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The Effect of Diglossia on Literacy in Arabic and Other Languages

Part of the Literacy Studies book series (LITS,volume 9)

Abstract

This paper shows that basic literacy rates in Arabic-speaking countries are far lower than would be expected based upon their relative wealth, and argues that much of the explanation for this lies in their usage of a standard language which is based upon an earlier version of the language which no one speaks anymore—comparative evidence shows that languages of this type around the world consistently have uncommonly low literacy rates. The best policy for addressing this problem, so as to achieve a high rate of literacy while maintaining the traditional written language, would appear to be to use a strategy parallel to that adopted for languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Sinhala: base early literacy, through the third or fourth grade, on written phonological representations of the different spoken dialects, and then switch to the traditional written language after this, when children are better able to deal with a writing system which is quite different from their own spoken languages.

Keywords

I thank Raphiq Ibrahim and Elinor Saiegh-Haddad for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Unless otherwise indicated, basic literacy data for individual countries which I will refer to in this study are from 2007–2008 and taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_literacy_rate (based upon UNESCO data). Data on literacy and GDP per capital were not available for Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The data from Sudan are only from northern Sudan; southern Sudan is entirely non-Arabic speaking and has been in a state of almost constant war against the north for the last 50 years, so presumably the literacy rates are lower there. The overall literacy rate of 70.5 % for Arab countries is lower than the median for the countries because there is a strong tendency for the Arab countries with the highest literacy rates to have the smallest populations.

  2. 2.

    Unless otherwise indicated, GDP per capita data which I will refer to in this study are from 2009 and are taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28nominal%29_per_capita.

  3. 3.

    The data in Table 9.4 are from 2005 and taken from http://www.uis.unesco.org/template/pdf/EducGeneral/Factsheet07_No6_EN.pdf.

  4. 4.

    The unusually low literacy rates in Arab countries do not appear to be the result of distinctive cultural biases discouraging female literacy. Arab countries show male/female literacy differentials which are typical of countries around the world, with substantially lower female literacy in countries with generally low literacy rates but the gap being narrowed or even eliminated in countries with higher literacy rates—for example, for the four Arab countries with a literacy rate of at least 90 %, the average male–female difference is only 2 %.

  5. 5.

    Available comparative literacy data refer specifically to the attainment of literacy by adults, which is not the same thing as the acquisition of literacy by children . It would obviously be preferable for the purposes of the present study to rely upon the latter type of data, but unfortunately, comparable data of this type from a wide variety of languages do not exist. In such a situation the best that can be done is to assume that the correlations which are found between language policy and adult literacy data reflect the effect which these policies have upon the acquisition of literacy by children, particularly if a plausible account can be given to explain these correlations. The distinction between data on adults’ attainment and data on children’s acquisition is particularly problematic in countries in which there are a significant number of immigrants who are not native speakers of the national language. In practice, however, this phenomenon is almost entirely restricted to Western European and Anglophone states in which the basic literacy rate is in any case assumed to be at least 99 %.

  6. 6.

    I have excluded from Tables 9.5, 9.6 and 9.7 countries in which the majority of people speak English, French, and Arabic and/or which use Arabic as their official language .

  7. 7.

    It should be noted that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the numbers in Table 9.8 indicate literacy in the language of the state rather than in Russian. There is no reason to suspect that Russians are any more literate than are non-Russians in ex-Soviet states; indeed, the three republics with the highest proportion of ethnic Russians—Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Estonia—all have higher literacy rates than does Russia itself. It is possible that the government of the Soviet Union invested a relatively high proportion of their resources in basic education and that this would result in a relatively high rate of literacy compared to GDP per capita. While this hypothesis is certainly worth investigating, it should be pointed out that the data in Table 9.8 are from 2007, 16 years after the dissolution of the communist government of the Soviet Union, that I do not know of evidence that the Soviet Union spent a high proportion of its resources on education, and that in fact at present the countries listed in Table 9.8 are if anything spending a disproportionately low percentage of their GDP per capita on education (see http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/edu_edu_spe-education-spending-of-gdp, which has data for all of these countries other than Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), averaging only 4.2 % and a ranking of 76 out of 132 countries, making their high literacy rates even more impressive.

