Jamil Thawahrih

Jamil Thawahrih

Languages & Literature/College of Humanities


Arabic Beyond Al-Kitaab

Faculty Mentor: Johanna Watzinger-Tharp Associate Dean, College of Humanities

A number of studies have been conducted to examine how L2 learners use syntactic or semantic cues to process sentences and assign subject-object roles (McDonald, 1987; Su, 1998, 2001 among others). The results from these studies show that there is an L1 transfer in sentence processing strategies. These studies also illustrate that L2 learners move gradually from using cues that are more valid in their L1 to cues that are valid in the L2 (Mayer, 2008; Su, 2001). Studies on English native speakers, within the Competition Model (CM) framework, found that English speakers use word order as a cue to assign an agent role in simple sentences (Bates & MacWhinney, 1982; McDonald, 1986). These studies show that English speakers use first noun strategy in NVN word order; i.e. they interpret the sentence as SVO, while they use second noun strategy in VNN and NNV word order; they interpret the sentences of these word orders as VOS and OSV, respectively (Harrington, 1987; Kilborn, 1989). Taman (1993) found that, in contrast, Arabic native speakers rely primarily on gender agreement, defined as an agreement between the verb and the subject, followed by case marking and animacy. Abu Radwan’s work (2002), the only Arabic-language study conducted on NNS of Arabic, found that native Arabic speakers rely more strongly on case marking than gender agreement. Nevertheless, it is notable that neither Taman nor Abu Radwan addressed word order as a cue in L1 or L2.

Arabic has a free word order, and other variations are possible such as OVS, VOS for topicalization and pragmatic purposes such as emphasis, which sometimes require a stress on the object (Holes, 2004; Mohammad, 2000). This freedom in word order triggers different morphological reflexes in the verb and case marking on the noun. The NVN interpretation the Arabic textbook provides matches the English interpretation: SVO is valid in both languages, while OVS is also valid, however rare, in Arabic. The interpretation of VNN word order is different between the two languages, though: English always interprets VNN as VOS, while Arabic allows for both VSO (most common) and VOS. These cross-linguistic differences are interesting in that they may cause that L2 learners of Arabic at first employ L1 strategies in assigning actor-role in sentences. Then, with more exposure to the language, they shift toward a different set of cues employed by native Arabic speakers.


This project investigated how second language (L2) learners of Arabic use word order and subject-verb agreement to assign an actor role in simple sentences. It aimed to assess the role of L1 (English) in processing Arabic sentences, and how L2 processing develops with increasing exposure to the language. One of the theoretical models in sentence processing that addresses these two questions is the Competition Model (CM, henceforth); this study employed CM principles, which take cue validity to be the basis upon which people comprehend sentences. Cue validity is measured mathematically using two constructs: cue availability and cue reliability.

The purpose of this study is: (1) to determine whether second language learners of Arabic enrolled in their first year at the University of Utah show L1 (English) transfer and use word order to assign a subject role, and (2) if so, to what extent does more exposure to Arabic result in a decreased use of word order and increased reliance on verb agreement (a cue native speakers of Arabic rely on to complete the task). To answer these questions, I examined the language use patterns of three groups of nonnative Arabic speaker (NNS) enrolled in first, second and third year Arabic classes at the University of Utah. The focus of this study is how NNS learners interpret Arabic sentences. However, this study also compared the NNS data with Arabic native speakers’ data, as none of the previous Arabic-language studies have investigated the role of word order on native speakers.


Non-native processing mechanism is assumed to mirror an incomplete acquisition (DeKeyser, 2003; Ullman, 2005). Therefore, investigating the relationship between word order and verb-subject agreement might help us to assess the student’s level of acquisition of this important structure in the Arabic language. It is also beneficial to understand what strategies beginner learners employ to comprehend sentences. Understanding these strategies and the development stages L2 learners of Arabic go through would help us to assess Arabic curriculum and make changes as necessary.