Language Development in Arabic
Key MessagesWhat do we know?
Arabic is spoken as a first language by over 200 million people and is used as the language of worship by more than 1.65 billion Muslims around the world. There are two broad forms of Arabic that co-exist and are used for different purposes:
the spoken form used in everyday informal communication and
the written form (Modern Standard Arabic or MSA), learned at school and used in written and formal communication.
While MSA is the official language of 20 Arab states, each region has its own dialect. Arabic children first learn the dialect spoken in their community and only later learn MSA through formal instruction. MSA is not a native language for any Arabic child.
There is a lack of standardized tests that measure all aspects of children’s language development in Arabic, primarily due to having two forms of the same language and many different regional dialects. Many of the available tests use subjective measures to interpret results, using the same standards that are used for English-speaking children. In order to accurately assess Arabic children’s language development, evaluation tools selected should look at the milestones of language acquisition of the dialect that the children speak on a daily basis (i.e., their mother tongue).
Arabic children learn phonemes, i.e., the smallest units of sound, in a relatively set order. Arabic has 29 consonant and seven vowel sounds. Word comprehension in Arabic is acquired in a similar order as in other languages. For example, Saudi children are able to understand possessives (e.g., in English – “Sarah’s
dog”) before age three, whereas complex prepositions (e.g., in English, “at,” “before,” and “for”) take longer to comprehend – typically, between the ages of three to six, which is similar in English. Comprehension of how to form negative statements and questions in Arabic involves several stages of a developmental hierarchy, moving from simple to complex forms in the mastery of consistent use. In the acquisition of morphology, children learning to use a plural form of nouns initially use the word “all” before the singular form. They might also use a number followed by a singular noun as in “three book” or may repeat the singular noun as in “this is a cat and this is a cat.” Children are typically able to correctly use the plural form by the time they reach 1 year and 8 months.
Out of 260,000 Arabic speakers in Canada, about 26,000 have a form of a communication disorder. However, resources for Arabic intervention are limited, not only in Canada, but in the Arab world at large. Speech language pathologists (SLPs) working with Arabic children struggle because of a lack of comprehensive reference grammars for the different Arabic dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible. Currently, there are no clear norms for typical acquisition and no clinical markers for atypical acquisition for each given dialect. There is a lack of baseline data, meaning that there is little information available that demonstrates how a typically developing child would perform on each task, which helps to determine the extent and course of intervention. There is also a lack of standardization for most aspects of Arabic intervention. In fact, most clinics use their own screening/diagnostic tools and tests.
What can be done?
Parents and Educators
As with acquisition of any other languages, parents and teachers should focus on creating a stimulating and encouraging environment for Arabic children to practice their language skills.
In Canada, teachers and SLPs need to be sensitive to the needs of Arabic children in their care and should be aware of the fact that Arabic children in their class/clinic might not be able to communicate with each other if they speak distinctly different dialects of Arabic and do not know MSA yet.
There is a need to explore the effect of English or French as a second language on atypical development of Arabic in the Canadian context.
There is also a need to establish a certifying organization, which would be responsible for the development of new graduate-level training programs for Arabic intervention in key locations in the Arab world. All practicing SLPs in the Arab world, as well as those working in Arabic with Arabic children in non-Arab countries (Canada has a sizable Arabic population), would have to train in these graduate-level programs and receive certification from a certifying organization.
Additional data to supplement and further explore normal language acquisition in Arabic dialects would be beneficial to develop baseline data to support clinical intervention for those who require speech and language intervention.
In developing such baselines, the development of standardized tests intended for and normed upon Arabic dialects would help to assess Arabic-speaking children and to provide subsequent treatment.