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Monday, March 10, 2008

Israeli researchers help Arab kids learn classical Arabic

From Ha'aretz:
How do you say "I want" in Arabic? How do you say "now"? And "he started"? Every Arab child no doubt knows how to answer those questions, yet the answer is not simple.

During their first years in school, Arab students face what is known as "diglossia," sharply divergent formal and informal variations of the language. At home and with friends, the pupils speak spoken Arabic, but in their textbooks, they encounter literary Arabic, which has different structures and vocabulary.

Diglossia is present in all the Arabic-speaking countries and communities in the world, as well as other communities.

Israeli Arab educators blame diglossia for Arab students' particularly low scores on reading tests. This is true around the Arab world, as well as in Israel, where Arab Israelis score significantly lower in reading than their Hebrew-speaking peers.

The Center for Educational Technology sponsored a study on the connection between the spoken language, Palestinian Arabic, which preschoolers speak fluently, and the literary language they learn in school. The researchers tried to facilitate learning the literary language by using the spoken vocabulary.

In the 2006 study, some 100 preschoolers from Nahaf, Nazareth, Kafr Kara and Rahat were recorded speaking for two hours. The researchers then recorded their speech, building a vocabulary list of thousands of words. In addition, they noted the different pronunciations in the different communities - the letter "qoof," for example, can be pronounced as a gutteral "q," an "a" or a "g."

In parallel, the researchers examined the most commonly used Arabic language textbook, "Al-Raid," and selected some 700 words that first-graders found difficult. These words, including "I want," "now," and "he started," will serve as the basis for a dictionary between spoken and literary Arabic. Unlike all existing Arabic dictionaries, this one will be arranged by alphabetical order, and not based on word roots, in order to help the children find words.

The study found that the children's spoken vocabulary is richer than that in "Al-Raid." However, the researchers note that to date, there have been hardly any studies on the spoken language, which is considered inferior to its holy "big sister." One of the central reasons for this is the belief that the language of the Quran - literary Arabic - is perfect and cannot be emulated.

Dr. Elinor Saig-Hadad, a lecturer in the linguistics and English literature departments at Bar-Ilan University, headed the study. She says that nowhere in the Arab world has someone tried to bridge the gap between the spoken and the literary language.

"It is impossible to pretend the spoken language does not exist," she says. "There is a gap between the spoken language and the written language in every dialect of Arabic."

Hawala Sa'adi, who is in charge of the project at the Center for Educational Technology, says the dictionary will help children learn the written language. "To this day, people have ignored what the children bring with them from home. The new study materials will help the children close the gap, while getting to know their language," she says.

Dr. Michal Shleifer, the language department head at the educational technology center, says one of the aims of the study is to improve children's written language ability through educational materials, rather than having it pushed aside by the spoken language.

"We do not want to interfere with the status of the written language, but rather to help the children acquire it," she says. "The question is how to do that, and that is the importance of the research."
Imagine that - Israeli Jews working to be in the forefront of children's Arabic language education.