Multiglossia and the Learning of Arabic as a Heritage Language

Ideological and Sociocultural Motivations


  • Fatma Said Zayed University, UAE


Arabic language, family language policy, multilingualism, diglossia, Arabic heritage schools, heritage language


The di/multiglossic nature of Arabic (Kaye, 2001; Ferguson, 1959) often poses a challenge to educators and parents who wish to transmit Arabic as a heritage language (HL) to their students and children respectively (Benmamoun et al, 2013; Trentman & Shiri, 2020; Nassif, 2021; Azaz & Aburehab, 2021). Ideologies about the best way to teach Arabic are constantly at play in parents’ and educators’ minds as they wish to transmit Arabic in a manner, they deem effective (Said, 2021). This paper explores the perceptions and experiences parents, and educators have about the diglossic nature of Arabic and how they view its role in effective transmission of Arabic as a HL.

Data for this paper derives from two separate projects conducted in the UK. Project one investigated the role Arabic heritage schools play in teaching Arabic and in citizenship building of young children in England (Szczepek Reed et al, 2020). Project two, lasted for twelve months and, was interested in how parents taught and planned for their children’s Arabic HL learning with a special focus on language ideology and language practices. All data were transcribed and thematically analysed (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

The interview data in both projects point to the theme of anxiety about diglossia. Parents (more than) and educators worried that this characteristic and sociolinguistic reality would impede children’s effective learning of Arabic. Some parents overtly communicated their apprehension of exposing their children to Spoken Arabic (SA) in the form of books or cartoons.  Teachers declared their preference for Standard Arabic whilst others appreciated the functions of Spoken Arabic and taught along a continuum between dialect and Standard.

The paper suggests that perhaps by adopting a multidialectal approach to language teaching and transmission and by exploiting Arabic’s multidiaglossic nature perhaps parents, and educators can effectively enhance children’s acquisition of Arabic as a HL. It also underlines that ideologies about diglossia are not always purely linguistic in nature and may in fact be motivated by sociocultural or other related issues.

Keywords: Arabic language; family language policy; multilingualism; diglossia; Arabic heritage schools; heritage language

Author Biography

Fatma Said, Zayed University, UAE

Fatma Said is Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Zayed University, UAE. She researches within Sociolinguistics and Applied Linguistics focusing on the bilingualism of Arabic-English speaking children and their families within the home and school (as well as language school) settings. The interdisciplinary issues of identity, agency, language development, maintenance, and heritage languages inform her work.