Dialect Integration into L2 Classrooms

Mansour Ahmed:

Hi folks,

As we delve deeper into the area of educational sociolinguistics, I hope everyone is enjoying the variety of topics that we have surveyed thus far. Today, I am going to write about dialect incorporation in L2 learning settings/curriculum. I am sure most of you, if not all, have been in L2 (or L3) teaching-learning settings one way or another, i.e. as language learner (L2ers) or as language teachers. Typically, the goal of most L2ers is to become proficient in the target language (and culture) such that they actively and appropriately can participate in a range of communicative contexts and situations. Put differently, while it is vital that L2ers achieve a superb mastery of the grammar and phonology of the TL, it is pivotal that they be Sociolinguistically/interactionally competent. Part of this sociolinguistic competency, I argue, is to have a strong command of the TL dialect(s) and/or varieties; therefore, we as teachers should give them access to informal registers and dialects that are geographically and ethnically different, particularly in foreign language contexts. While textbooks and teaching materials should be designed with this goal in mind, almost all, unfortunately, however, lack this linguistic feature for a range of political and pedagogical reasons. What’s more, most language educators adhere to the prescribed curriculum. As L2 instructors, would you supplement the curriculum and consider integrating common dialectal expressions and use into your L2 activities/teaching? I know that this may be sensitive as some languages have multiple dialects, I am curious which dialect would you choose? Would you be eclectic? Or would you choose one or two dialects over others? Ultimately, we all want our students to use the language effectively and fittingly. For instance, L2ers of Arabic should be able to use and comprehend the language well whether they are in the streets of Sana’a, Damascus, or Cairo. Similarly, L2ers of French should be able to use it suitably whether they are in Quebec City or Paris, and the list goes on.

Allow me to recount my experience in this regard. During my teaching, albeit an EFL/ESL teacher, I have had the chance to teach my beautiful language, Arabic, as a foreign language in university settings to undergraduate students. I did this for over four years. At the outset, I was utterly against the very thought of teaching a dialect as it might hamper the acquisition process, I surmised. I was a huge proponent of teaching only Modern Standard Arabic—the form of Arabic that is used in educational settings, in the media, and in writing and is widely understood by all Arabs from Morocco and Mauritania in the west to Ahwaz, Oman, and Yemen in the east of Arab World. Swayed by the fact that recognizing L2ers’ needs is an essential pedagogical consideration for successful language learning, I gradually began to integrate some dialectal expressions into my teaching. However, as time went by it became more perplexing especially with respect to which dialect should be selected/focused on more and the extent to which it should be taught.

Dialects of Arabic vary greatly. Dialects of Maghreb, i.e. Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, are almost unintelligible to Eastern Arabs. Egyptian dialect is the most widely understood among Arabs given the population of Egypt and the popularity of Egyptian movies and TV series. For a similar reason, Laventine dialects, i.e. of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, are equally comprehensible to most Arabs. The Peninsular dialect, i.e. of Yemen and Gulf States, is arguably the closest to MSA, hence understandable to most Arabs. Given this huge disparity among these dialects, teachers of Arabic are in a difficult situation as to what dialect to choose or emphasize. Depending on which country they come from, they opt for their dialect over others which has created a lot of chaos in the field of teaching Arabic as a foreign language in most western universities, particularly in the US.

I think it is essential that dialect(s) be integrated in L2 classrooms to contribute to achieving sociolinguistic competence alluded to above. However, in the case of Arabic, I argue that it is more efficacious to teach Modern Standard Arabic initially. Once the students achieve a considerable competence in it, dialects could be taught separately by offering focused modules for each dialect. Besides the questions posed above, how would you go about integrating Arabic dialects into your teaching if you were a teacher of Arabic, given the account related above?


5 thoughts on “Dialect Integration into L2 Classrooms”

  1. Hi Mansour,
    Thanks for this great post! You’re asking really important questions, ones I think most language teachers can relate to. How do we achieve curricular goals (which, ideally, include some measure of communicative competence) and also foster learners who have a broad awareness of the diversity of language? I wonder if it might help to think about acquisition (of Standard Arabic, as you’ve described your role as teacher) and awareness as different aspects of learning. Does becoming aware of dialects and varieties necessarily require acquisition of all the various linguistic forms, or is part of developing SOCIOlinguistic competence about raising our understanding of how language is used in multiple ways in multiple contexts? I like to encourage language learners to notice how language is being used outside the class (what they hear, see, experience) and bring that into the class for discussion. This doesn’t mean it becomes the entire curriculum, but I think it helps encourage learners to see language as something that is always socially situated and that “norms” and “standards” are constructed. Yes, being able to use them with a high degree of competence can give individuals access to more powerful positionings (though not always – depending on other social factors, such as class, race, status, etc.). Perhaps the goal of sociolinguistic competence is to help prepare learners to enter into different contexts with an awareness of some of the issues they might encounter, rather than ensuring that the acquire a vast array of variations and forms. What do you think?


