Students no longer occupy the backseat: Can their demands make a change?

I read a recent article in the National newspaper about Abu Dhabi students demanding that the language of instruction for some of their courses be in Arabic instead of English. This got me thinking about the role the student can play in not only influencing the language of instruction but also the role they may play in the current struggle to balance knowledge of English and preserving Arabic language most especially in the Gulf countries. In much of the discourse on this topic, student voices are often not heard, it is usually the parents’, the teachers’, the education board’s, the curricula designer’s/writer’s or expert’s and each blames the other for failure to strike that important balance and offer the best Arabic and academic education.abudhabistudents

The fact that students are demanding some (notice not every course) subjects to be taught in Arabic shows that there is an appetite for students to further master the Arabic language, even at the university level. This is true for those students who want to have careers in Arabic media and journalism and so it makes sense if they study in Arabic since they will need the appropriate vocabulary. It also shows that they understand that not every course can be taught in Arabic, hence making their demand sensible in some ways perhaps.

Looking at the issue from a distance, I am wondering, if such changes were made at university, would those changes influence how Arabic is currently taught at schools right now? Would the standards be raised so that any students electing to take a course taught in Arabic will be able (and enabled) to write fluently and coherently at university level? What would that mean really? I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read the piece. If the students want it, and there is a demand for it then it’s a good thing right? All those blaming students for preferring English over Arabic, or accusing them of being lazy and uninterested in Arabic will no longer have anything to say right? Is it that simple? Can it be that easy? For one thing the universities would need to employ lecturers who are proficient in Arabic and who have been in academia long enough to be able to teach in a specialised and modern way. New materials would need to be designed to cater for the changes in the curricula and it would without doubt take time and money.

The main learning I took from this was that students have voiced their wishes and perhaps it is their voices we need to listen to in order to make a change for the better, in so far as the preservation of Arabic and the learning of English are concerned. Yes the issue is not a straightforward one and I have time and again on this site discussed issues such as low teaching standards in Arabic, out-dated materials, uninterested teachers and so on but could what students want and say be one way to work towards solving this issue of Arabic language proficiency?

I am aware that in the Gulf there are some universities, colleges or learning centres in which Arabic is used as a medium of instruction, the thing that caught my attention in the case of the Abu Dhabi students is that they demanded Arabic. In all the other places where Arabic is offered  we don’t know if student opinions or demands shaped or influenced the decisions to offer the Arabic language as a medium of instruction or not.

I know I’ve asked so many questions and not provided any answers, I’m still thinking about it all and I need to understand what this truly means.I think it shows a change in the discussion of the future of Arabic albeit in a minor way.  If you have any thoughts please share them here, thanks for reading.

 

How’s Arabic doing? Some reflections

Arabic1It has been a long while since I last posted anything due to the most intensely busy 6 months I have had in a long time. So here is a belated happy 2015 to all my readers and a wish that this year will be better than the last in terms of peace and stability for humankind. Hello to new readers and a thank you to all those who wrote emails, I am slowly replying to as many as I can.

So where do I start with this short post? Well, 2014 was great for Arabic in may ways because I think for the first time there is a shift from mere talk to action especially in the Gulf countries (UAE, Oman & Kuwait in particular) to put into tangible terms (laws, conferences and plans) their worries about the future of the Arabic language. The UAE, as you would have seen from previous posts, suggested/passed laws to protect the Arabic language and it was an oft-recurring topic among ministers and broadcasters in and beyond the country. One may criticise and be sceptical about these laws and question the panic of the loss of a language with over 400 million speakers, but whatever your opinion I think the laws may help frame the issue in a new light. As a researcher it is often very difficult to quantify such a phenomenon and understand (at least in numbers and figures) how ordinary speakers view and react to such a topic/issue. The law will allow people to agree, disagree, form their own initiatives to support the law or criticise it, and all that is data, information that helps me and others like myself get a grip on real people’s feelings and uses of the Arabic language. As I said previously no law can protect a language, rather it is the speakers who can create any true change (if needed) in order to protect the language. The other thing I noticed, and that might be because for the last 5 years I’ve obsessed over the topic, is that young Native Arabic language speakers seem to be more open about their preferences for English (for reasons of education, work, international collaborations) and their emphasis that they are also committed to the Arabic language. I have met Arabic speakers (18-30) who are re-schooling themselves in Arabic and who as a result are able to read books in Arabic without much trouble (save with the help of a dictionary) and can articulate themselves better (especially in Standard Arabic) when they write. So it’s an interesting mix of how I was initially interested in the cries and calls to save Arabic language and how I now see people who really matter, those on the ground who can make a difference (or not) react to such a dialogue and what actions they take as individuals or what they say about the subject that ultimately contributes to the future of this situation. To say that this is fascinating for me as a sociolinguist is understatement, it is something I will continue to watch for the future.

What does 2015 promise for Arabic language? In terms of content I think it’s exciting that Sesame Street is being re-launched, the Arabic version is known as Iftah ya simsim and previously ran from 1979 until 1990. It is exciting that it is making a return and it will be the first time I will see it because by the time I was ready to watch the show it had been off-air for some years. I have however heard from those who watched the original version that it was a brilliant tool for entertainment but more importantly for the learning, reinforcement and use of the Arabic language. Children were exposed to the Arabic language for everyday use, words for items and of course for learning new things, which for many people (especially parents) offered another support tool for the Arabic language. I think it may fulfil the same roles it did previously, and given that now it will be aired in a new globalised, connected and computerised world I am excited to see the true impact of such a show. The cast from producers, puppeteers and actors are from across the Arab world with varied, interdisciplinary and interesting backgrounds in terms of both education and experience. So as soon as I hear/see anything about the impact of iftah ya simsim on the use of Arabic language I will without doubt write about it here (maybe even try to get an interview from someone in the production team). There are also more efforts to make as much of the internet content as possible available in Arabic, and overall more universities across the Gulf are offering courses that are taught entirely in Arabic and this is leading to a need for students to write in academic Arabic (maybe even unify terms, expressions and styles like we have in English). Let’s see how the rest of 2015 goes. iftah ya simsim

I want to end the post with an article I saw a few days ago published in the National about Arabic speaking students’ preference for using English (pasted below unchanged):

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An increasing number of Arab students say they are more comfortable speaking in English than their mother tongue.

