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Diglossia in Arabic Language

The coexistence of a vernacular and a literary language, affects the communicative competence of non-Arabic learners when they try to communicate to an Arabic speaker. Students are taught the incorrect form of language when only Fusha (literary language) is taught since it is not utilized for everyday verbal communication by anyone in the Arab world. Students who are simply taught Ammiyya (vernacular) will not improve their ability to read and write Arabic. This research aims to investigate the pain points that Arabic language learners in general, and Lebanese language learners in particular, face in their learning process, and tries to test different design solutions based on language learning strategies to find the most effective one for their needs. In addition to a literature analysis, user interviews with 11 Arabic language learners were undertaken to evaluate the hypothesis that the technique they are currently employing to acquire the language is inaccurate or inefficient. Analysis of the responses revealed that users are having difficulty learning the language because they are lacking the necessary emotional and social support in their language learning journey. Research into the effects of mobile applications on foreign language learning has shown that apps can help people engage with the language they are studying. In an attempt to try and find an answer for this problem, 3 digital prototypes were made and tested with 10 users to try and find solutions based on user needs. As a result, one prototype was further developed, but remains preliminary. Further research is needed to identify and asses the effectiveness of this tool over a period of time. Modifications and improvements could be added.

General Context

Importance of Communication:

Humans around the world communicate with each other using their mother tongues. This language has been taught to children beginning at a young age at home and then later at school. And they use it, 
involuntarily, to speak with others daily, without thinking about it. How they understand each other, on the other hand, depends on many factors.

Communication between humans is an action that can be seen as more than simply communicating knowledge to one another. We take more than simply facts to communicate. Sometimes we need the other person to look behind the true meanings of what we are saying, or if you want to call it: reading between the lines. This is possible by them understanding the extent of our perceptions. Sometimes it’s irony or humor.
It also depends on facial expressions, body language, the way you
communicate, the way you answer, the emotions, the choice of words, everything. They constitute the beauty of the language and they complete how you communicate this content.


Motivation and Problem statement

Consider, for a moment, that you’re conversing in your native tongue on a topic. Assume you want to put the conversation down on paper. Isn’t it simple? This is a near-impossible task for Arabic speakers. It’s as if I instructed you to translate what you just said into a different language.

Imagine not being able to write or express yourself in the language you speak, and having to interpret every thought that crosses your mind. This is how it feels like to write or speak in Arabic-speaking countries.

Being Lebanese, from a young age, Arabic was never easy for me to learn. As a consequence of the French mandate in 1920, French became the
second language of Lebanon. Schools in Lebanon are divided between French and English learning systems. I had to go to a French-educated school which meant all my courses took place in French. Arabic classes were never interesting to me. Reading books in Arabic was hell,
I preferred reading books in French or English.

As a kid, I learned to communicate using the Lebanese dialect, by hearing my parents communicate in it. When I went to school, I learned Fusha Arabic, sometimes called Classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic. Because of the difference between spoken and written Arabic, I used to mix them in my dissertations, my teachers were never happy.

Classical Arabic is acquired through education and is used in writing, and formal settings. Every Arab country has its dialect used when speaking.

The millions of Lebanese residing abroad as members of diaspora
populations, mostly in North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Africa, only speak Lebanese and have little to no formal (formal Arabic) reading and writing proficiency. Those who come to Lebanon to learn Arabic immediately discover that the nation, particularly the capital, Beirut, is not an excellent environment to study the language. This is
because the language taught in books is not the language used outside the classroom for communication in day-to-day life. It is extremely
difficult for foreign language students to acquire Arabic in Lebanon, and it is more equivalent to learning two foreign languages rather than one.

People abroad who want to teach their children Lebanese have no tools to do so. Foreigners married to Lebanese people abroad have a hard time learning the language to communicate with their spouses or children if they ever want to do so. People who have to work in Lebanon and want to learn the language beforehand to communicate once they arrive there, learn Classical Arabic and discover once they are in Lebanon that the
public speaks Lebanese and not formal/classical Arabic.


What is Diglossia?

The term diglossia is derived from a Greek word that means “the state of being bilingual.” Diglossia occurs when a population utilizes two distinct languages or two considerably different variations of the same language for separate purposes. It operates by using one dialect or language for
informal everyday interaction and a distinct standard language for more official, formal interactions. The dialect or language used for daily
conversation is often of “low variety,” which means that it is not formally learnt, and speakers are not formally taught its grammar or how to write in it. It is taught as a spoken language.

The language used in more formal contexts is the “high variety,” which is the language studied formally in schools. Speakers learn how to write in that language and its formal grammatical rules. In many cases, the
community regards this “high variety” as the pure or correct form of the language, and they want to keep it that way, no change required. The low variety, on the other hand, is more flexible and likely to evolve over time since it is not bound by the rules of the high language.

