about religion and the state, he or she would be lost. Double the difficulty if the diplomat has been trained only in Modern Standard Arabic, a formal dialect very different from the colloquial dialects that people actually speak (see sidebar). But these are precisely the kinds of situations that our Middle East diplomats must be equipped to handle.

Speaking, moreover, is generally harder than listening. No responsible person would ask a 3 to speak before an unfriendly crowd at the local university (or at the embassy gates), much less put a 3 in front of a television camera and expect a clear, engaging and cogent discussion of U.S. Middle East policy in Arabic. For that you need a 4, and preferably a 4+ or a 5. So how many of these 4 and 5 level speakers do we have in Arabic? As of August 2004 — 27. At the highest levels (4+ and 5), we have a grand total of eight individuals worldwide.

And there are reasons why we have so few Fours and Fives:

Upgrading our roster of Arabic speakers would require getting around three obstacles.

First, traditional language training, based on sending officers to full-time language study for extended periods, is expensive. Since Arabic is a difficult language, the FSI figures it takes two years of full-time training to get a committed learner from a simple greeting of “Salaam aleikum” to level 3.

The State Department has made a significant commitment to expanding language training, nonetheless. Enrollments in Arabic and other challenging regional languages such as Farsi and Uzbek increased more than 80 percent from 2003 to 2004, from 228 officers to 415. Training averaged only a couple of months per person, though — pretty basic stuff delivered in a hurry for most of the participants, in other words.

But there’s a second stopper. FSI is not really sure how much training it would take to get from a 3 to a 4 in any case, because FSI stops training at 3.

Training goes only to officers assigned to “language-designated” positions — slots that have been officially determined to require language skills. Thus, a diplomat assigned to Washington cannot get advanced Arabic training until he or she is actually assigned to a language-designated job overseas. And then there’s no time to build real competency. This set-up creates a strong disincentive to designate positions as requiring language skills. No embassy wants to restrict its search to the comparatively few officers already qualified in Arabic or, even worse, effectively give up the position for the two years required to train an officer to a level 3 — and carry them on its budget the whole time they sit in language classes.

So no posts are designated above level 3, which means, naturally, that the Foreign Service does not offer training beyond the 3, either. If 3’s want additional language training to improve their skills to a 4, they have to do it on their own time and their own nickel. (The Foreign Service Institute has a pilot “Beyond 3″ program, but it had a mere two people in it as of the latest report.)

This is barrier number three: Foreign Service officers see few incentives to advance to high levels of Arabic language competence. There is no financial or career reward for qualifying at the higher levels. Moreover, to the extent that the time involved in language study detracts from diplomatic job responsibilities, the commitment to achieve near-fluency could even be a career-stopper.

The author has some suggestions:

First, we should allocate funds for part-time, on-the-job advanced language instruction at post and in Washington, targeting 3’s and up. Second, we should make language training mandatory at all Middle Eastern posts (and, ideally, for Washington-based Foreign Service staff working on the region as well) and build it into the workload. Third, we should make sustained progress toward fluency an evaluation factor for all Foreign Service officers assigned to the region. And fourth, we should reward advanced fluency (3+ and above) with a pay premium, regardless of whether the diplomat in question is assigned to a language-designated post.

These requirements would add to the workload of American diplomats who are already overburdened. So a modest transfer of personnel slots to beef up embassy staffing levels in the Middle East would be a logical fifth requirement. We’d also need to increase the language training budget, but part-time language training, especially at post, is dirt cheap compared to other items on the global war on terrorism shopping list.

We just can’t afford to keep missing what the Arab world is saying to us and miscommunicating our positions back to them. What better way to narrow the communications gap than to learn how to speak the Arab world’s own language?

Those are good suggestions.

There’s one problem that the author discusses briefly in a sidebar, though, and it’s a big problem for those who want to learn Arabic: diglossia. (The writing system looks imposing, but trust me, it’s not. The alphabet can be mastered in two weeks.)