Ayman Hussein, 25, is studying for a Masters in marketing and communications at Middlesex University. He was born in Sudan but says having been in the UAE since the age of three, he is now more comfortable with English.

“I would say that coming to the UAE is the reason for this,” he said. “I’ve never been to the US or Canada and yet my English is very strong and I say that’s because of growing up in the UAE.

“I can communicate well in Arabic and I don’t feel it’s a weakness, it’s a preference.”

Maha Hussein, 24, is a masters student at the University of Wollongong Dubai, studying media and communication.

Having lived in Canada and the US before moving to the UAE 12 years ago, the Libyan considers herself a native English speaker but she feels her Arabic skills are as strong.

“I would always choose to write assignments in English,” she said. “Going back to Libya makes me realise how important it is to speak and maintain Arabic because there’s no English there whatsoever.”

The reason her family moved to the UAE was to reconnect the children with Arabic.

“It’s easy to become too reliant on English and dismiss Arabic. I had Arab friends who sounded like five-year-olds and it was embarrassing,” she said.

Dr Afaf Al Bataineh, acting director of the Institute of Arabic Language at Zayed University, said: “The Arabic language has received extensive support from UAE leaders and policymakers.

“Most UAE and Arab families wish to teach children their national language. In fact, most families and young adults believe that Arabic is an essential part of their identity.”

However, he acknowledges that the diverse nature of the UAE poses challenges.

“As a result of the cosmopolitan nature of the cities in which we live today, and because of the multi ethnicities and nationalities that live side-by-side in the UAE, English has become the dominant language in the public sphere, trade, communication, entertainment and media.

“Hence, Arabic became no different than any other language. This means that individuals, families, schools, communities and the media must do more to consolidate the teaching, learning and use of Arabic.

Among Emirati students, Dr Al Bataineh said, the differences in their ability to speak and write are apparent.

“In general, students who study Arabic in public schools tend to have strong Arabic-language skills while students who study Arabic in private schools tend to struggle,” he said.

“The main challenge seems to be students’ inability to use Arabic for communication purposes effectively, particularly the written form.

“Most believe that Arabic is a difficult language to master and this difficulty is often attributed to inability to use the grammar correctly. Many students seem to be extremely weak in using Arabic for academic purposes and many complain that they received little training on how to structure the written forms.”

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It’s an interesting article because it focuses on speaker opinions and brings to the fore how the speakers themselves view their relationship with the Arabic language. I am used to reading articles that begin with a lamentation, a judgement and then endless quotations from scholars and academics followed by a conclusion. This article, by allowing students’ remarks to be presented right away shows that language use is in fact mediated by speaker preferences, social benefits such as ease and the ability/possibility to communicate with others as well as the social circumstance. One thing is for sure though Arabic language education needs to change (nothing new there) and students need to be supported and helped instead of being blamed for their lack of Arabic. It is not easy to create and implement a whole new system or improve an existing one without much effort and great upheaval.  Maybe as some have already suggested, a bilingual education model (for those who opt for it) could be effective because students without doubt need both English and Arabic. Who knows? Thanks for reading and as always comments are welcome.

Arabic needs protection, but who should protect it?

ArabicThe short answer is nobody. Except of course the speakers of Arabic language themselves. They can do this through various avenues such as: schooling and education, books and publishing (not just translations), the culture at large, and as any scholar of language maintenance or Ecolinguist will tell you- their ideology. What do they think about (and of) their language? How do they measure their language to other languages? and many other questions, and once those can be answered (and importantly implemented) then the status and importantly the future of a language can be determined. Arabic language is not dead but socially something is happening, something that is making some Arabic speakers nervous and many sociolinguists like myself are trying to understand what that is. I am basing this post on an article I read back in May and I have been meaning to write something on it ever since, so here it is.

 

The article is quoted below:————– (May 2014)

Scholars call for laws to protect Arabic

Arab countries urged to ensure that legislation related to the official language is implemented

Dubai: Laws and legislations should be imposed by Arab countries to protect the Arabic language, said Arab scholars and educators during the third International Conference for the Arabic Language.

The two-day conference, which was organised by the International Council for Arabic Language in cooperation with Unesco and the Association of Arab Universities, brought Arab scholars and officials under one platform to discuss the state of the Arab language and ways to improve it.

“Between the eighth and 16th century, the Arabic and Latin languages were the only two in the world used to document science and philosophy. This is proof that the Arabic language is a global language and it is up to this generation to conserve and protect it,” said Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development during his opening speech.

The conference was attended and inaugurated by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

To preserve the language for future generations, Shaikh Nayhan said we must have curriculums with clear objectives that are based on thorough studies.

“We must also ensure that the Arabic language is lively so that its learners will find it both fun and beneficial. Training qualified teachers and utilising technology also help spread its usage.

The Arabic language faces many dangers according to Dr Abdul Latif Obaid, member of the Tunisian Council of National Constituent Assembly.

“Our Arabic Language is facing dangers from foreign languages that are used in our schools and our media, slang is also a danger as it is overwhelming and slowly replacing the standard language,” said Obaid.

To help protect and preserve the language Dr Ahmad Al Dhabib, former member of the Shura Council and Editor in Chief of Arab Magazine, said legislations and laws should be imposed to protect it.

