Creating a CEFR Arabic Vocabulary Profile

A frequency-based multi-dialectal approach



Arabic, frequency, CEFR, dialects, vocabulary


Measuring proficiency levels in second language (L2) teaching in Higher Education relies on certain international frameworks of proficiency levels such as the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) or the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) which, interchangeably, can easily be benchmarked. While these frameworks try to provide generic guidance, they encourage educators to create language-specific profiles for each language taught in their programmes. The CEFR guidance refers to these as the Reference Level Descriptors (RLDs) which list the linguistic items to be covered in each proficiency level including situational topics, grammatical rules and vocabulary lists. At the time of writing this paper, the CEFR website has published RLDs for 11 languages, not including Arabic.

In an effort to respond to this need for a profile for Arabic language, the authors of this paper have been working on a collaborative project that lists all vocabulary items to be taught in the first two CEFR levels (A1 and A2) as a starting point. These lists will aim to help teachers, curriculum designers, material writers and assessors to determine the language content for these levels. Although the CEFR is still based on a monolingual perception of L2 teaching and learning, its recent 2018 and 2020 volumes give attention to plurilingual competences, which, in the case of Arabic, would entail a variationist and a multidialectal view. The current project uses MSA as its base, but cross-checks among a range of Arabic dialects in order to provide a vocabulary profile that is more linguistically inclusive and that can help bridge between different registers. A number of selection and ranking criteria is used in creating this vocabulary profile; among them are multidialectal commonality, frequency of use, linguistic complexity and relevance to the CEFR descriptors.

This paper aims to discuss how a comparative multidialectal approach has an important role in the selection of vocabulary items to be learnt in each CEFR level in a way that would increase the learner’s level of cross-dialectal comprehension, as well as their overall Arabic competency. The paper will present the methodology applied in this Arabic Vocabulary Profile (AVP) with examples drawn from multidialectal language use as a criterion for vocabulary benchmarking.

Author Biographies

Rasha Soliman, University of Leeds

Rasha Soliman is an Associate Professor of Arabic Language and Linguistics, and Deputy Head of the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds.  Her research and scholarship interests include language variation in the Arabic classroom, teacher training, approaches to grammar teaching and the application of the Common European Framework of reference to the teaching of Arabic language.

Laila Familiar, New York University Abu Dhabi

Laila Familiar is Senior Lecturer at New York University Abu Dhabi, TAFL teacher trainer, and consultant. She has a PhD in corpus linguistics and the design of reading materials, and she is the author of a Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary Arabic Fiction: Core Vocabulary for Learners and Material Developers.