PERSPECTIVES FROM the Arab World

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The Arab World

This article considers developmental dyslexia from the perspective of the Arab world; a geographically wide and linguistically diverse region incorporating the Gulf Peninsula, the Levant, the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and North Africa. There are major cultural and religious ties across the region, but, as can be expected from a region this size, there are also many differences.

One of the primary features that connects such a large region is a common language. Arabic is one of the major languages in the world and UNESCO statistics put it as roughly second (along with English and Spanish, but behind Mandarin) in terms of the number of individuals reporting it as their first language. These statistics suggest that it is the main language of communication for more than 300 million native speakers, with the written form of Arabic being experienced by many more peoples around the world in the form of religious texts (particularly the Quran). There are 22 countries in the region where Arabic is the official language and although Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the unifying Pan-Arabic language, regional variations exist between native speakers as well as other (minority) languages (e.g., Berber, Kurdish, Nubian, Somali, Syriac). Such differences within the Arabic dialects (due to geographical separation and contact with other languages) lead to a decrease in mutual intelligibility as geographical distance increases. For example, a Kuwaiti speaking in a Kuwaiti vernacular may have problems understanding a Moroccan speaking in his local dialect, although both use the same language (i.e., Arabic). This means that the local language used by one individual (in the Gulf, for example) may not be understood that well by another individual from another part of the Arab world, such as the western part of North Africa, which is geographically distant.

An example of these problems of understanding is evident in the language spoken in Egypt (see Elbeheri, 2004). MSA is the official language of the Arab Republic of Egypt, as well as being the language of education. Most, if not all, Egyptian students have a formative exposure to MSA at school, since school materials and the curriculum are all written in MSA. MSA is also used in modern literary production and the media, both written and broadcast, as well as in formal communications. However, Egyptians do not speak MSA in their everyday life. The majority will speak an Egyptian colloquial form of Arabic, of which there are several regional variations. Interestingly, due to the prolific production of Egyptian film, television, and music industries, many individuals across the Arab world will also understand the more dominant colloquial form of Egyptian (i.e., Cairene) Arabic, though they would be unlikely to use it in normal conversation. To make the situation more complicated, Egyptian colloquial Arabic is also widely used as a medium of instruction within educational settings.

An Egyptian child's main experience of MSA may be in school, meaning that, despite its commonalities with his or her home language, he or she may undergo a period of something akin to second language learning prior to proficiency in MSA hence the need to use the colloquial form in the educational setting. Considered across the Arab world, this scenario will vary depending on the local context; that is, some local dialects are closer to MSA than others and in some countries, especially in the Gulf region, a large proportion of teachers may come from a different dialect background than their pupils. Hence, there is a range of forms of Arabic that a child will experience and understand to different levels, making the language context highly complex.

The specific effects of these variations need to be considered further in work on language-related learning difficulties, such as dyslexia. Such sociolinguistic factors may be more prominent and critical to address in the case of monolingual Arabic speakers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries since a large proportion of their educational settings and teachers come from North Africa and the Levant area. …