“Many Arab countries need legislations and laws to ensure that the Arab language is used in tourism and education. We are not against other languages; we are against other languages overwhelming ours.”

Coming up with legislations is not enough, Arab countries should make sure that these laws are actually implemented said Amr Mohammad Al Zain, Secretary General of the Union of Arab lawyers.

“Having unified Arab terminology is very important for Arab laws and legislation. We came up with unified terminology since 1944, but it has never been implemented. Having a unified terminology is important if we want to come up with legislations that protect the Arabic language,” he said.

Al Zain called on policy makers to implement unified Arab terminology.

Arab people have a huge role in protecting the Arabic language said Dr Abdullah Nasir, a Member of the Shura Council.

“The Arabic language is being shut out by its own people in the name of literature. We are the only people who have two types of literature the standard one and the colloquial literature. The later has taken the place of the standard language.”

Nasir also said the Arabic language is being threatened by slang language, and if the Arabic language is in threat, so is the Arab identity.

Mohammad Al Qatatsha, a member of the Jordanian House of Representatives also believes that the Arab people are the ones in charge of protecting their language.

“We are the ones who push our children to invest in the English language because we believe that it is a valuable investment. We believe we need this language because the owners of this language are the rulers of the world.”

Al Qatatsha said laws and legislations are not enough to protect the language. The Arab people should also have an effective role.

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The article of course coincided with the annual Arabic language conference that takes place in Dubai each year for the last few years. Reading through the article one can see what speakers at the conference thought the current status of Arabic language is. The vast majority of speakers show anxiety, there is a call to refer to a 1944 unified terminology! 1944? We need one for today and it shouldn’t be imposed either people should ease into using good terminology otherwise it will feel too prescriptive. Nobody is against a unified terminology there are benefits to such a thing but it needs updating and it needs to reflect the world we live in today. It cannot be archaic in its words when describing modern ideas and objects (words such as internet, selfie, nerd etc….need quick short Arabic equivalents not transliterations or inconceivable words).  There is also a call to use Arabic language in tourism, not sure what that means because most tourists will not speak Arabic, why not in both Arabic and English? And how does a brochure in English affect the Arabic speaker or indeed the future of Arabic?

Practically though there is a call in the article to implement change and ensure better command of Arabic among native speakers through an improvement in curricula and in the quality of teaching through better teacher training and more creative resources. Many have always felt sorry for both the Arabic teacher and the Arabic student because many times the subject is neglected and whilst other schemes of work are updated and made more accessible (like maths & science) Arabic language syllabi have always been the same for decades in many Arabic speaking countries. However, that is changing because many people both those in education and publishing in the Arab world have agreed that there is an issue and it needs to be addressed, Arabic has been neglected for too long. So schools, publishers and writers have begun implementing many changes to the way Arabic language is presented and represented in both print and schooling.

There is also a reference to slang or colloquial affecting the Arabic language, I don’t know how factual that is because as I have said time and again nobody really speaks MSA as an everyday code or language. It has always been that way for thousands of years, so why does it pose a problem now? And importantly how?

The article ends with a call for Arabic speakers to take responsibility for their language. Speakers of course should ensure that they learn and use their language well, and that it is one of the only effective ways to preserve the Arabic language- it is common sense really. And any Arabic bilingual can tell you that it is not impossible even in a non-Arabic speaking majority society to learn and master Arabic well, so what’s difficult about it in a place where everybody speaks some form or other of Arabic? No law or implementation of a law will work, and we have seen the futility of such laws in workplaces and places of business because even among themselves Arabic speakers prefer to use English. I don’t know but I think a law will not work. There is a lot of anxiety and there are also many good practical solutions out there, it’s not easy but it’s not impossible to make Arabic the main language (alongside English) of its speakers now and in the future. Please share your thoughts as always.

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Source of article:

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/education/scholars-call-for-laws-to-protect-arabic-1.1330116

“We must make space for non-standard Arabic if we really care about FuSHa”: Interviews with Spoken Arabic language teachers

dialects I have mentioned previously, more than once that the relationship between standard (FuSHa) and non-standard (spoken) Arabic has for a long time, been one of tension and nervousness. The main reason being that many Arabic speakers view Classical /Standard Arabic (FuSHa) as flawless, perfect and as the language through which God chose to address mankind (Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam used in the Qur’an and hadeeth). Therefore, for many of these speakers learning, let alone teaching spoken Arabic in a systematic manner should not be done because it violates the sanctity of FuSHa. Some speakers also feel that if efforts are made to promote spoken Arabic, then FuSHa will not be understood by future Arabic speakers, this feeling is shared by many despite the fact that nobody actually casually speaks in FuSHa.

 

For the last couple of years I have been fascinated by the increase in spoken Arabic language classes here in London, and during a number of recent trips I found that this is also true in Arabic speaking majority countries. I began wondering why this was the case.  Why was there a renewed interest in spoken Arabic at a time when many educationists, Arabic language teachers and some Arabic speakers are warning against the waning and eventual death of the Arabic language? So I started reading about this phenomenon wherever I could (mostly from Arabic magazines/blogs), speaking to Arabic language teachers and I began writing about why it is done, how it is done and for whose benefit it is done. One of the avenues I took recently was to interview (via Skype & email correspondences) those who teach spoken Arabic systematically in a classroom setting with books and language education material. I wanted to find out why they teach spoken Arabic, what they think about the official learning of spoken Arabic, what their thoughts about the future of the Arabic language are, and how (if at all) their teaching of spoken Arabic impedes the development and learning of FuSHa in any way. I incorporate here the opinions and views of 3 spoken Arabic language teachers (Emarati Arabic, Levantine Arabic and Egyptian Arabic), I thank them again for agreeing to be interviewed, for being so open and honest, and I will keep two of these teachers anonymised as per their request.