  2. Melissa- Thank you for sharing your experience, Mansour. I can see where Arabic would be a particularly difficult language to make these decisions with, given the vast differences between some of the dialects. In those cases, I agree; I would probably aim for the “middle ground,” or whichever dialect would allow students to understand and be understood in the most settings, as well as enabling them to meet the social functions that may be required in work, school, or daily interactions. I also agree with Alison that giving them an awareness of what they might see is important. Unfortunately, the reality is that we as teachers cannot possible give them every variation; in fact, even teaching just one dialect, it would be impossible to teach students every idiomatic expression they might encounter and all the infite ways the language we learn in the classroom can be altered to perform different identities and speech acts.

    As an L1 speaker of Enlish, I can also sympathize with those Arabic teachers who teach their own dialect even if it is not as widely spoken–I would not be comfortable with teaching a dialect that was very different from my own, even if my own was a less-used variant. While I take opportunities to draw student’s attention to some of the lexical and phonetic differences between the dialect I am teaching and others they may hear, I *know* my own dialect, whereas trying to teach another would involved a degree of guesswork.


  3. Your post reminds me of my FSL (French as a second language) experience in Quebec. I learned my French from four different institutions over a span of five years: two were universities, one was YMCA, and the last one was a community centre. The two university courses made no effort to inform the students the gap between standard French and Quebec French, even though both were heavily focused on oral communication and the cultural aspect of French. Personally, I suspect the setting played a role in turning a blind eye on the matter because all university programs are supposed to produce measurable outcomes of learning. The YMCA program, on the other hand, made a systematic effort to let the learners know that the diglossic situation between standard and Quebec French through various in-class activities. It was the community centre course which made the greatest efforts to address the gap. I think it was because the purpose of the course was to teach how to deal with everyday situations in French.


  4. Hi Mansoure,

    I really find your plug post interesting and very important. In fact, I totally agree with you that L2 learners should be exposed to the different dialectic and varieties/variations of the target language as well as the culture of the different groups with different dialects of the same language speakers in order to effectively communicate in the different contexts. Actually, a couple of weeks ago I was talking with a Canadian friend who has Algerian/Arabic roots (who is interested in learning Arabic language) about which Arabic dialect is the best to learn?. And she told me that people recommended her to learn the Egyptian Arabic as it is claimed to be the closest dialect to the standard Arabic. I recommended her to try to learn the standard formal Arabic language first as it is understood by all Arabic speakers regardless to the dialect they speak. And then she can learn one or some of the most commonly used dialects such as Egyptian or one of the Laventine dialects.

    In sum, I believe that different dialects and varieties of the target language should be included when teaching languages, however, in the Arabic language case, I thin it would be a bit challenging to teach some Arabic vraities like the dialects of the Maghreb countries since they are incredibly mixed with the (colonial) French language to the extent that other Arabic speakers (including me) can not communicate effectively with them unless we switch to use the standard Arabic or one of the common Arabic Dialects.



  5. Hi, Mansour: Thank you for bringing this topic up. I am not an Arabic teacher, though I wish I can have the chance to learn Arabic. Anyway, I was a Mandarin teacher in China, so I kind of having the same dilemma when I was teaching Chinese. As you know, China is a very vast country, so the language used in every province may be totally different. It means if I travel to another province in the south, the people may speak the local dialect which I probably could understand nothing. Thanks to our government, we have a policy that everyone in China now has to learn Mandarin, so if you could speak mandarin, you can communicate with all Chinese people almost everywhere in China. The city I was born is called Dalian which is a coastal city in the north-east of China. Almost everyone speaks Dalian Hua(Dalian dialect) there, which is slightly different from Mandarin, mainly manifesting in the word expression. For example, in Mandarin you would say “hao chi” to express “delicious” while in Dalian dialect, we say “hao dai” or “xie shou” which the Chinese people who have never heard of this expression may ask “what does it mean?” When I was teaching my foreign students Chinese, I assume that they only want to learn Mandarin, because this is the language they can use almost everywhere in China. So when some of my students asked me to teach them some typical words in Dalian Hua, I was quite surprised. They explained because they think it’s funny and useful. They all live and work in Dalian with some local Dalian people, the use of Dalian Hua will increase the intimacy between them and their Dalian coworkers. After this, I chose to teach some typical words from Dalian Hua in my class sometimes just to show my student the Dalian Hua is different from Mandarin. Me as a Mandarin teacher think it’s a great responsibility for me to take students’ requirement and needs into account rather than just doing the right thing I imagined to do. So I think as a language teacher, it’s important that we teach the standard language but it’s maybe more important if we can think and design the class according to the students’ situation and needs. What they need maybe not just the ability to speak a language but all the other benefits a language brought.


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