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“The Arabic Language: DNA of a Nation” yet the challenges are many

26 Apr

Herbs & Spices in Souk market in Amman

In this post, I continue with some of the themes from Al Marzouqi’s translation (which generated much interest and emails both positive and some negative, I think some Arabic speakers prefer to blame “outside forces” for the situation of Arabic…but that’s a topic for another post) on the challenges facing Arabic. I paste below an excerpt from a report by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute) titled: “The Arabic language: DNA of a nation”, which was part of their first annual conference on the theme “language and identity”.

The author discusses some of the most challenging issues facing the Arabic language in Arabic speaking countries today. The major issue here is the existence of the very many spoken dialects (which are unwritten) against that of the standard written Arabic  (MSA) or Classical Arabic (however people classify it) and the expectation that children need to learn, master and be competent in both. It is a challenge and such a rich language dynamic should not endanger the language, rather it should make it unique, but the problem is that lack of a systematic system is what endangers the speakers to losing their language. In addition to this the language medium of education in Arab countries is English or French (Syria is the exception, Iraq was too once…I think that’s why most people will agree that the Arabic of the Syrians just outdoes everyone else’s) which for many language ecologists further hinders speakers from learning their mother tongue well. There are efforts to overcome these issues, for example Zayed university in the UAE and Qatar University in Qatar are working to introduce in certain subjects Arabic as the language of instruction. Perhaps in a decade or so we will be able to see the effectiveness of the programs at the respective universities through the Arabic proficiency of their graduates in other spheres of life like the workplace. Diglossia (triglossia or the existence of many dialects used for many different reason mainly official vs. non-official) does not have to be a problem it just has to be managed- that for now seems to be a challenge. The article is below without editing….

—————-29th March 2012

Non-native students of Arabic are often taken aback by just how much the standard, written form of Arabic differs from the various vernaculars; being frustrated in their attempts to learn the written form of the language, it’s usually quite difficult for them to appreciate how involved and emotional is the relationship between the written Arabic Language (“Modern Standard”) and Arabic speakers from Morocco to Bahrain. Sentimentality aside, however, there is a growing sense of urgency amongst Arab scholars about the need to bring standards of written Arabic in line with contemporary needs; this palpable feeling came out in force during the three days of the ACRPS annual conference on the social sciences and humanities.

Lacking any kind of effective centralized political or cultural authority, it seems a wonder that there is anything even approaching a common Arabic language to begin with. So the pressing economic, social and technological demands for constant standardization of the language and its styles take up a major part of the public discourse within Arab countries. The multiplicity of cursive writing forms and the vocalizations (or lack thereof) in many Arabic language manuscripts have an aesthetic value which raises them to an art form, but often prove impractical in digitized texts. Long before digital record-keeping was imagined, a proto-Arabic language emerged in the area to the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Making matters more complicated, a large part of the higher education in almost all Arab countries (Syria being a notable exception) is conducted in a “colonial language”, with English being the medium of instruction throughout most of the Middle East, and French taking prominence in the Arab Maghreb; a further obstacle to the formation of a cohesive Arab culture of the academy.

One of the speakers at the ACRPS meeting was the eminent Lebanese scholar and historian of the Arabic language, Ramzi Baalbaki. Baalbaki explained to his audience in Doha his position about the common origins of what are referred to as “Northern Arabian” (widely held to be the one reflected in present-day written language) and “Southern Arabian”, which was otherwise viewed to be closer to Amharic. According to Baalbaki, the importance of his theory of a common origin for the two forms is that it highlights the way in which trade routes tied together dispersed communities along the eastern coast of Arabia, centered, according to Baalbaki, around the village of Al Faw where the oldest Arabic inscriptions (dating back to the Fourth Century BC) have been found. In other words, the Arabic language became the “DNA of a nation”, becoming a repository of its common cultural lineage.

While an awareness of the central importance of the Arabic language to the future of a common Arab identity is widespread, use of Arabic is under constant attack in everyday life. The Palestinian hydrologist Abdulrahman Tamimi, whose intervention was focused mainly on political and economic themes in Palestine, took the time to explain how the education of the children of the economic elites in foreign-medium schools was leading to the social marginalization of the other sectors of society. Tying it to questions of the privatization of public utilities, Tamimi concluded that “what we need is not more economic re-structuring, but a reinvigoration of our national consciousness”.