To begin, I asked the Spoken Arabic (SA) teachers why they taught SA instead of FuSHa. The first teacher Hanan AlFardan who is the managing director of the AlRamsa Institute in Dubai, UAE (http://www.alramsa.ae/), and who is also a teacher at the centre said,

“I teach Emarati dialect because no one speaks Modern Classic Arabic, FuSHa. All the students that I met want to learn spoken Arabic rather than reading and writing. The purpose of teaching Emarati Arabic is to help non-Arabic speakers engage with Emarati and Arabic communities. Communication and engagement between Emaratis and non-Emarati communities is my mission”.

And a worthy mission it is indeed, because many expatriates living in the Arab speaking world do not ever get the chance to learn Arabic and communicate freely with the native Arabs of the country or indeed their other Arab colleagues in Arabic.

Asmaa (psuedonym) teaches Egyptian Arabic in London, I asked her the same question,  and she answered, “I teach Egyptian (Cairene dialect) to non-Arabic speakers who want to settle in Egypt or to British- born Egyptian children, who have a non-Egyptian mother or father and they wish to learn the dialect. This could be because they want to communicate with their relatives back in Egypt or to feel more “Egyptian”. Many come to me not knowing how to read Arabic and the first thing I do is teach them the Arabic alphabet and we take it from there. As for the non-Arabic speakers, well, I teach them using English Roman letters and not the alphabet [because] it takes too long”.

This may come as a shock to many Arabic speakers, that non-native Arabic speakers are taught Arabic using the Roman alphabet! Such a decision may be because these teachers are doing the best they can with the time they have and their teaching methods are dictated by the individual reasons each of their students have for learning SA (work, family, identity).

Ruba (psuedonym) agreed with Asmaa and she teaches non-native Arabic speakers Damascene Arabic using Roman letters if they are adults or only need the dialect to communicate quickly and effectively. She says that she teaches people Damascene Arabic because, “I love my dialect, I feel that it has meanings in it that I cannot find even in FuSHa, I do it also because people want to learn it for work purposes, for study purposes, or for personal interest or to feel “Syrian” again!”. She also gets students who are Syrians but are born in Britain or have never learned to speak their dialect, and now as adults they wish to learn Damascene Arabic for identity purposes.  Hanan also has native-Emarati student saying,  “Most of my students are non-Arabic speakers. However, I have some Emarati students who want to learn the Emarati dialect. Some of them [were] born outside the UAE, and spent years abroad and they’ve now come back. Unfortunately, if you don’t have access to spoken Arabic at home, there is no other proper way to learn it. Most of the books available are in FuSHa or basic Gulf Arabic”. Which obviously does not help those who need to learn the SA and have no formal education in FuSHa.

Arabic-Dialect-class

The issue of scarce materials to learn SA was brought up by the teachers many times, and that is why Hanan is making her own text books to be used at the AlRamsa institute, because the books available now are not made for classroom teaching. They were made for language learners going on holiday to these Arabic countries, or as accounts of the words people in those countries use. Ruba and Asmaa have to improvise mostly, using already published materials, but again they have to make their own resources, but both inform me that, they are in the process of publishing simple text books to aid learners of SA.

I also asked the teachers, in relation to question 1, that, some people may say that you are corrupting Arabic by teaching SA, what do you say to that? Hanan said, “Yes, I hear some people saying that. However, no Arab speaks FuSHa at the end of the day…I understand that FuSHa is important and I fully support teaching students in schools and universities in FuSHa but we need to offer the option of learning dialects for people who are interested in learning the dialect.”

Asmaa says “I am not corrupting Arabic in any way, I am simply teaching my SA to those who wish to learn. I think for a long time many non-Arabic speakers felt that learning to converse with Arabs in their everyday language would be near-impossible, and that they would have to learn FuSHa first. But in the last 10 years many of those eager to understand the Arab through his dialect have realised that they can learn just the spoken without the Standard Arabic. And I think as an Arabic teacher, I too have realised that yes, I can do this I can teach my SA, and it will not affect FuSHa in any way”.

Ruba agreed once again with both Hanan and Asmaa and added that “If we as Arabic speakers are serious about the future and the current state of the Arabic language, then we should do something about it through our education systems and media. And we must make space for spoken Arabic if we really care about FuSHa, we act as if we are ashamed that we have this other spoken form of Arabic. There is nothing to be ashamed of, it is a part of who we are, the quicker we acknowledge that, the quicker we can sort out the mess we are in right now!” Strong words from Ruba here, and it may be the way many experienced Arabic teachers view the whole situation, that language is a natural consequence and that in the case of Arabic we must find a way to reconcile the many components of the language, and not overcomplicate its nature and allow that to get in the way of Arabic developing as a modern language.

Finally, I asked each of the teachers, how they viewed the future of Arabic in their (home) countries and whether Arabic would be a major language, or if English will take over?  Hanan said, “I think English will be [the] dominating [language]. However, because Arabic language is so linked with Emarati identity and Islam, Arabic language will always be a priority for Arabs, [the] Emarati community and [the] government.”

spoken Arabic

Asmaa said, “For centuries, other languages have existed in Egypt alongside Arabic, and through all the years Arabic has always prevailed. I think that English will be a major language in Egypt as it will be in any other country in the world. But, I do not see it overtaking Arabic in a big way, and I think that there is a new sizeable group of young well-educated people (ironically from English-based universities), who make a point to use Arabic consciously, to read in Arabic and to speak to their children in Arabic. They feel that English will always be there and one can always learn it, but Arabic must take priority”.

