Sunday, June 08, 2014

Standard Arabic and cartoons

In the Arab world, practically all cartoons are dubbed in Standard Arabic, rather than in the different countries' spoken varieties. Until recently, Disney was the exception, using Egyptian Arabic; its decision to use Standard Arabic like everyone else has attracted some controversy (New Yorker, Language Log, Arabic Literature, MEI), although it will be very welcome in the Maghreb, where kids don't understand Egyptian anyway. In general, however, there's a strong consensus in favour of Standard Arabic in cartoons; it's seen as a good way to get children used to Standard Arabic, and thus prepare them for school. What are the effects of this?

Let's start by looking around us. We see that younger generations understand Standard Arabic rather well, and have a much larger Standard Arabic vocabulary than earlier generations did at the same age. A cursory search suggests that cartoons have played a role in this; for example, Weyers 1999 shows that American students of Spanish improved their listening comprehension and used a larger vocabulary after watching a Spanish-language telenovela, and Blosser 1988 that Hispanic children, once they've mastered the basics of English, improve their English by watching more TV (although this does not seem to work below the age of 2). So parents are probably right to think that Standard Arabic cartoons are helping their kids learn Standard Arabic.

However – let's be honest – those same younger generations remain largely unable to write a grammatically correct paragraph in it, and normally speak in Standard Arabic only to quote prestigious texts or to parody TV presenters or politicians. This suggests that what they're gaining from it is limited to what Weyers 1999 identified for learners of Spanish: better comprehension and a larger vocabulary, but not better production. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, in Algeria at least, Standard Arabic is effectively a read-only language: everyone under a certain age can understand it and read it, practically no one can express themselves in it correctly or confidently. So, as an educational tool, cartoons have their limits.

But education isn't everything. Cartoons are one of the most secure domains of spoken Standard Arabic, right up there with news broadcasts, documentaries, and historical soap operas, and well ahead of teaching, sermons, political speeches, and interviews, all of which often use varying amounts of dialect. For younger children, unless their parents read to them, cartoons may well be the only context other than school and prayer where they regularly hear Standard Arabic (cp. Hamzaoui 2014), and in any case are one of the first contexts they learn to associate with Standard Arabic. Shouldn't we be asking how this affects their feelings about the language?


Maryse Trevithick said...

Interesting article Dr. Lameen. I definitely think that cartoons offer children great exposure to the language, and even if they have their limits, they are still one of the very few tools that we have out there. I also believe that making our own cartoons in Standard Arabic would be the best way to reach the children through a context they relate to.

Loundja said...

I think that cartoons are a great way of learning standard Arabic. I have three nieces who speak standard Arabic . They watched a lot of TV (not great, I know), but their vocabulary is amazing, they learnt so many words that I did not know until I went to school. They were also able to use the plural for two correctly when they were three, both the masculine and the feminine versions of it.

We watched Arabic cartoons when we were kids, but because we only had an hour per day, it did not help develop our vocabulary. It is not just the exposure but also the number of hours that count, and the practice. Note: my nieces speak to each other in standard Arabic.