The Uneducated Arab

In the debates on language issues in the Arab world, and in the teaching of Arabic as a second language, the prototypical speaker most constantly referenced is the "Educated Arab." One serially encounters discussions of the views, needs, and practices of the educated Arab in articles, scholarly books and language textbooks. But tens of millions of adult Arabs — disproportionately women — are completely illiterate. Illiteracy rates in the Arab world are much higher than in many poorer countries.

So what about the uneducated Arab? When uneducated Arabs are discussed in relation to language, the claim is often (and increasingly) made that they still "understand" Literary Arabic — at least in its spoken form — even if they cannot speak it or write it. The claim is supported generally by reference to the popularity of TV programs, particularly news broadcasts and documentaries, that are mostly or completely in Literary Arabic, or which include educated codeswitching between Literary and Colloquial Arabic. Thus even without education, the claim goes, everyone understands the language. But no empirical study has yet examined this claim.

Understanding and knowledge of a language are difficult issues to investigate. Language that everyone understands is not necessarily language that everyone understands equally well, or understands completely. And a listener's — or reader's — subjective impression of how much they understand is not to be naively equated with how much they actually do understand.

My experience and observation suggests that when a listener or reader believes that what they are reading or hearing is (in one or another sense) "their own" language, this is precisely when they are liable not to notice that they don't understand something. Widely divergent registers or historical varieties of what is sociolinguistically felt to be a single language are one such circumstance.

A highly educated modern Chinese, when reading a classical Chinese text, may be quite prone to comprehension errors which they have a hard time recognizing or acknowledging as such. They may get offended if a non-Chinese points them out.
Educated English-speakers routinely overestimate their degree of comprehension of Shakespeare. Presented with evidence of how commonly even relatively simple passages from Shakespeare are misunderstood, the speaker frequently asserts that *they* just happen to be especially familiar with Shakespearean language. When presented with evidence of their own miscomprehension of a passage, they may insist such errors are trivial. But they are exactly the kind that advanced adult learners make.
In my experience, educated Arabs confronted with archaic or rarified Classical Arabic of the kind found in Pre-Islamic or Medieval poetry have the same kinds of issues. At least a bit. They don't always know when they don't know.

But in none of these cases is the language incomprehensible. Elizabethan English does not sound like gibberish to any Modern English speaker. It's just that our comprehension is partial depending on the text. When we listen to a reading of a straightforward narrative passage from the King James Bible, all we miss is a bit of nuance here and there, if that. When watching a Shakespearean performance, we miss a lot more than that, but can still follow what's going on easily enough and figure out for the most part what the characters are telling each other. Even if it often requires more effort from us than we realize.

It seems to me very possible that something like this happens when illiterate Arabs listen to an Al-Jazeera broadcast. But nobody has bothered to investigate the matter.

For much of history and in most of the world, diglossia in a literate society has probably been more common than its absence. It offers communicative benefits and advantages that are often overlooked by people from homoglossic societies such as those of Modern Europe. Calls for its abolition in the Arab world in the mid 20th century proved unnecessary and increasingly absurd. It is not an insurmountable barrier to modernity, or for that matter to mass-literacy. Just as the extraordinarily difficult orthography of Japanese has not stopped modern Japan from achieving the highest literacy rate in the world.

But diglossia does have a cost. Just as maintaining the Japanese mixed orthography comes at a cost of most Japanese children not knowing enough kanji to read a newspaper until highschool.

Comprehension of Literary Arabic is clearly more widespread now than it ever has been. There is every sign that it will continue to increase. Even uneducated or semi-literate Arabs clearly do develop strategies to extract a lot of meaningful content from television programs, newspaper articles and Friday sermons. But one ought not to make assumptions about how much effort this requires, or the completeness of comprehension achieved. I wouldn't be surprised if these strategies turned out to be not all that different in practice from the coping mechanisms which adult learners of a foreign language develop long before they attain full reading or listening comprehension.


  1. As often happens you've articulated and answered questions I've pondered without knowing enough to believe my own answers. Now I can say: I agree with you!