Ruba gave a similar answer to Asmaa’s, ” I do not see English being the major language in Syria, I think there is a silent thing or rule or I don’t know something innate in Syrians, that as long as they live, as long as they have to communicate they will do so in Arabic, spoken and have a strong relation to FuSHa. We embrace other languages and learn them as long as they benefit us, but in the end Arabic will always be the majority language in Syria no matter what”. There is of course a difference between the situation of Arabic in the Gulf countries and Arabic in other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria (a topic for another say), but according to these Arabic teachers, it seems Arabic is here to stay even if English is a major language.

The interviews have provided a window into the world of teaching Spoken Arabic to non-Arabic speakers, or native speakers who have not, for one reason or another, had the chance to learn their dialects through their families. I realised that sometimes teachers use non-Arabic script to teach their students Arabic, as a way to speed up learning for those who want to learn the dialect just for communication purposes. All the teachers I interviewed explained that their teaching of Spoken Arabic does not affect FuSHa in any way, and one teacher said that in order for Arabic to thrive, its native speakers must change their view on the status of Spoken Arabic. I thoroughly enjoyed the interviews, and I would like to thanks  the teachers once more for taking their time to be interviewed. I look forward to comments on this story from readers as always, and finally, a big welcome to new subscribers to the blog, I hope you find Arabizi interesting.

Language development in young Emarati children to be explored

nanny with kidsThe relatively new Early Childhood Development centre launched in Abu Dhabi under the patronage of the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan AlNahyan Foundation, has began researching the effects foreign maids (may) have on the language development of young Emarati children. The centre is concerned with the development of children between the ages of 0-5 and language is an important area they are focussing on. Gulf News (08th Feb 2014) reports that,

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Child development experts in the UAE have long wondered if exposing children to nannies from foreign backgrounds at a young age could hamper their overall development.

A new study will now look into the effect of these nannies and other caregivers on children’s language skills, including fluency in their native tongue, the researcher told Gulf News.

“It is very common for children in the UAE, especially those from Arab families, to be taken care of by housemaids and nannies. These caregivers usually come from non-Arab backgrounds, and such exposure could have a significant impact on language abilities,” said Dr Huda Al Danhani, resident doctor at Tawam Hospital’s paediatrics department in Al Ain.

“Unfortunately, not much research exists on this phenomenon. My study will therefore focus specifically on language development, which takes place mainly between the ages of two and three,” she added.

The research will be conducted over the next year as Dr Huda pursues a fellowship at the philanthropic organisation, the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. For this first phase, Dr Huda will study children using information that is provided when families visit hospitals and nurseries across the UAE.

“I have not yet decided on a method of collecting information. But I hope to gather data on children’s knowledge of words, their ability to form sentences and other language skills,” Dr Huda said.

The aim is to determine how a caregiver’s background affects children’s language abilities, and to find out whether being brought up by someone from the same nationality or background could be more advantageous for the development of the native language.

“There are many other developmental aspects to look into when children are brought up by caregivers from foreign backgrounds, and perhaps in future phases I will study these as well,” Dr Huda said.

Hers is one among a series of projects that explore childhood development in the UAE. These studies are being organised by eight fellows as part of the one-year Shamsa Bint Mohammad Al Nahyan Fellowship, conducted in collaboration with experts from Yale University.logo_SHF

Another project will delve into the elements which make classrooms ‘emotionally literate’, and is being carried out by Sara Al Suwaidi, acting manager of the pedagogy and resources section at the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec).

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The question of whether maids have an effect on children’s language development (or not) in the Gulf has been asked and discussed for many years, and I think it was an obvious choice for researchers to start with this topic. One example is the work in Saudi Arabia by esteemed Prof. Reima Al-Jarf at King Saud University, who has explored how maid’s in Saudi homes have an effect on the acquisition of Arabic by children. I don’t know her methodology or what the findings were and I have been unsuccessful in tracking those down (so if anyone reading this knows where I can get that paper/study please email me- thank you in advance). But apparently it is an area of study that some of the students at that university have/ are carrying out research on.

So now it seems it’s the turn of the UAE. I think that it will be very interesting to find out how the researchers will measure this (effect, if any), what variables they will put in place, and more importantly how long they will give themselves to collect that necessary data. Then once the data is collected, how will they interpret it and understand it, so that it can inform future practice in the country. It is important research, these are important questions, but their significance can only be realised if a strong and robust epistemological approach in methodology and interpretation is used.  I look forward to finding out more about the study and I am sure it will be significant. any suggestions, information or opinions on this story are welcomed as always. A warm welcome to new readers and as always thank you to all those who send in emails, I really appreciate it.

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2013 a good year for Arabic?

2013And so we enter a new year, and with it hopes and wishes that the world becomes a better place for people to live in. Welcome to new readers and thanks to those readers who comment, contribute or send in email with suggestions and constructive criticisms- I really appreciate them all, thank you. This short post is a review of the initiatives, activities, conferences and efforts to promote or re-instate Arabic language as the legitimate and proper language of native Arabic speakers in their home countries during 2013. These efforts are of course directly linked to the belief (of some) policy makers, educators and speakers in Arabic speaking countries who bemoan the danger they believe Arabic language finds itself in.

In looking over some of these fears and anxieties, take for example, the case of educators and teachers in the UAE who complained that many students prefer to use English as opposed to Arabic even in non-education/school settings.This of course is nothing new and definitely pre-dates 2013, but it’s a fear and complaint that is raised again and again. The teachers were further horrified because it was the parents who were demanding that their children be excused from the classes. Why? Because the parents argued that the children did not need formal instruction in Arabic since the language os instruction at university (the non-Arabic based ones) is English, (read more here).

The other anxiety in the UAE is the number of foreign non-Arabic speaking workers who outnumber the native Arabic speakers, which obviously makes it difficult to converse in Arabic in public. The writer of this article is frustrated with the difficult situation that the UAE needs foreigners to build its country and yet the price it may have to pay is the loss of the Arabic language (read more here).

