From text to context: Literacy practices of native speakers of Arabic in Arabic and English

Ghada Gherwash, Purdue University


Previous studies that looked at the written product of native speakers of Arabic in their second language (L2), English, have identified traces of Arabic rhetoric (L1), mainly Classical Arabic, in their writing (e.g., Atari, 1983; Kaplan, 1966; Ostler, 1987). These studies focused primarily on the L2-written texts, where the written product is used to make inferences about the rhetorical structures of the writers’ L1. The results from these studies portrayed the native-Arab writer’s text as highly influenced by Classical Arabic. This was evidenced by “foreign” rhetorical structures that Arab writers employ when producing texts in their L2 that are considered trademarks of Classical Arabic. This unitary picture of the native-Arabic writer remained intact in later studies (e. g., Abu Radwan, 2012; Connor 1996). However, none of these studies looked at the possible influence of the remarkable difference between written and spoken forms of Arabic on such rhetorical transfer. Nor did they look at the potential impact of cultural, historical, sociopolitical, and institutional factors on how literacy is acquired, practiced, and valued in the Arab world. This project focuses on these two neglected factors that, I argue, are crucial to understanding Arab students’ writing in English. These factors are investigated through the New Literacy Studies theory that looks at literacy as multiple, varying across communities and historical contexts. In order to investigate literacies as part of the social fabric of the Arab culture, I conducted a series of semi-structured, life-story interviews with Arab-graduate students representing five-Arab countries: Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The aim of these interviews was to gain insight about how the participants are socialized into reading and writing in their L1 and the impact such socialization might have on their literacy practices in their L2. The participants’ accounts regarding their own literacy practices in Arabic problematize the picture of the native-Arabic writers that has been held true for decades. Mainly that their writing is highly influenced by the rhetorical structures of Classical Arabic. The narratives elicited from the interviews show that due to lack of prolonged socialization into and practice in the written form of Arabic, none of the participants developed a sophisticated knowledge of the written form of Arabic that they considered transferrable into their L2. Therefore, if we look at a given text as the product of socialization into a given practice, by default lack of socialization impedes that process (Gee, 1990). In addition, the participant accounts show discrepancies in the type and quality of instruction they received in Arabic and English. Contrary to what would be expected, the participants received more explicit writing instruction in English than they did in Arabic. Even those who considered themselves as sophisticated readers in Arabic, described themselves as poor writers. Thus, it would be flawed to argue that all native Arabic speakers’ writing is influenced by Classical Arabic, a form that the participants admitted they haven’t mastered. It would be more logical to argue that their writing might be influenced by their regional varieties that they have mastered and are more comfortable using to express their thoughts.




Silva, Purdue University.

Subject Area

English as a Second Language|Middle Eastern Studies

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