Across the Arabic-speaking world, there is a diglossic situation, with a high-prestige dialect (Modern Standard Arabic, which is essentially a slightly-simplified version of Classical Arabic (the language of the Quran)) and a lower-prestige local dialect. There are many, many dialects of Arabic, and they can vary so widely as to be mutually incomprehensible (a speaker of Maghrabi Arabic and a speaker of Syrian Arabic, for example, would have to communicate in MSA; their dialects are as different as Italian and Romanian).

MSA is the same across the Arabic-speaking world (that’s why it’s called “standard.” The Arabs call it al-’arabiyya al-fuSHaa (roughly, “the pure Arabic”)), and it’s the language used for writing (most dialects are not written, and the dialects don’t even have standardized orthography, and it’s even considered somewhat uncouth to see a dialect on the printed page), radio and TV broadcasts, formal speeches, and very formal situations (such as diplomatic meetings). It’s hard to overstate the high prestige of Classical Arabic in the Arabic-speaking world; many educated Arabs will even say that their local dialect (their native language, the language they think in) isn’t “real Arabic” and “has no grammar.” The prestige of Classical Arabic and its modern descendant (MSA) is a sort of linguistic backbone that serves to unify the Arabic-speaking world. That’s why no Arabic dialect has diverged far enough from MSA to be considered a different language in its own right. (This has happened only in the case of Maltese, which is basically Maghrabi Arabic with a huge influx of Italian loanwords and borrowing. The Maltese, being Christians, don’t have the same reverence for Classical Arabic that the Muslim Arab world has; thus, it was not a problem for them to regard their language as a Semitic tongue related to Arabic, rather than a defective version of the high-prestige Classical language.)

This is what makes the idea of “fluency” in Arabic especially hard to define: there’s not just one language to master, but a dialect continuum to negotiate, anywhere Arabic is spoken. If you’ve reached Level 3 in MSA, you can read a newspaper article pretty easily, and understand the news on TV, but go to the Middle East and you won’t be able to understand what people on the street are saying, and you’ll have lots of trouble communicating with them, even on a very basic level.

One big question in Arabic-language pedagogy is whether to start with one of the dialects and then introduce MSA later, or to give the student a groundwork in MSA and then start with the dialect later. For a student who wants to master Arabic, it’s basically having to learn one-and-a-half languages. If all you know is MSA, you’re not much good in the “real world” of speaking Arabic, because no one actually speaks MSA in a normal conversational situation; if all you know is a local dialect, you won’t be able to read anything, and you’ll be unable to understand a news broadcast.

My own opinion is that it’s better to start with a grounding in MSA, because you need it in order to read anything, and because it is understood by educated people across the Arabic-speaking world. But diglossia is a real problem for students, because Arabic speakers in “real life” move up and down constantly along the dialect continuum, from “pure” dialect, through a mixture of dialect and MSA, and perhaps even into “pure” MSA (in certain settings or situations). One has to have skills at both ends of that dialect continuum in order to be truly “proficient” at Arabic. There’s no shortcut, and there’s no easy way to get there. You need MSA, and you need a dialect. If you’ve got one of the two, you’ve got a huge head-start on getting the other one, but you have to have both.

That takes a lot of time and money, to be sure. But it’s an investment we are going to have to make. If we’re serious about coming to terms with the Arabic-speaking world, we need people who know Arabic.

(Update: If such things interest you, I have put up a page with four verbal paradigms: the same verb conjugated in MSA and three Arabic dialects. This may give you some small idea of how much the dialects differ from MSA and from each other.)

Filed under: Language by dumpendebat at 2005/10/16 - 11:58


  1. RP:

    Does diction and syntax evolve in MSA? Isn’t the Qu’ran basically the guide and rule? I know particular care is taken to maintain it exactly as it was originally written (I understand this is debatable)? It would seem a thorough training regimen would require a thorough understanding of the Qu’ran.

  2. dumpendebat:

    Short answer: No. Since MSA isn’t anyone’s native language, it’s artificially stable. Morphology and syntax are, for all intents and purposes, identical with Classical Arabic. The differences between Classical and MSA are mostly along the lines of Classical having some rarely-used constructions, verbal inflections, etc., that aren’t used in MSA. There’s a large body of Classical vocabulary that isn’t used in MSA.

