Syrian Arabic Learners of English

© Heveen Kurdi

Research on a set of words known as 'discourse markers' (DMs), like the English expressions you know, I mean, like, so, well has flourished during that last two decades, with many studies of English discourse markers having been undertaken. However, studies of discourse markers in other languages have been relatively few in comparison, and research into discourse markers of second language learners has received even less attention. Kurdi's research investigates the use of English discourse markers utilised by Syrian Arabic-speaking university students.

There are instances where these second language learners show ability to use English discourse markers in a native like way (example 1), while in some other cases they used some English markers in different ways to that of native speakers (examples 2 and 3). Example 4 is an instance of intense language contact where speaker failed to separate the two systems.

In example (1) so is used by the learner as it would be used by a native speaker of English. M is the interviewer and R is the interviewee.

Example 1 [Listen to example]

M1so do you have English-speaking friends?
M3and how often do you see them?
R4er my niece my nieces they both speak er English they don't speak Arabic
R6coz they've been there for now fourteen fifteen years in England so their English is better than their Arabic.
M7yeah I know. I know the story.

In this example speaker R uses so in line 6 to mark a causal relationship between two parts of the sentence; the fact that the nieces of speaker R have been living in England for a long time (around fifteen years) is the reason why their English is better than their Arabic despite the fact that they are born to Arabic parents. This usage of so is well recognized in English when it marks a fact-based result.

Example 2 [Listen to example]

(M is the interviewer, MA is the interviewee)

M1h-how do you manage to find the time you work do you have a fulltime job I mean how do you manage to find the time to study with your fulltime job?
MA2you can't imagine, now I am facing this problem now because my manager in the ministry now
3"ok you are you aren't allowed to attend the course of Diploma, you aren't allowed to go for Japanese language"
4our (sighs) work time from eight o'clock to three thirty
5so my Japanese course start at three o'clock I need about half hour half an hour to reach here the centre.

In the example above the usage of so in line 5 does not match with any of the functions of so in the English language. So may mark a result, an inference, a summary, a main idea unit, among other functions. 'my Japanese course start at three o'clock' is not an inference, a result, or a summary of 'our work time from eight o'clock to three thirty' .The speaker here is simply using so as a connector regardless of whether it is suitable in this context or not.

Example 3 [Listen to example]

A1the British council they told us don't take anything except your umbrella, you can buy anything from there but if you are out of the airport, and the rain.
2so I bring it from Syria but you know I was there in summer when I try to bring it it was summer so I had a lot of trouble to find an umbrella coz until now I think we don't have winter or we don't have rain.
3it is November started so I bought it in June, you can imagine that nobody has it, so why he wants it?

This is another example of so being used none natively. Prior to this piece of discourse the interviewer had seen the interviewee carrying an umbrella with him. She told him that she was glad to see that he did not forget his umbrella.

In segments (2) both instances of so indicate a cause-result relationship between the utterance before and after it. Because they told him that an umbrella is the first thing he is going to need in England (cause), he bought one from Syria (effect). In the same manner, the fact that it was summer at the time he had to buy an umbrella (cause) caused him a lot of trouble (effect). The problem arises in segment (3). In (3) he wanted to go back to the main argument (that buying an umbrella in June was difficult given the fact that at the time of speaking it was November and there was no rain in Syria). But that does not work in English. English does not allow choosing one function and ignoring the other. His imperfect English competence in this example, gives him the license to pick and choose one function of so (back-referencing) and to ignore another (what follows is related to what preceded). The sentence 'it is November started so I bought it in June' is odd to native speakers of English.

Example 4

(M is the interviewer, J is the interviewee)

M 1 and what do you think is your own personal strengths or your personal
weaknesses in English?
J 2 what?
M 3 what is your personal strength or weakness in English?
J 4 for me?
M 5 umm.
J 6 er conversation
M 7 which one strength or weakness?
J 8 no it is weakness for me
M 9 umm
J 10 I think I have er fo for for me it's conversa.. conversation is the most important thing
M 11 umm
J 12 and I think I am weakness in conversation but in reading and grammar
and er yes I think I am somehow good
M 13 umm
J 14 somehow
M 15 and how do you think you can improve?
J 16 er by reading. The only way is by reading.
M 17 but your conversation you think is your weakness.
J 18 er let me then tell you something if you want to er to improve your conversation you must speak with strangers er I think ya'ni er I mean er for er English people native speakers er it's the way to improve your conversation and if you want to learn English er you can learn it by er read read a lot of books er read more and more and to see er some TV programmes and er films but the only way to improve your er conversation is to speak with native speakers.

This example is an interesting instance of language contact in the area of discourse markers. The speaker in line 18 failed to separate the two systems, Arabic and English. She uses the Arabic discourse marker ya'ni instead of the English I mean. She, however, is aware of her deviating from the code of the interview which is English and this is obvious from her immediate correction.