Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Who Is Studying Arabic and Why? A Survey of Arabic Students' Orientations at a Major University

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Who Is Studying Arabic and Why? A Survey of Arabic Students' Orientations at a Major University

Article excerpt


This study investigates the initial motivation of learners of Arabic as a foreign language (AFL). One hundred and twenty students enrolled in first-year and second-year AFL classes participated in this study. The participants were classified into two major groups of learners according to their heritage background: The first group consisted of learners of Arab and Muslim heritage, and the second consisted of all other heritage backgrounds. Data were collected using a survey. Descriptive statistics were used to find out the initial motivations of each group. Later, inferential statistics (t test) were used to compare the initial motivation of the two groups with each other. The results of the study indicate that AFL learners have a variety of orientations prompting them to study Arabic: travel and world culture orientations, political orientations, instrumental orientations, and cultural identity orientations. These were then broadly grouped into three major types of orientations, namely instrumental orientations, identification orientations, and travel and culture orientations. Significant differences were found between heritage and non-heritage learners on instrumental and identification orientations. The implications of these results are discussed in terms of course offerings, classroom instruction, maintaining students' motivation throughout the course, and retention.

Key words: Arabic, foreign language, heritage learners, motivation, non-heritage learners

Language: Arabic, English


The year after the events of September 11, 2001, enrollment in Arabic as a foreign language (AFL) classes doubled and is expected to keep increasing. According to Welles (2004), the number of students enrolled in Arabic courses in higher education institutions in the United States jumped from 5,505 in the fall of 1998 to 10,584 in the fall of 2002. There is no reason to assume that this trend will fade away in the post-September llth world. However, despite the numeric facts of increased enrollment, little is known about the real motivations behind this change in AFL enrollment. In general, students of less commonly taught languages (LCTLs)-Arabic being one-can easily fit into one of two groups in terms of ethnic background: one group with ethnocultural attachment, and a second heterogeneous group with no ethnocultural affinity to the target language (Wen, 1997).

In the case of AFL, we can identify three distinct ethnic groups of learners. The first group includes learners who are of Arab descent. The second group includes learners who are non-Arab Muslims. The third group includes students of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds other than the first two.

The first two groups can be safely collapsed into one, due to the fact that students in both have cultural and historical ties to Arabic. Students from the third group have no such ties to the language.

Although there might be a wide discrepancy in initial proficiency between learners of Arab descent and learners who are non-Arab Muslims, it is assumed that students from both groups have one kind of affinity to Arabic language or another (identity, religion, or family). Thus, learners who are of Arab descent and learners who are non-Arab Muslims will be referred to as heritage learners. In contrast, learners with no personal or cultural ties to Arabic will be referred to as non-heritage learners. It is not uncommon to call Arabic and Yiddish heritage languages because of these two languages' religious role in Islam and Judaism, respectively (Van Deusen-Scholl, 2003). Explaining who qualifies to be called a heritage learner, Valdés (2001) stated that "it is the historical and personal connection to the language that is salient and not the actual proficiency of the individual speaker" (p. 38).

In order to improve instruction and make it more efficient, it is important to identify groups of learners in heritage language classes, particularly if the kind of group a learner belongs to will determine the type of input that he or she will benefit the most from. …

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