  8. 8.

    The data in Table 9.12 are from Lewis (1972, p. 175). Data from 1897 are from the areas of the republics, which did not yet exist as political entities, and they are for languages other than those of the present-day republics, which had not yet been written.

  9. 9.

    The sociolinguistic situation on these islands is parallel to that of Haiti at the time of Ferguson’s original article, when he used Haiti as one of his four exemplary cases of diglossia. Haiti differs in that the creole is French-based and the H was French. I have not included Haiti in Table 9.10 because the creole there has recently begun to be used as a language of education, so the situation is no longer diglossic in this sense.

  10. 10.

    Per capita income data from Indian states are taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Indian_states_by_GDP.

  11. 11.

    Astonishingly, Wagner, Spratt, and Ezzaki come to a completely different conclusion, that “the findings support the proposition that children in certain social and linguistic contexts need not be taught in their mother tongue in order to achieve literacy norms of the majority language group” (p. 31)—that is, that children can be taught literacy just as efficiently in a second language as in their mother tongue. The authors seem to be under the impression that it would be satisfactory for Berber-speaking Moroccans ’to achieve literacy norms of the majority language group’, that is, Arabic-speaking Moroccans, apparently having neglected to check what these norms actually are. In fact, the results of Morocco’s literacy program for Arabic speakers are not merely unsatisfactory but catastrophic: the literacy rate in Morocco is only 55.6 %, 32.4% lower than what would be expected give the GDP per capita in the country—this is the third worst differential in the world, being exceeded only by Chad (64.6 % − 31.8 % = 32.8 %) and Mali (59.3 % − 26.2 % = 33.1 %), two countries which have only foreign languages as official—and it was undoubtedly even lower in 1989 when the article was written. This is presumably not due to the fact that 45 % of the population of Morocco are native speakers of Berber rather than Arabic, because Wagner, Spratt, and Ezzaki report that there is no difference in reading ability between Berber speakers and Arabic speakers. The real situation is therefore not that Berber speakers do as well as Arabic speakers but rather that Arabic speakers do as badly as Berber speakers—being a native speaker of Arabic is not an advantage in learning to read Arabic. But this is only the situation because the traditional written language in Arabic is completely different from the spoken dialects .

  12. 12.

    After some initial successes in the early 1960s, the Initial Teaching Alphabet was abandoned for a number of reasons. It was not sufficiently supported by either parents (who did not make the necessary effort to learn the system in order to help their children to read) or publishers (who did not publish many books using the new alphabet). The alphabet was specifically designed for children speaking Received Pronunciation, who only constitute a tiny fraction of the children in the school system, and did not take dialectal distinctions into consideration. And the transition to traditional English orthography was done much more quickly than would have been best, even in the first grade.

  13. 13.

    Alexis Manaster-Ramer (personal communication) told me an interesting anecdote supporting this conclusion. Like many linguists, he had studied a number of languages from teach-yourself books and then attempted to put what he had learned into practice to talk to speakers of these languages, and also like many linguists he was frustrated to discover that speakers of e.g. French, German, etc., do not speak as the books taught—that is, the people writing the books do not feel that they should literally teach a completely colloquial version of the language. But he was quite surprised after having studied Sinhala from a book and speaking with Sinhalese that the people really did speak as the book had described—that is, the linguist writing the book really had taught the colloquial language—and it seems reasonable to attribute this to the fact that Sinhalese clearly distinguish between H and L versions of their language so that they can conceptualize actually teaching the L.

  14. 14.

    This example was taken from the Panet forum.

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Myhill, J. (2014). The Effect of Diglossia on Literacy in Arabic and Other Languages. In: Saiegh-Haddad, E., Joshi, R. (eds) Handbook of Arabic Literacy. Literacy Studies, vol 9. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-8545-7_9

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