Arabic Listening

Arabic Listening


Distinguished | Superior | Advanced | Intermediate | Novice


The following pages present Arabic annotations and listening samples to accompany the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 - Listening. These annotations and samples are intended to help Arabic teachers, learners, and assessment specialists relate the ACTFL Guidelines to the Arabic context and appreciate the various dimensions involved in assessing the listening skill in Arabic.

In reading the annotations and viewing the samples, the following points need to be taken into consideration:

The annotations and samples presented here deal mainly with non-participatory modes of listening. They do not deal with listening in conversational exchanges in which the listener is also one of the speakers.

Like the generic ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, these annotations and samples are mainly intended to establish a framework for assessment of the listening skills. They provide examples for each proficiency level, with detailed explanations of what listeners can do at this level. Teachers may utilize these annotations and samples to guide their selection of listening texts and to set appropriate tasks for each text.

The listening texts selected here provide a wide variety of topics, functions, geographical contexts, and Arabic language varieties, and are primarily drawn from authentic Arabic media sources.

The listening samples provided assume familiarity with colloquial Arabic in addition to Modern Standard Arabic. We have included samples from a number of dialects to stress the need for inclusion of different varieties of Arabic when assessing listening proficiency. Proficiency in listening in Arabic involves the ability to comprehend listening texts in MSA, in at least one Arabic dialect, or in a mix thereof based on the function and context of the situation. It is not expected that a listener will have equal competence across all the varieties represented in these samples. Rather, in describing our expectations for comprehension of each sample, we assume the listener has familiarity with the particular variety of Arabic found in that sample.


At the Distinguished level, listeners can understand a wide of forms, styles, and registers of speech1 on highly specialized topics2 in language that is tailored to different audiences. Listeners at the Distinguished level can understand language such as that found in classical theater, art films, professional symposia, academic debates, public policy statements, literary readings, and most jokes and puns.3 They are able to comprehend implicit and inferred information, tone, and point of view, and can follow highly persuasive arguments. They are able to understand unpredictable turns of thought related to sophisticated topics. In addition, their listening ability is enhanced by a broad and deep understanding of cultural references and allusions. Listeners at the Distinguished level are able to appreciate the richness of the spoken language.4

Distinguished-level listeners understand speech that can be highly abstract, highly technical, or both, as well as speech that contains very precise, often low-frequency vocabulary and complex rhetorical structures. At this level, listeners comprehend oral discourse that is lengthy and dense, structurally complex, rich in cultural reference, idiomatic and colloquial. In addition, listeners at this level can understand information that is subtle or highly specialized, as well as the full cultural significance of very short texts with little or no linguistic redundancy.

Distinguished-level listeners comprehend language from within the cultural framework and are able to understand a speaker’s use of nuance and subtlety. However, they may still have difficulty fully understanding certain dialects and nonstandard varieties of the language.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 In Arabic this refers to the ability to understand a wide variety of speech delivered in MSA, a dialect, or a mix of MSA and dialect(s). A Distinguished level listener has the ability to comprehend the main idea and details of speech delivered in more than one standard Arabic dialect.

2 This refers to the ability to understand complex content in a wide variety of areas beyond the listener's areas of specialization or interest.

3 May also include recitation of classical and modern poetry and religious sermons

4 In addition to understanding the message, a Distinguished level listener shows both understanding and appreciation of the "stylistic" devices incorporated within the message.


At the Superior level, listeners are able to understand in a standard dialect speech1 on a wide range of familiar and less familiar topics.2 They can follow linguistically complex extended discourse such as that found in academic and professional settings, lectures, speeches and reports.3 Comprehension is no longer limited to the listener’s familiarity with subject matter, but also comes from a command of the language that is supported by a broad vocabulary, an understanding of more complex structures and linguistic experience within the target culture.4 Superior listeners can understand not only what is said, but sometimes what is left unsaid; that is, they can make inferences.5

Superior-level listeners understand speech that typically uses precise, specialized vocabulary and complex grammatical structures. This speech often deals abstractly with topics in a way that is appropriate for academic and professional audiences. It can be reasoned and can contain cultural references.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 In Arabic, "standard dialect" refers to MSA or to the standard form of each Arabic dialect (for instance Damascene is the standard dialect of Syrian Arabic, Baghdadi the standard dialect of Iraqi Arabic, etc.). A Superior Level listener should be able to comprehend speech delivered in MSA, a standard regional dialect, or a mixture thereof. Mixing of both MSA and the standard dialect of the speaker is a predominant feature in Arabic speech today, and a Superior Level listener should be able to comprehend speech that displays such mix.