Aim and Research Question

It was important to me to do this thesis about the Arabic language. To disseminate information about the subject, to strive to find a solution that would allow Arabic learners to enjoy studying the language in a less theoretical and more culturally grounded manner. Finally, to help spread the culture that is the Lebanese language.

This study aims to:

1. Spread knowledge about Diglossia in the Arabic language, its effects, and its implications

2. Discover and try to solve the pain points that Lebanese language
 learners face in their learning process

3. Point out the differences between Classical Arabic and Lebanese Arabic

4. Bridge the gap between Classical Arabic and the Lebanese Dialect; written vs spoken Lebanese Arabic

5. Make the experience of learning Lebanese more exciting through design

Research question:

What are the problems that Arabic language learners in general, and Lebanese language learners in particular, face in their learning process, and which language learning strategy is the most effective for them?

Design question:

How might design help with the learning process of the Lebanese language?


Language Learning Strategies

Language learning techniques have received much interest since the early 1970s because of the important role they play in language learning. Many researchers characterized language learning techniques differently,
focusing on how learners cope with information and what kinds of tactics they employ. Many studies describe language learning techniques differently.

Rebecca Oxford is a prominent Scholar-Teacher who taught at Yale University. Her work on language learning strategies is widely used in
research on language acquisition processes. Learning strategies, according to Oxford (1990), are particular acts made by the student to make learning simpler, quicker, more pleasant, more successful, more self-directed, and more adaptable to new contexts.

Oxford (1990) categorizes language acquisition processes into two broad categories: direct and indirect. These categories are then further broken into six divisions, and argued that language learners can utilize a variety of tactics.

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Research is required to understand the needs and pains of the users we are designing for. A designer must have empathy for the users. They should create something that is based on what they need or want and shouldn’t be based on their personal preferences or assumptions. Making assumptions is sometimes a positive thing, and it is a necessary element of the working process; but assumptions may be troublesome when they are taken as facts. (Mosiichuk, n.d)

This thesis project intends to utilize design as a tool to understand the behaviors and needs of people, research what constraints are limiting their learning, and create a design solution that helps them.


Interviews - User Pain Points

While doing interviews, I began to collect and analyse comparable pain areas that were beginning to emerge during the interviews. I also had to add and modify some of my questions based on my previous interviews. After the interviews were completed, I had to organize my findings. Having all the written interviews in hand, the first step was to make the data comparable among participants. As I read my notes and quotes from the interviews, I first started to summarize every important idea into codes (3-5 words). Once I had coded all of my interview notes, I had to highlight and categorize the codes of each individual participant into

colored-coded themes (Tools used, Pain points, user ideas, etc.) in order to subsequently group the themes across all users and begin searching for patterns.

Before analyzing the mutual themes between participants, I had to create Empathy maps for each one of them, to gain a deeper understanding of their behaviors, feelings and attitudes towards learning Arabic, and see if any other themes emerge. Establishing what users said and did is very simple; however, determining what they thought and felt requires close monitoring of how they acted and responded to questions in the
interview; including subtle cues such as body language displayed and the tone of voice used. Here is an example:

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Ideation is frequently the most exciting step of the design thinking process since the goal is to produce a big number of ideas that you then cut down or merge to come up with new creative solutions. After getting to know the pain points of the users, and coming up with a persona, I needed to start finding solutions to support Lisa, motivate, and help her in her learning journey. In the first step of my ideation process, I tried to generate as many ideas as I could during a brainstorming session. In this session, I tried to put a time frame, that encourages stream of consciousness in idea development rather than cautious, measured evaluation of each concept. Walking around a room and putting a sticky note with an idea, every time I walked past a furniture. 

The ideas were random thoughts that came to mind, I tried not to judge them or myself in the process, because these were still ideas and not concepts. They could be changed, modified or merged together, I tried not to get attached to any of them.


Why an app?

The next phase was to choose some ideas that made sense, and start
developing them more into concrete concepts. Based on my interviews and persona, it was evident that “Lisa” desired a concrete object with which she could engage in order to learn the language. She had become tired of traditional learning methods. She wanted something exciting, something fresh, something that would inspire her and teach her about her family’s culture. Touch screens, high-quality picture, audio, and video recording, all add to a multisensory experience that aids successful
language acquisition. As a result, I needed to use a mobile application as a tool to develop my concept.

Prototyping and testing

Feel free to check all the prototypes in the PDF below.

To make it short I will be posting the final developed prototype.

