Last year, I participated in a research project led by my good friend and colleague Slavomír “bulbul” Čéplö which focused on testing how well speakers of Arabic from different places could understand each other’s dialects.
To do this, and get more than just impressionistic results, Slavomír first adapted a method that was previously used to test the mutual intelligibility (meaning how well speakers can understand each other) of Chinese varieties. The test had three parts: words, sentences, and stories. People taking the test listen to each part spoken in dialects other than their own, and attempt to answer questions about what they’ve heard. Based on their answers, we try to figure out 1) roughly how much of those other dialects they can understand, and 2) what are the specific problems that they encounter when they can’t understand something.
These three dialects were chosen for the pilot study because they are all North African, and therefore have a number of similarities. Plus, they were the easiest to field-test: I could do the testing in Benghazi, Slavomír in Malta, and Christophe Pereira in Tunis.
For those who simply want somewhat scientific, but uncomplicated, results to share with their friends, I can say this: 1) speakers of Benghazi Arabic can understand about 44% of Maltese and 73% of Tunis Arabic, 2) speakers of Tunis Arabic understand slightly more of both, about 80% of Benghazi Arabic and 45% of Maltese, and 3) speakers of Maltese understand about 38% of both Benghazi and Tunis Arabic.
If you want the real details, especially with regard to what particular factors affect how well those speaking one dialect can understand those speaking another (such as changes in sounds, the use of different words, and changes in grammar), then you should read our description of the whole thing. If you’re interested in the results, you can read a draft of our article (which has been accepted for publication in Folia Linguistica). Feel free to come back with questions!
The testing procedure was actually pretty simple. Particpants simply sat down with an iPad and a pair of headphones, and spent about 30 minutes listening and and responding via the touch screen. (Of course, making the software itself was much more complicated, and accomplished by Slavomír and his colleagues over at Sonic Studio). If you’re interested in the details, you can read a description of the application used for testing.
Here you can get a glimpse of how the actual app looks. The left-hand sideshows the word test, while the right-hand side shows the sentence test.
*Note: more pictures coming soon!