As a way of discussing the issues surrounding the current state of the Arabic language in Arabic speaking countries, a conference was organised in Mid-2013 in Dubai. It was the Second International Conference on Arabic Language, organised by the International Council for Arabic Language in cooperation with Unesco, the Association of Arab Universities and the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States. The conference panelists discussed the state of the Arabic language in many of the Arab countries and many agreed that the curricula used for teaching needed urgent attention. Some of the experts blamed globalisation, others the pervasive use and nature the English language is taking on in these countries, and apparently the use of Arabizi (Roman characters and Arabic numbers) in speech and text, and other dangers were also discussed (read more here).

The other anxiety in the UAE is the low numbers of children who are able to read and write in Arabic without difficulty. The concern was so serious that an initiative was taken to present these concerns to a minister and presented as a case that needed to be addressed urgently. But, I must say this is not true just in the UAE, there are other countries in which students do not know how to read Arabic either (read more here). There are also students (together with their families) who do not see the benefit in mastering how to read and write Arabic and deliberately refuse to take the classes or care about their proficiency (it is their linguistic right, and I think any meaningful research into the so-called demise of Arabic language as a result of neglect from its speakers must also take this group into consideration when studying the topic!).

A panel of researchers were appointed at the end of 2012-April 2013 to understand the issues and challenges facing Arabic in the UAE by the Dubai government. The researchers all agreed that the Arabic language is not dead but that it needs better and more innovative teaching styles in order to revive an interest of the language within the students and their parents. So far I think this is a more productive manner through which to gauge the situation of the Arabic language, by way of study and research and to then produce a manageable plan by which teachers and educators can work (read more here). It would be great to see the notes/ papers presented at the conference or the report itself to understand how this study was carried out during those six months.

Again in response to the fears and once again based on some research it was announced in Dubai that the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) would oversee and ensure that all Arabic teachers employed in Dubai were of a high standard. This means teachers are to be assessed throughly for their knowledge of the language and their teaching methods (read more here). It sounds like a good idea and it would be great to see what the outcome will be in 5 years from now, would they have ensured that all teachers are at the same high standard? How would they measure the impact of this new initiative?

The Sharjah Government has also set out plans for improving the acquisition and maintenance of Arabic language for its native speakers. This will be achieved through supplying each student and teacher in the emirate of Sharjah with a tablet, according to the article this is initiative is the first of its kind in the Arab world (read more here). This seems like a good idea and perhaps a creative step away from the old traditional text books that relied on rote learning, again this is another initiative the needs to be looked at closely there may be a solution in it- who knows?

Finally, the creative twofour54 in Abu Dhabi aims to revive Sesame Street in Arabic, they hope and claim that this will help and promote the Arabic language and make it fun for the children. See that article here, I am working to get a comment directly from them about this initiative and I hope to write about it soon.

The Taghreedaat initiative that I have written about many times before have worked very hard in 2013 to make as much online content as possible available in Arabic. This year they ventured with help of volunteers to arabize: Whatsapp, TED (and in 2014 they will have special segment at the TED Global in Arabic for the first time in the history of TED), Khan Academy, and GameLoft among other online content. So it seems that 2013 was yet another busy year for policy makers, academics and educators who believe Arabic deserves a place in this modern and rapidly developing world, and more importantly in the lives of future native Arabic speakers. I chose these particular aspects about the Arabic language to give an overview of the fears, but more importantly the initiatives suggested to overcome and address those fears. Some of these anxieties are baseless whilst others have research as evidence, in all more research needs doing to understand the sociolinguistic situation of the Arabic language among its native speakers.

My next blog post will be an interview with an Arabic language teacher (but what kind? You’ll have to wait and see) so watch out for it, and my first review on Arabizi books is about to go up as well. Thanks for reading, and comments are welcome especially from those countries I have not mentioned.

Sources:

http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/arabic-language-is-losing-ground

http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/foreign-workforce-poses-challenge-to-arabic-language

http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/heritage/alarm-bells-over-future-of-arabic-language

http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/education/poor-literacy-in-arabic-is-the-new-disability-in-the-uae-fnc-told

http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/education/tough-new-tests-for-prospective-arabic-teachers-in-dubai

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/education/smart-education-for-arabic-language-1.1234641

Globalisation- a problem or solution for Arabic?

Globalisation Last month I posted a comment written by SLC with regards to the similarities between the Arabic and Greek diglossic situations, today I post the third and final part of our discussion below. This part delves into the role globalisation may play in the current situation (confusion, uncertainty) of the Arabic language, and it is in response to a point I made……

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Now on to your next point, about whether globalisation is to blame for the current problems of Arabic:

“One may argue that globalisation has nothing to do with it, you just have to look at China, Russia, Germany and all the other very modern, very successful countries who have maintained their mother tongues …”

Yes, I agree, and I’d like to add Japan to your list of examples. Japan has been fully engaged with globalisation for several generations now, including an American military occupation with enough cultural influence to make baseball and American football into popular sports with a mass audience. Japanese has also adopted thousands of loanwords from English. Yet if you are Japanese you can describe yourself as a “sarariman” with a “modan-na gaarufurendo” (a salary-man with a modern girlfriend) without feeling your language is under threat at all. Indeed more than half of the Japanese vocabulary already consists of loanwords from Chinese, but even over many centuries the Japanese have never seemed in any danger of being culturally overwhelmed by China. The Japanese language has simply evolved structures that enable loanwords to fit comfortably into a Japanese sentence. (The “-na” in my example is one of these. It gives the loanword “modan” that distinctive halfway-to-being-a-verb quality that Japanese adjectives have, and works equally well with loanwords from any language.) The Japanese language is in no danger at all despite military disaster, occupation, globalisation, and tens of thousands of loanwords.