Final Prototype

After evaluating the other three prototypes and gaining an understanding of what users liked, needed, and disliked, I attempted to merge different ideas that worked together, in a more evolved prototype, and tried to
follow the language learning strategies mentioned in chapter 3.

This prototype includes:

• Lessons based on learning level (Metacognitive strategy)

• Event calendar from prototype 2 (Social & compensation strategy)

• AI bot for language practices (Social strategy)

• Daily challenges to encourage learners to build confidence when
communicating (Affective strategy)

• A way to save words, and review them (memory strategy)

• A daily check-in with themselves to evaluate how they feel before and after a lesson; emotional well-being is thought to assist and improve learning (Affective strategy)

• A culture block where they learn about places to go to in Lebanon, Norms and Rules, movies and food through videos (Compensation strategy)

• A vocabulary block (Memory strategy)

• Similarities between the Lebanese language and their chosen language, to help them link old knowledge with new ones as well as categorizing knowledge (Cognitive strategy)

• Articles that could be beneficial for their learning process

• Sharing learning progress with friends to encourage healthy competition.

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Users interacted more with this prototyped. Based on a survey I sent out to users following testing, as well as on their vocalized needs during the testing session, I was able to better understand what was lacking and what needed to be improved. The emotional temperature section needed explanation; some users couldn’t understand why there would be an emotional temperature section in a language app. In the add events
section, there is a calendar that they can access when they swipe down. Most of the users when asked in one of the tasks to “add an event you have today”, just clicked on an event and went on to the second task without realizing there was a calendar they can use.

“Some buttons and features needed explanation”

“I didn’t know that there is a calendar in the second page. Hard to find”

After modifying the design, users who did not test the prototype before modification, could easily see that they should swipe down in that section. Some users suggested more features like: Lebanese road maps, cultural events nearby, etc. Most of them wanted the watch feature back (mentioned in prototype 1).

The biggest percentage of votes went to “Getting to know the culture while learning” out of seven factors used, to define why users would use the app again. Learning lessons was easy, some even learned a word or two, especially because of the similarities between Lebanese and French section (French selected as a prototype language). Two of the users who already knew French found it interesting to know that some words in French sound the same in Lebanese.

Final Design


Diglossia in Arabic is an issue that many native speakers and foreigners confront during their language acquisition process. During my interviews, I was able to gain a better understanding of how much this dualism in language learning, affects their ability to communicate with native speakers, express themselves, and feel a part of society. Diglossia is a linguistic barrier that can generate misunderstandings and prevent certain people from expressing themselves.

Arabic language learners are faced with having to learn a new language (classical Arabic), a new alphabet, and new sounds, to speak. They are then confronted with the challenge of realizing that they are unable to communicate in that language with native speakers. People who speak French and English may be able to navigate various regions in Lebanon, primarily metropolitan areas, where people are highly educated and can communicate in French and English.

Every learner has various requirements and approaches to language learning, and memorization. Throughout my research, I discovered that most individuals despise traditional learning methods; they want something to inspire them, motivate them and make learning more enjoyable. People currently want everything to be instant, and fast. Fast deliveries, fast purchases, fast internet connection, etc. As a result, even during their language learning process, people expect to see quick results, such as
being able to converse and comprehend others immediately.

My role in this study was to try and find an answer to my research
question, and design question:

• What are the problems that Arabic language learners in general, and Lebanese language learners in particular, face in their learning process, and which language learning strategy is the most effective for them?

• How might design help with the learning process of the Lebanese language?

To examine the impact of diglossia on Arabic language learners, to determine what are the issues that cause some people to give up learning this language or dialect, and try to find a solution that will help meet their needs. Based on my last conducted survey findings, I found that my project answered their needs, and used different instruments that other applications, websites or books didn’t have, like the ability to learn about the culture through visual stories, movies, songs, etc. Even if other mobile applications offer identical features, you would have to download two or three to meet your educational demands. As we witnessed during the
interviews, all users were using different ways to learn the language, not one alone was enough. Many users verbalized that they can’t wait to use the application, thinking that it was going to be launched soon on the mobile store.

Since every person has a different learning strategy that works for them, I tried to include in my design different tools that represent different learning strategies. Some tools aid your memory strategies, others aid your metacognitive strategies, social strategies, etc.

In conclusion, this instrument serves its purpose as a tool that will help users fulfill their educational needs and enhance their learning process.

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Maria_Abdo_Master_Thesis_5033683.pdf PDF Maria_Abdo_Master_Thesis_5033683.pdf

Ein Projekt von


International Integrated Design

Art des Projekts



foto: Visiting professor MAID Studio Mito Mihelic foto: Mauricio Sosa Noreña


Sommersemester 2022