2 The Superior Level listener is able to understand extended discourse on a subject pertaining to his/her area of specialization and interest, but also on subjects outside this area.

3 The Arab media provide a wide range of extended discourse outside the academic environment or professional settings, such as roundtable discussions, debates, talk shows, interviews, commentaries, call-in shows. Entertainment programs provide also a substantial amount of extended discourse.

4 Knowledge of Arab culture in general and the country of the particular standard dialect involved is crucial for the comprehension of Superior Level passages. This knowledge includes traditions, history, ethnic composition, political and economic systems, religion and religion-related matters, and major events or changes that have taken place in the country involved.

5 A hallmark of the Superior listener is the ability to understand what is implicit in the discourse. This is very important for Arabic speech because speakers may avoid the explicit expression of their thoughts and frequently resort to allusions, cultural references or colloquialisms.


At the Advanced level, listeners can understand the main ideas and most supporting details1 in connected discourse on a variety of general interest topics, such as news stories, explanations, instructions, anecdotes, or travelogue descriptions. Listeners are able to compensate for limitations in their lexical and structural control of the language by using real-world knowledge2 and contextual clues. Listeners may also derive some meaning from oral texts at higher levels if they possess significant familiarity with the topic or context.

Advanced-level listeners understand speech that is authentic and connected. This speech is lexically and structurally uncomplicated. The discourse is straightforward and is generally organized in a clear and predictable way.3

Advanced-level listeners demonstrate the ability to comprehend language on a range of topics of general interest.4 They have sufficient knowledge of language structure to understand basic time-frame references. Nevertheless, their understanding is most often limited to concrete, conventional discourse.

Advanced High

At the Advanced High sublevel, listeners are able to understand, with ease and confidence, conventional narrative and descriptive texts of any length as well as complex factual material such as summaries or reports. They are typically able to follow some of the essential points of more complex5 or argumentative speech in areas of special interest or knowledge. In addition, they are able to derive some meaning from oral texts that deal with unfamiliar topics or situations. At the Advanced High sublevel, listeners are able to comprehend the facts presented in oral discourse and are often able to recognize speaker-intended inferences. Nevertheless, there are likely to be gaps in comprehension of complex texts dealing with issues treated abstractly that are typically understood by Superior-level listeners.

Advanced Mid

At the Advanced Mid sublevel, listeners are able to understand conventional narrative and descriptive texts, such as expanded descriptions of persons, places, and things, and narrations about past, present, and future events. The speech is predominantly in familiar target-language patterns. Listeners understand the main facts and many supporting details. Comprehension derives not only from situational and subject-matter knowledge, but also from an increasing overall facility with the language itself.6

Advanced Low

At the Advanced Low sublevel, listeners are able to understand short conventional narrative and descriptive texts with a clear underlying structure though their comprehension may be uneven. The listener understands the main facts and some supporting details. Comprehension may often derive primarily from situational and subject-matter knowledge.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 In Arabic, an advanced level listener can understand the main idea and supporting details of a text delivered in MSA, a dialect with which the listener is familiar, or a mix of MSA/dialect. The extent of understanding of supporting details may vary depending on the language variety used. If the listening text includes elements from a dialect with which the listener is not familiar, comprehension of details may be limited.

2 Advanced listeners may need to use their knowledge of the Arab world and Arab culture to fully understand an advanced text.

3 Text organization that is predictable for a native listener may not be predictable for a non-native listener. For example, Arabic texts may contain longer introductions, more digressions, and different ways of supporting arguments than English texts. Advanced listeners demonstrate the ability to cope with these and other differences in textual organization.

4 Topics include political, social, and economic current issues, media, popular culture, etc.

5 Linguistic complexity includes specialized vocabulary, complex sentence structure, and a more extensive mix of MSA and dialect.

6 This includes the listener's ability to utilize the knowledge of morphology, particularly of roots and verb forms to guess the meaning of unknown vocabulary.