Another speaker at the ACRPS event was Idriss Maqboul whose paper was provocatively titled “Educational Institutions:  Waging war on the Arabic language and identity”. According to Maqboul, profit-driven educational institutions which dominate the landscape within Arab countries and are also incredibly culturally influential, have promoted the use of foreign languages and even foreign syntactic styles at the expense of the Arabic language.

Many dialects, one language

Within the Arab Homeland, much of the scholarly output concerned with issues of language and identity is produced in three countries of the Arab Maghreb: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. This is-arguably-the result of the way in which the French colonial powers were ruthless in imposing a Francophone regime on those Arab countries which they occupied. In post-independence Algeria, which had technically been a one of the Department of France and not a colony, the newly freed country had found itself with a bureaucracy, military cadres and academics and educationalists who were far more comfortable in French than in Arabic. Alongside this was another French legacy of the promotion of minority languages and local nationalisms at the expense of single, homogenous national identities: Ironically, it was France, which had used blood and iron to impose a unified national consciousness on what had been a diverse community of dialects and localisms, had chosen to exacerbate localisms within the Arab countries which it dominated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion on the Arabic language within the ACRPS conference was led by scholars from Maghreb countries.

One of these was the Moroccan scholar Abdulkader Al Fassi Al Faheri, whose paper was titled “Politics and economics of linguistic identity and language of instruction: Case studies for the preservation of unity within diversity”. Al Fassi’s research depicts the situation of Morocco as one where the “national languages” of both Arabic and Amazigh (or “Berber”) are in conflict against the language of the former occupier, France. Al Fassi Al Faheri echoed some of the concerns of Abdulrahman Tamimi, stating in his paper that, since the drafting of the new constitution (in 2011):

“there are [efforts under way to] invest French …officially…as the language of the ruling elites, of powerful economic, political and cultural groups, and, conversely, to keep Arabic in its present position of being the language of the toilers, which would be simply to recognize the de-facto situation as it stands.”

In the view of Al Fassi Al Faheri, and countless others from, in particular, the Arab Maghreb, the problem began with the failure of the governments of Arab states to enact and enforce legislation which would protect the official status of the Arabic language*. Of course, one obvious observation would be to note that this in itself is a reflection of French influence on the way to solve these problems; France, with its Academe Nationale and its strict rules on translating foreign words which come into use within its territory, had done so much to undo the Arabic language in the territories it occupied Africa’s northern shore. Yet all of these issues begged a double question: What role was there for grassroots initiatives? What happened of previous efforts to promote the Arabic language within the educational institutions of other Arab countries?

For the polyglot country of Sudan has some very compelling reasons to promote the teaching of Arabic as the de-facto national language of education and bureaucracy. As detailed in the presentation of Kamel Al Khider from Sudan, who spoke at the ACRPS Annual Conference, Sudan’s efforts to integrate the Arabic language into public life came pre-date the country’s independence, and were first enunciated at a 1938 conference of Sudanese graduates, which demanded the end of the Egyptian-British Condominium which had ruled the country since the mid-nineteenth century.

It is also worth mentioning here a fact often overlooked by many when looking at the history of Sudan: It had never been conquered as part of the wave of Arab-Islamic conquests which fanned out from the Arabian Peninsula which fanned out from the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-seventh century. Instead, the Sudanese had adopted the Arabic language and come to identify as Arabs through a process of cultural osmosis. Despite this, Sudan became one of the first independent Arab states to Arabize its secondary school curricula, in 1965 as set out by Al Khider.

While efforts to Arabize the terminology and language of modern education and scholarship were to be found in a number of different countries and were motivated primarily by emotive considerations-at least on the individual level-self-criticism of these efforts and rational examination of the implementation has been a feature of Arabization efforts since the very beginning; Al Khider also cited in his paper the records of the deliberations between members of a committee set up to examine the hardships associated with creating Arabic language curricula for a variety of academic disciplines, including, most poignantly, the difficulty of preparing a competent cadre of teaching staff capable of teaching in Arabic.

Participants in the Conference convened in Doha from as far afield as Morocco, as far north as Syria and as far south as Sudan and Yemen, for three days of involved academic discussions about issues of language and identity, alongside the other topics. None reported having problems having difficulty understanding each other.

