At the core of our social experiences is a desire to be understood, to be heard, and to connect with users we find a commonality with. We want people to discuss our ideas with, validate our concerns, and share in our joys. When we turn to new and additional languages, we are celebrating these human threads in new modalities of self-expression and community. Time and again, this has been my personal experience, when I learned Malay, and later Swahili, and Arabic. This is how I know language learning to be the ultimate journey in self-awareness and communication.
Working with new speakers of Arabic in Jordan in 2014, I used ethnographic techniques to investigate their attitudes toward dialects of Arabic, and their preferences for Jordanian Arabic. What I learned, and experienced with them through participant observation, was the importance of using colloquial dialects in everyday settings, and the personal dimensions that language embodies for each user. This is what Winnie, a Chinese American speaker of Arabic, shares with me in our interview, that: "It's necessary to have language through which you can express yourself well."
In our day-to-day lives, we spend maybe 40-50% of a weekday in a formal work or school setting. However, even in formal settings, our speech and conversations may not all be conducted in fully formal registers of talk. We can usually get a joke in edgeways here and there.
In Arabic, it's the formal, information-bearing bits that are communicated in mostly Modern Standard Arabic, and the jokes and gab and gossip that come across in a colloquial variety. Interestingly enough, it's Modern Standard Arabic that adult language learners are taught in colleges and universities in the U.S. If learners can gain access to instruction in other dialects of Arabic, these opportunities typically become available through study abroad (though a few U.S. universities offer courses in Egyptian and Levantine dialects on a limited basis).
As you might imagine, there's a certain excitement in learning a new dialect, or unique version, of a language you've already studied for some time. This was the case for the American learner of Arabic that I worked with in Amman, Jordan. We were excited to see all the ways that Jordanian Arabic replaced words in Modern Standard Arabic with words of its own, and presented alternative expressions that we could begin using. But we also recognized the powerful utility of the colloquial dialect. Over time, I could see learners strategically avoiding use of Modern Standard Arabic, in favor of the local variety.
I began to realize that what they were doing was localizing their experience in study abroad. In our desire to speak with locals, we began to speak like locals, to minimize distance in our conversations. In other words, there didn't seem to be a way to talk informally, casually, or personably in the Standard variety. This was why we turned to Jordanian Arabic, so we could express ourselves with a type of speech that mirrored the feel of
But it was about more than mimicking our casual English selves. By the time we began building up a vocabulary in Jordanian Arabic, we were seeing a new side of ourselves emerge, as an added dimension of our identities and multilingual lives.
Colloquial Varieties Encourage Realtalk
This new side of ourselves, this is what I discussed with Winnie while in Jordan. She began by describing how unnatural it felt to express certain things in formal Arabic, now that she knew an alternative variety. As Winnie explained, she simply couldn't see herself saying things in the same way because the new language had become a part of her ontology. Her experience was shared by many of the learners in the group.
For me, this underscores the importance of teaching and providing space for colloquial varieties, because learners want to speak and use language with authenticity. It's the authenticity that we're all after. To talk like ourselves, and represent ourselves to others in a way that most closely communicates who we feel we are. We're chasing after realtalk. We want to be real. This is why I find it so rewarding to listen closely to the way speakers grab hold of language, and begin innovating it to express themselves.