At the Intermediate level, listeners can understand information conveyed in simple, sentence-length speech on familiar or everyday topics. They are generally able to comprehend one utterance at a time while engaged in face-to-face conversations or in routine listening tasks such as understanding highly contextualized messages, straightforward announcements, or simple instructions and directions.1 Listeners rely heavily on redundancy, restatement, paraphrasing, and contextual clues.2

Intermediate-level listeners understand speech3 that conveys basic information.4 This speech is simple, minimally connected,5 and contains high-frequency vocabulary.6

Intermediate-level listeners are most accurate in their comprehension when getting meaning from simple, straightforward speech. They are able to comprehend messages found in highly familiar everyday contexts. Intermediate listeners require a controlled listening environment where they hear what they may expect to hear.7

Intermediate High

At the Intermediate High sublevel, listeners are able to understand, with ease and confidence, simple sentence-length speech in basic personal and social contexts. They can derive substantial meaning from some connected texts typically understood by Advanced-level listeners although there often will be gaps in understanding due to a limited knowledge of the vocabulary and structures of the spoken language.

Intermediate Mid

At the Intermediate Mid sublevel, listeners are able to understand simple, sentence-length speech, one utterance at a time, in a variety of basic personal and social contexts.8 Comprehension is most often accurate with highly familiar and predictable topics although a few misunderstandings may occur. Intermediate Mid listeners may get some meaning from oral texts typically understood by Advanced-level listeners.

Intermediate Low

At the Intermediate Low sublevel, listeners are able to understand some information from sentence-length speech, one utterance at a time, in basic personal and social contexts, though comprehension is often uneven. At the Intermediate Low sublevel, listeners show little or no comprehension of oral texts typically understood by Advanced-level listeners.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 When such messages/ instructions are highly contextualized and contain generic, non-specialized vocabulary.

2 Intermediate listeners may need to listen multiple times to comprehend even level-appropriate recorded texts. Without repetition, restatement or paraphrasing, comprehension may break down.

3 Refers to Intermediate-appropriate texts. Texts may be in any variety of formal or informal Arabic. As texts at this level often refer to daily life, colloquial speech is prevalent, particularly in overheard or transactional listening.

4 Examples may include biographical information, basic descriptions or places, events or people, and familiar conversation.

5 Lists and basic announcements may at times be reordered without altering the main idea or purpose of the text.

6 High frequency connectors will be found in Arabic texts appropriate to the Intermediate level.

7 Without a controlled or predictable listening environment, the intermediate listener nonetheless may comprehend main ideas of level-appropriate texts.

8 In participatory listening, listener often needs repetition or rephrasing of level-appropriate speech.


At the Novice level, listeners can understand key words, true aural cognates, and formulaic expressions that are highly contextualized and highly predictable, such as those found in introductions and basic courtesies.

Novice-level listeners understand words and phrases from simple questions, statements, and high- frequency commands. They typically require repetition, rephrasing, and/or a slowed rate of speech for comprehension. They rely heavily on extralinguistic support1 to derive meaning.

Novice-level listeners are most accurate when they are able to recognize speech that they can anticipate. In this way, these listeners tend to recognize rather than truly comprehend. Their listening is largely dependent on factors other than the message itself.2

Novice High

At the Novice High sublevel, listeners are often but not always able to understand information from sentence-length speech, one utterance at a time, in basic personal and social contexts where there is contextual or extralinguistic support, though comprehension may often be very uneven. They are able to understand speech dealing with areas of practical need such as highly standardized messages, phrases, or instructions,3 if the vocabulary has been learned.

Novice Mid

At the Novice Mid sublevel, listeners can recognize and begin to understand a number of high-frequency, highly contextualized words and phrases including aural cognates and borrowed words. Typically, they understand little more than one phrase at a time, and repetition may be required.

Novice Low

At the Novice Low sublevel, listeners are able occasionally to recognize isolated words or very high-frequency phrases4 when those are strongly supported by context. These listeners show virtually no comprehension of any kind of spoken message, not even within the most basic personal and social contexts.

Arabic Specific Annotations

1 Extralinguistic support in a Novice-accessible text may include visual or aural cues including visual context, setting, gesture, music, etc. Incomplete cultural knowledge on the part of the listener may make some extralinguistic features inaccessible to Novice level listeners.

2 In addition to extralinguistic context, accuracy in comprehension depends heavily on the delivery of the message (articulation, background noise, accent, pauses, fillers). Comprehension depends heavily on the listener’s exposure to a particular dialect or register of Arabic. Because Novice-accessible listening texts generally involve the most common day-to-day topics and language, exposure to informal registers of Arabic at this level is key to successful comprehension of authentic listening texts.

3 Examples include memorized greetings, pleasantries, leave taking, very basic questions and answers related to immediate need or personal information (name, time, location, food).

4 Borrowed words and cognates may also occasionally be comprehended, depending on text delivery and extent of extralinguistic support.