So, for example, the Japanese took ‘pocket’ and ‘monster’, adapted them to Japanese phonology as ‘poketto’ and ‘monsutaa’, abbreviated them to ‘poke-mon’, and sent them back to us as the global Pokemon franchise. This is how language exchange should be: playful and relaxed, both sides gain, and both languages are enriched. Language exchange is definitely not a zero-sum game, where a gain for one is by definition a loss for the other.

The same thing applies to the rest of culture in general. The Japanese took Western comic books and cartoon films, gave them a uniquely Japanese flavour and sent them back to us as manga and anime, now global in their turn. This is what a healthy linguistic culture is like; it doesn’t cower away from foreign influences, blaming them for everything that goes wrong in the country. Instead it embraces those cultural imports, improves them and sends them right back out again.

The often cited ‘globalisation fact’ that “Computer manuals are all in English” is not too much of a problem for the Japanese either, since their language has already assimilated all the technical vocabulary as loanwords. The Japanese for “error log” is “eraa rogu”. So when a Japanese computer engineer reads an English manual, he is already familiar with all the technical terms. Together with some basic English grammar remembered from school, this is usually enough to get by. Notice how much more difficult all this would have been if some purist National Language Academy had enforced the use of invented words based on Japanese roots for things like “error log”.

So the Japanese language, full of loanwords though it is, still feels completely Japanese, and one of the things that gives it that quality is its uniquely rich system of registers, or politeness levels. (This is where I come back to the idea of registers …) I won’t describe any of the details here, just point to the Wikipedia article on Keigo. But the important thing is that wherever you are on the politeness spectrum, from barking a reprimand to a military subordinate at the bottom, up to formally congratulating the Emperor at the top, the basic sentence structure doesn’t change. As you go up the scale the vocabulary changes (often in several steps, and even for quite basic words like “I” and “do”), and the phrasing grows longer and more flowery, but there is never a step-change in the grammar like a different way of expressing “not”, or the sudden introduction of a new set of inflections (as there would be in switching up from ECA to MSA). This means that you have quite a fine-grained control of politeness level; whatever nuance of social position you want to assert, there will be suitable language available.

When you’ve seen the way Japanese handles such an elaborate system of levels so smoothly, you realise that code-switching in Arabic is doing something linguistically quite different (although of course with the same social purpose); it is mixing two different languages, with nothing in between (or at best embedding chunks of one language in sentences of the other). There’s a simple way to demonstrate this. In Japanese, about halfway up the politeness spectrum, there is a ‘Neutral Polite’ style. This is the one that foreigners always learn first; everyone will understand you, you won’t offend anyone, and native-speakers won’t feel awkward replying to you at the same level (this is the only level I personally can use with any competence). Of course all languages with registers have a neutral polite level like this; it’s just particularly well-defined in Japanese.

But is there anything similar in, say, Egypt? A well-defined language level that foreigners can learn, and everyone can use, half-way between the formality of CA and the alleged street-slang of ECA? Well, if the ‘official’ position were true, and CA and ECA were simply different registers of a single all-embracing fuSHa, there would be. But there isn’t. A foreigner like Haeri (or me) has to learn CA and ECA as two different languages, and then learn how to mix them.

Again, I can think of only one parallel for this situation, and it is 1880s Greece, when even the most talented writers like Roidis and Xenopoulos struggled in vain to find a usable formality-level in between katharevousa and demotic. It’s not coincidence that Roidis was driven to coin the word ‘diglossia’ in 1885 to describe this unusual – and in his opinion, thoroughly unsatisfactory – split between the two forms of his language.

Right then, that’s the end of my digression on the register-spectrum vs separate-languages question. Now back to globalisation!

Despite the wealth of counter-examples provided by other countries, I know that some people do still claim that globalisation is the threat. Here’s one from bikyanews.com on 8th May 2013:

“DUBAI: United Arab Emirates Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan said on Thursday that the greatest threat to the Arabic language, as well as Islam, was the rising influence of globalization and the shrinking of the world.”

If I’d been invited to the conference he was opening (on the theme “Arabic Language in Danger: All Are Partners in Protection”) I would have asked: “Other countries have been much more exposed to globalisation than the Arab world, until recently at least, without their languages being weakened. Indeed some of them (like Japanese) thrive on it. The influence of English is the same for everybody. So if globalisation really is the threat, what makes Arabic so much more vulnerable to it than all the other languages?”

I’d then have presented the best counter-example of all: the Arabic and Muslim culture of the Abbasid Golden Age itself, when Islam and especially the institution of the Hajj promoted international links, which shrank the world, facilitated trade, and allowed Islam in turn to spread along the trade routes. Islam, Arabic, trade, and the globalisation of the Old World all reinforced each other with a kind of cultural feedback. How else did Islam reach Indonesia, and Zanzibar, and Xinjiang? They were far beyond the reach of Umar’s armies.

And the Arabs of the Golden Age did exactly what the Japanese do today: they took the best of foreign culture, improved it, and sent it back out again. They took chess and decimal numerals from India and sent them on to Europe; they took mathematics and astronomy from Greece, added algebra and hundreds of star-names and technical terms, and sent them all back out again. It was a “healthy linguistic culture”, as I said of Japan a few paragraphs ago, and all sides gained. So surely globalisation was always an integral part of Arabic culture at its strongest and best? Whatever is wrong with the Arabic language, it’s not going to be globalisation.

I’m actually very puzzled by the whole tone of the Minister’s statement (at least as reported by bikyanews.com), and especially by the slogan “Partners in Protection”. He sounds as if he is speaking for a tiny Amazonian tribe under threat from global logging and mining companies. For a small tribe whose safety has always depended mainly on isolation and keeping out of sight, then yes, the shrinking of the world would indeed bring threats. They would need “protection”, probably in the form of reinforced and managed isolation.

