Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Applied Linguistics and English as a Second Language

First Advisor

Gayle L Nelson

Second Advisor

Diane D Belcher

Third Advisor

Stephanie A Lindemann

Fourth Advisor

Nadine A Sinno


The numbers of learners studying Arabic in the U.S. have increased more than any other language over the last ten years. As a critical language, important for strategic political and economic reasons, Arabic has received considerable support from the Departments of State and Education (Jackson & Malone, 2009; Wiley, 2007). However, Arabic is also a prominent heritage language, important for cultural and interpersonal reasons to the families and communities who speak it and for whom it is a binding force (Fishman, 2001; Van Deusen-Scholl, 2003). Nevertheless, research on learners of Arabic and their learning processes is still very limited.

Existing studies have compared Arabic heritage learners’ motivation and the structure of their language knowledge with that of non-HLLs (Husseinali, 2006; Benmamoun, Montrul, & Polinsky, 2010), but HLL research has hardly addressed the complex social and cultural influences on their learning processes (He, 2010; Montrul, 2010). Drawing on investment in language learning (Norton Peirce, 1995; Norton, 2000) as a theoretical lens, this study asks how learners and their families construct Arabic as heritage and its implications for their beliefs and practices.

Focusing on students in a public charter middle school in the southeast U.S. who are studying Arabic as a foreign language, this study seeks to bring together language learning, identity construction, and the challenges and implications of biliteracy for Arabic learners from a range of backgrounds in an effort to understand the complexity of the Arabic learning process. To that end, it uses ethnographic methods including interviews with five focal families, class observations, and surveys and strives for grounded theory. In constructing heritage, each learner and family, from a range of national and cultural backgrounds, must balance priorities regarding the multiple varieties of Arabic, religious literacy, and the role of Arabic in local and global contexts.

Results should shed light on the role of social context in language and literacy development for Arabic and comparable LCTLs, contribute to theory regarding the relationship between identity construction and language learning for heritage learners, and suggest approaches to supporting young learners of critical and heritage languages to promote a more multilingual society.