    The Classical lexicon had to be modernized in order to express post-Classical ideas and concepts; there are surprisingly few loanwords in MSA. New words in MSA were formed mostly by analogy, e.g. ishtiraakii “socialist” (from ishtaraka “to share”), or sometimes as calques from other languages, e.g. la’iba dawran “to play a role.”

    A Quranic background would be useful, because of the importance of Islam in the daily lives of most speakers, but this is more of a sociolinguistic issue than a purely linguistic one, in my opinion. It depends on one’s reasons for wanting to know Arabic.

  3. andrea:

    Frank passed on your blog to me awhile back. We studied together at UT. I’ve never commented before, but I really enjoyed this post! Thanks for passing it on.

  4. dumpendebat:


  5. Hanque:

    Excellent post. I agree that MSA is probably the best starting point for learning Arabic. I also think that the the people of the U.S. need to understand that one should probably study Arabic in the U.S. for a couple of years and then be posted abroad (to study the language only) for at least another 2-3 years. I think after that level of committment and effort the student would show good results and reach levels 4 & 5.

    For the most part, I can’t see level 4-5 proficiency without long term immersion in an Arabic speaking environment for a long period of time. There are some exceptions to this. I met a woman once that lived & studied dialect in a village in Israel for a few months, and she ended up with excellent proficiency in that local dialect. But, her’s is exceptional story and result. For most of us, becoming proficient is a long and difficult process, particularly if one isn’t living abroad in an Arabic speaking environment.

    Most importantly, I also think that people should also understand that Arabic is not an impossible language to study and learn. We should keep in mind that there are around 250 million native speakers of this language. If it was impossible, then there wouldn’t be this many people speaking it. It takes a lot of effort and serious committment to succeed in this language, but it can be done.

  6. Jason:

    Of course, regarding those 250 million native speakers of the language, they had a distinct advantage over native English speakers who are learning Arabic as a second language. They were exposed to Arabic in a manner and at a time that is beyond our ability to emulate. Could you imagine a twenty year old native of the UAE who only had 1300 hours of exposure to Arabic? He wouldn’t be any better off than all of the DLI students.

    I’m a big fan of immersion courses, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about the DLI (and I’d love to have the opportunity to be a part of both!) But I think that it would be very much to the benefit of the American government to sponsor some sort of “work abroad” program that puts American nationals in other countries working in positions that put them in contact with the locals for extended periods of time in order to give immersion experiences to people who want a future in foreign policy. Having programs that hook Americans up with jobs in the private sector in the Arabic speaking world, where there is on the job training and an introduction to their cultural environment (kind of like job corps here in the states), would create a pool of people from whom the government could pull who would have a functional appreciation of the culture that classroom study doesn’t teach.

  7. Abu Sinan:

    I am an American married to a Saudi female. I speak Arabic and have taken university level classes. I learned a lot of Arabic before the classes and found that I had to unlearn a lot of it to pass the class. Fus7a is almost useless “on the street”, unless of course, you are reading publications. From a spoken, translation end, I think concentrating on MSA then moving to dialects might not be that helpful.

    I think it would be better to start off learning in a dialect that is almost universally understood, such as “Hijazi”. Maybe I am biased, but that is how I started out learning. The Hijazi dialect is rather close to Fus7a, yet isnt so “textbook” that it cannot be understood on a personal level.

    I used to work for the Department of Defense and I have a lot of experience with translators who learned from government schools, mainly the one in California. After two years of full time classes I wouldnt rate them above a 2, if that in many cases. Not only that, they are required to learn a second “back-up” language, in the case of Arabic translators, it is usually Hebrew. Now two years isnt enough to get a great grounding in Arabic, and that in MSA, never mind trying to throw in Hebrew. Try adding in dialects and you can FORGET about it.

    I knew Arabic translators for the military who got there are were completely unable to function. Their conversational level was about at age 5 for an Iraqi child. I guess no one told the “powers that be” that Iraqi Arabic is so different enough from other dialects that there are entire dictionaries dedicated to Iraqi Arabic and that many if not most of the people they would be dealing with did not have a command of MSA/fus7a Arabic. This is why the US military is now paying $120,000 a year for native speakers of Arabic to come from the USA and work for them.

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