But what on earth does this have to do with Islam, which always used to be so outward-looking? Surely long-distance trade and pilgrimage were a way of life for the very first Muslims, even before Umar’s conquests? Why should Arabic and Islam (please note that it’s the Minister who is bracketing them together, not me) suddenly need isolation and “protection” now, when for so many centuries they didn’t?

Anyway, that’s enough about globalisation. And I’ll leave the question of whether a “threat to the Arabic language” is the same thing as a “threat to Islam” (as implied by the Minister’s statement) for another occasion.

In the next post I’ll get back to the parallel with Greek.

SLC

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globalisation and language

Thank you SLC once again for a detailed response and a wonderfully-informed discussion on the topic. I will not make the response long, So I will address your response in a point-by-point format so that I address the issues I think may help us understand how similar or different to one another Arabic and Greek are in their diglossic natures, and the role of globalisation:

1. You are right, globalisation usually receives much negative press mainly due to the role it has played in the “killing off” of minority languages around the world. Hence, it becomes a charged word and cannot be viewed for its benefits (if any) and it that carries the connotations of taking away but not of giving positively. Your example of Japanese is perhaps one of the positive effects globalisation may have in certain situations. The way the Japanese have embraced English (and before that Chinese) is not only practical, but may even be seen by some as a revolt against English. How? Well, instead of speaking English, they bend, change, transform and manipulate English words into their own language and grammar so that they remain authentically Japanese. But by embracing and using English in this way, they modernise themselves and are able to then discuss and express ideas about modern-day phenomena in their own tongue. Arabic did that with Persian, Hebrew & Abyssinian words (some of which are in fact in the Qur’an itself), and English did the same with Arabic, French, Latin and Spanish words and so on because it is a consequence of language contact. This way children, and new learners of Japanese still have to learn the strict grammar regardless of whether the word has English or Chinese or indeed origins from any other language. Arabic speakers still have to decide how they will embrace English words, they have, and the process is being done, but I don’t think to the level of how Japanese has done it.

2. You are right again, and I have said this before- that during that time of the Arabian Golden Age Arabic thrived in a multilingual, multicultural and definitely a globalised environment. It did take what it saw as beneficial and good from other cultures and languages and adapted it to suit its own needs. There are also other historical, cultural and political aspects of language and religion that we do not have the space to go into, that also contributed to this strong fearless linguistic tradition. The situation of Arabic today, is most definitely not that of the Golden Age, and neither do today’s speakers possess the same view held by those at the time. We must also remember that the power has now shifted and those Arabs of the Golden Age were (in today’s terms) advanced and part of the first world, they were the trendsetters. Arabic language for the modern Arab world is more than just words, more than just Classic or spoken forms- it’s an identity, a culture, a history that for many cannot be forgotten. They fight for the Classic because it defines their history and cultural heritage, and they fight for the Spoken because it is the most authentic way in which to express themselves. As the notable Egyptian writer Naguib mahfouz said in a letter he wrote to luwis Awad: “Language duality is not a problem but an innate ability. It is an accurate reflection of a duality that exists in all of us, a duality between our mundane daily life and our spiritual one” (taken from Reem Bassiouney, 2009, Arabic Linguistics, p.28). So you see the struggle and reality! (I know you’ve read the book). Many Arabic speakers think that any new introductions will only contribute to the destruction of Arabic, that mind and view obviously needs to change.

3. As for the tone of panic for the loss of Arabic and it’s need for protection as if “it’s an Amazonian” tribe (your words!) is perhaps because the minister has had first hand experience of young Arab children not being proficient in their mother tongue. I think for a long time many policy makers were under the impression that as long as children learned to read the Qur’an and as long as they had Arabic speaking parents, then their children would obviously learn Arabic. They did not (esp. in the case of the Gulf) consider the effect of maids (who by the way are not proficient in both Arabic or English, and instead speak a form of pidgin) and other contributing factors during the early stages of language acquisition. And so when they are faced with the true linguistic situation, it may come as a shock, and they lament that Arabic will die and with it Islam! That’s the only reason I can think of why there may be a panic or alarm every time the future of Arabic is spoken about. As for why Islam is also under threat from globalisation, I don’t know, and I don’t think it is. But, it maybe because the Qur’an is in Arabic, and if Arabic dies they think the Qur’an will too; but you are right it is a topic for another post.

Finally, I wanted to address this paragraph you wrote, I am pasting it here: “But is there anything similar in, say, Egypt? A well-defined language level that foreigners can learn, and everyone can use, half-way between the formality of CA and the alleged street-slang of ECA? Well, if the ‘official’ position were true, and CA and ECA were simply different registers of a single all-embracing fuSHa, there would be. But there isn’t. A foreigner like Haeri (or me) has to learn CA and ECA as two different languages, and then learn how to mix them”

There is a variety that is not so formal and not so street-like either, we refer to that as educated Arabic. It uses words from both registers, and speakers usually pronounce most of the case markings, it makes a person look educated yet not too superficial through the use of CA only, and not too informal by using only “spoken” words. You would simply learn how to mix them from how other speakers use this variety, but it does exist. Which brings us back to the question, are they varieties of one language or are they two different languages? I still say they are varieties and not two different languages and that Arabic is in fact diglossic. But it is something as Arabic sociolinguistics, that we are constantly concerned with and interested in, so I think that with more research we may one day fully understand the relationship between the varieties. Thank you again for contributing to this interesting and fruitful discussion about Arabic and globalisation. Please feel free to add your comments below.

I should also welcome new readers and new subscribers, welcome to Arabizi and I hope you will find the posts useful. Wishing everyone a prosperous and wonderful 2014.

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