Date of Award

January 2019

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Linguistics

First Advisor

Kristine Trammell

Abstract

With rising numbers of Arabic language learners studying abroad, language programs face two challenges that are unlike many other commonly-studied languages. First, dialects of spoken Arabic vary significantly across the span of North Africa and the Middle East, so in choosing a location to study abroad, learners are also choosing a particular dialect of Arabic on which to focus their attention. Second, Arabic is diglossic, so written and spoken varieties are significantly different from each other. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is used for most written material, media, and some formal settings, while Colloquial Arabic (CA) is used for informal spoken interactions and most social media (even when written). Universities in the West have primarily taught MSA, with a recent emphasis on the integration of CA. In contrast, many programs in the Arab World focus on a local dialect of CA, integrating MSA into their curriculum. Because of dialect variety, some learners choose to focus their studies on MSA under the assumption that MSA will allow them to function in any region of the Arab World. This study aims to evaluate the relationship between a learner’s focus on MSA and his or her ability to understand an unfamiliar dialect of CA, as well as to determine which dialect best facilitates transfer to other dialects.

An online listening assessment tested 106 language learners’ comprehension of four regional dialects of Arabic: North African, Egyptian, Levantine, and Gulf. Participants listened to a short clip in Arabic twice, then, on the following page, wrote everything that they understood and remembered (in English). A post-assessment questionnaire included information about the learner’s focus on MSA in each semester of full-time study. For the first analysis, the relationship between the focus on MSA and unfamiliar dialect listening ability was measured by an independent t-test (comparison of means) for learners with a high focus on MSA versus learners with a low focus on MSA for each semester of study. This analysis was conducted for participants who had studied full-time for at least four semesters. Secondly, multiple regression analysis looked at the question of dialect transferability by predicting the scores of all 106 participants in one dialect while controlling for independent variables such as time studied, scores in the primary dialect studied, and exposure to the target dialect.

The first analysis focused on learners of eastern dialects of Arabic (Egyptian, Levantine, and Gulf) and their ability to understand both eastern and western (North African) dialects of Arabic that were unfamiliar to them. Results of this study show that learners of eastern dialects who had a lower focus on MSA (less than 20% in their first two semesters and less than 40% in their second two semesters) had statistically significant higher scores in North African Arabic than those who had a high focus on MSA. When measuring scores of unfamiliar eastern dialects, the difference in means between those with low focus on MSA and those with high focus on MSA was not statistically significant. However, participants who focused less on MSA throughout the course of study did have higher scores in the primary dialect they studied as well as a higher average of all four test scores. The second analysis showed that scores in Levantine Arabic were a good predictor for scores in other eastern dialects. Scores in Gulf Arabic predicted only Levantine Arabic scores, while Egyptian Arabic scores were not a significant predictor of other dialects. In addition, score in the primary dialect studied was the best predictor for scores in all dialects.

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