The Mutual Intelligibility of Arabic Dialects

Implications for the Language Classroom


  • Emma Trentman University of New Mexico
  • Sonia Shiri University of Arizona


Arabic, dialects, mutual intelligibility, multidialectal pedagogies


Studies of the mutual intelligibility of related languages and dialects have demonstrated that comprehension can be predicted by linguistic factors such as phonological and lexical distance and by extralinguistic factors such as degree of contact and attitudes (Gooskens and van Bezooijen 2006; Tang and van Heuven 2009). Arabic learners must learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and dialects if they are to function competently in Arabic-speaking communities, but research on the mutual intelligibility of Arabic dialects is limited (see Čéplö et al. 2016; Soliman 2014a, 2014b; Trentman 2011). The current study examines the extent to which listening proficiency and variety identification ability in familiar dialects and MSA predict the ability to comprehend unfamiliar dialects and explores beliefs about how Arabic dialects should be taught. Native speakers (NS) (n=55) and non-native speakers NNS (n=62) of Arabic listened to samples in four regional dialects and MSA and completed a background questionnaire. Regression analysis demonstrated that while proficiency in a familiar dialect or MSA was not a predictor of unfamiliar dialect comprehension, variety identification ability was a predictor for NNS. Chi square tests also revealed significant differences between NS and NNS in terms of beliefs about teaching dialects, with NS preferring an MSA plus one dialect model and NNS preferring a multidialectal model. Pedagogical implications are discussed. 

Author Biographies

Emma Trentman, University of New Mexico

Emma Trentman is Associate Professor of Arabic at the University of New Mexico.  She is an Applied Linguist whose research focuses on language and intercultural learning during study abroad, virtual exchange, and in the language classroom.  She is particularly interested in multilingual approaches to language learning, and is co-editor of the book Language Learning in Study Abroad: The Multilingual Turn (2021).  Her research has appeared in various journals and edited collections including The Modern Language Journal, Foreign Language Annals, The L2 Journal, Study Abroad Research, and System.  She directs the Arabic program at the University of New Mexico, where she teaches all levels of Arabic and the capstone course for the Languages major. 

Sonia Shiri, University of Arizona

Sonia Shiri is Associate Professor and Middle East Language Programs Coordinator at the University of Arizona. She is the Director of the Arabic Language Flagship Program and the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA). She received her Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from Edinburgh University. Her research focuses on language learning, study abroad, technology-assisted language learning, linguistic landscapes, and language in contact.