—-* For an example of such a discussion, see Mahmod Athawdi and “The Tunisian Revolution: whither the sovereignty of the Arabic language?” which was translated into English and published on the ACRPS website in July of 2011.—–end

Short but well explained and it does serve as an introduction to the subject as a whole for interested researchers. I thought it would make a good part for my post this time round….I hope you enjoyed reading it and comments are always welcome (the constructive kind). I am still waiting for my second author on the Pioneers of Arabic posts like the one I did for Noura Al Nouman…so please bear with me I have not forgotten.

Source: http://english.dohainstitute.org/Home/Details?entityID=f4c16d5a-893e-4b10-bce4-fda7bb6493c7&resourceId=eea8c65e-6193-445a-9928-4b14a438c859

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5 responses to ““The Arabic Language: DNA of a Nation” yet the challenges are many

  1. Mohamed

    April 26, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks for this write up. I do disagree with some generalizations here i.e the Arabic of the Syrians outdoes everyone else. It is true that having Arabic as the language of instruction makes the Syrians and Iraqi’s better equipped to speak or write about scientific domains. But this is domains specific. I’m from Morocco originally, and studied math and science in French. But I also memorized the Koran by the age of 6, and studied all other non-scientific subjects in Arabic. There was also an Arabization and my younger brother studied much of the sciences in Arabic. The point of my comment is that it’s a much more complicate issue than just introducing Arabic as the language of instruction. I think opening the borders between Arab countries and giving more attention to the spoken Arabic dialect is the only way to bring the Arabic speakers closer. What makes matter even more complicated is globalization. Even the French are dropping their language and are seeking instruction in English because that’s the language of science and business. Sorry for the unorganized and long comment. I am very interested in the subject of dialosia, and that’s why I just had to comment. :)

     
    • FFSS

      April 28, 2012 at 10:16 am

      Thank you Mohamed for stopping by and sharing your thoughts that’s what I want the posts to do- to generate a discussion. The matter of language of instruction being Arabic is only one piece of the jigsaw that makes up a ‘healthy-language system’, and it is a basic simple contribution to language maintenance that many people take for granted. But in the current case where Arabic is deteriorating amongst its native speakers, the first and simplest move is to re-introduce Arabic as the language of instruction and then look at other important matters in the jigsaw. I agree there are other Arabs apart from Syrians and Iraqis who have excellent levels of Arabic, my comment was a general one aimed at making the point that because these countries take Arabic so seriously the evidence of proficiency is in their people (I thought their proficiency in the arts was also brilliant?). The other factor that helps maintain a language is the ideology behind it, the importance and value that language has to its speakers, for many people who perfect their Arabic, they see it as their language that defines them, their culture etc…and so they double their efforts in learning it.

      Yes the issue is much more complicated and deeper than simply speaking to each other in Arabic and teaching in Arabic. Giving attention to spoken dialects is important and perhaps a move that will ensure the revival of Arabic language. All these points are just suggestions and no one will know if they will be successful or not until they are tried out, theory is just that an idea until people implement it. I am not sure about opening up borders and how that will help? The complications that exist will not be erased simply by opening up borders but that’s something perhaps I can read on because I have no idea about it. No doubt globalisation is a huge issue not just for Arabic language but for the many other languages around thew world, some of which have become extinct. You are right there are many issues, I just present them one at a time and I try to report on the good and the not-so-good decisions made for the Arabic language in our world today. Thank you for your lively and enthusiastic comment, it was not unorganised…I look forward to more of your contributions- thank you again!

       
  2. Tabish Akram

    December 29, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Arabic is important because most of the religious transcripts are in Arabic. At the time of independence Arabic was proposed as a national language in Pakistan I think this would have been a very good decision as language is one of the barriers among Muslim counties. On the other hand if we see Arabic parallel to English and other international languages a lot of research needs to be done.

     
    • FatmaS

      January 5, 2013 at 10:58 am

      Thanks Tabish for the comment, there is a lot of research actually carried out on the Arabic language in both English and Arabic. I think the issue here is interest in the subject by non-academics because within academia there is much to be read and learned about the language. As for seeing it like English, I am not sure because different people have a different experience and different feelings towards the English language; perhaps the solution may be to see it like any other language worthy of respect- thanks again!

       

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