A recent study conducted at the University of Haifa revealed that the brain treats literary Arabic like a second language.
Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim, of the university's Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center found that the cognitive difference between the literary and spoken languages are similar to the difference between a native and a second language.
"This offers an explanation for the objective and day-to-day difficulties that confront Arabic-speaking students when attempting to learn to read the non-spoken language," Ibrahim said on Tuesday.
His study has been published in the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management.
According to Ibrahim, the Arabic language differentiates between the everyday spoken language, which has varying local dialects, and written literary Arabic, or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).
Literary Arabic is shared by all Arabic speakers and is learned in all schools alongside reading and writing.
The research sought to examine the cognitive status of spoken Arabic versus MSA in the brain, by means of a priming technique that examines the effect of hearing words in one language and the mental processing of the same word in another language.
In order to do so, the researcher compared the priming effects between MSA, spoken Arabic and Hebrew among native Arabic speakers who have mastered the three languages.
The results showed that the cognitive process in a student whose first language is Arabic but is also fluent in Hebrew has a similar cognitive process with MSA as with Hebrew.
As such, Ibrahim said, all Arabic speakers who are fluent in MSA are considered de facto bilinguals.
"The results of this study indicate that linguistic structures of MSA that constitute the basis for reading acquisition are likely to be unfamiliar to the Arabic-speaking child when beginning to learn to read in first grade," Ibrahim said. "This makes learning to read in Arabic a double mission, whereby children are expected to acquire in parallel an auditory linguistic system as well as a complex orthographic-visual language system."
He said that this could have a negative effect on the development of reading skills and could compromise a pupil's achievements in the higher grades, especially for students who are less skilled.
The findings suggest that MSA should be taught with techniques usually employed for the instruction of a second language. One such technique, for example, is auditory exposure to a second language as early as preschool and kindergarten.