Arabic deserves a better chance of survival: The need to change perceptions

The teaching of the Arabic language or the education policy on teaching Arabic is often criticised for its rigid and removed approach in the way language is taught to native speakers of Arabic. It is often difficult for a child to leave the classroom and apply their learned Arabic with those he/she meets (of course there are reasons for this which we have discussed in other previous posts due to other factors, but the fact remains that the language policy needs to change). In the post below the author identities many important issues that affect Arabic language proficiency among native speakers and he predicts that Arabic language will die out soon if Arabic does not go beyond the classroom door and social attitudes do not change. It is pasted below without editing……
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Arabic will die out if it is locked up in classrooms

In his inaugural address to parliament last December, the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri kept mispronouncing words and whole phrases in Arabic, smirking the entire time.

Not only did the Georgetown-educated, English-speaking Mr Hariri laugh at his mistakes, but he also cackled when Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, asked him if he needed someone to help him out.

Being bad at Arabic is almost like being bad at an obscure sport, say croquet: no one particularly cares if you fail to grasp the quaint and overly complex techniques needed for mastery of the subject.

In Lebanon, French is the language of the learned and the sophisticated. The same is true in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and other former French colonies in the Arab world. Failing to speak proper French in those countries is a handicap in professional and social life.

In some circles, it is fashionable to make mistakes in modern standard Arabic and rather chic to be unacquainted with the meaning of a word or expression. In Morocco, the French word francisant, (French-educated) has a positive connotation. If you are francisant, it does not matter if you cannot speak Arabic. The preposterous part is that a so-called Arabist does not get away with the same glory-in-incompetence should their French leave something to be desired.

Fluency in French and English in the Middle East and North Africa has come to imply intelligence, erudition and even affluence, even if that person struggles with Arabic.

Many Arabs feel that speaking modern standard Arabic, the form of the language taught at school, is something of a burdensome, if not embarrassing, endeavour. It is not the local dialect that they use at home and on the street, which they speak with ease.

Proficiency in Arabic, proper grammar, conjugation and a broad use of vocabulary are seen as the sole purview of language geeks. It is bizarre that they are looked down upon, while those Arabs who spent time ploughing through Chaucer and Coleridge, Rabelais and Pascal to become proficient in English and French are respected.

What has happened that once-proud Arabs, who once would kill or be killed for a single verse of poetry, gauge their level of intelligence by how little they know of their mother tongue? Perhaps, it is because true Arabic is no longer their mother tongue.

It is an obvious, if little known fact that modern standard Arabic is no longer anybody’s mother tongue. No one in the world speaks it as a native language. The 350 million people spread across the 22 Arab states learn this language in school in the same way they might learn French or English. They make horrendous mistakes when they write, read or speak it. Even many Arab Muslim senior citizens can barely understand a sentence of a Friday sermon because the preacher delivers his lecture in modern standard Arabic.

All Arabs know Arabic, but a Tunisian speaks Tunisian, a Libyan speaks Libyan, and an Egyptian speaks Egyptian. None of these is “proper” Arabic. Countless Arabs find that their friends from Morocco and Algeria may as well be speaking Greek when they speak in their native dialects.

True, these derivative languages bear a close resemblance to Arabic, but they are not, strictly speaking, Arabic. The extent to which they differ from pure Arabic is far greater than the comparitively minor difference between Kenyan and Scottish English.

A native tongue is – and some linguists may wish to differ – a language that you speak fluently. It is a language that defines who you are. No one faults an American or a Briton for the differences in their use of the English language. It is just how they speak and their distinct dialect defines them.

Arabs should not be asked to speak like the 10th-century poet Abu Tayyib al Mutanabbi. No one should expect English speakers to speak like Milton either. It is futile and fails to serve the ultimate purpose of language: ease of communication.

Languages die when they become stagnant. Latin has almost died out precisely because it was locked up in church bookshelves. Arabic, with its elasticity, rhetorical treasures and axiomatic wealth may suffer the same fate if its use is restricted to the classroom, the mosque, and the halls of government.

Arabic deserves a greater chance of survival than what it is currently being offered. Occasional events celebrating it will not push it into every day life. The language must get back in touch with the most mundane aspects of our lives. It must be allowed to grow and change, given room to breathe and stretch its legs out on the streets. Otherwise it will shrivel and die.

If you’re an Arab, ask yourself: how do you say “zipper” in your supposed mother tongue?

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I don’t think there is anything for me to add to the article, except to say that these issues he has brought up will always affect Arabic language if nothing is done to help the situation and improve it. It may seem negative and very pessimistic but anyone who speaks Arabic knows that everything raised in the article is precise and not exaggerated- Arabs no longer feel proud of their own language! But those who do, are few and love it with a passion that pushes them to master it. But if they were to bring this passion to their friends they would be ridiculed and their only option may be to join an old Arabic club- which is mostly boring, archaic and very uninteresting.  A language is not an object that can be fixed and mended from the outside, it needs nurturing and fixing from the inside, in this case by its speakers so that it can become a language of everyday use. I mean here not a code-switched, code-mixed, ungrammatical version of Arabic, but a grammatical version- one where a speaker can write without fear and can speak without mistakes. This does not mean I am against ‘ammiyyah (spoken Arabic) that would be denying an important part of Arabic speakers’ linguistic identities, I just think if one claims to speak a language they should work to master it in its important versions. We will always talk about this for a long time to come….. Comments are welcome as always…. thanks for stopping by.

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13 thoughts on “Arabic deserves a better chance of survival: The need to change perceptions

  1. Hi there, I found blog recently searching on the web….I particularly found this new post intriguing and although I do not speak Arabic I have to say it will be really sad if Arabic was lost because its speakers do not believe in it. I speak a language that is not major or huge but it means a lot for me, I learned English for my work and education but I speak my language in day to day happenings with my family, friends and children. My mother tongue is mine and I have to believe in it if it dies I too die along with it….I hope for Arabic this will not be the case…keep up Arabizi it’s inspirational thank you.

  2. Super as always Arabizi….but this one is by far my favourite…any language needs to leave the classroom to survive and in turn needs society to help it grow…I am totally obsessed with the blog well done

  3. Oh my, I am a native Arabic speaker but I’d rather make a mistake in fusha or Arabic rather than my English or German. If I make a mistake in Arabic those around me juist laugh and shrugg it off but if I make a mistake in English I feel less intelligent! I hate that relationship between my languages I want to reclaim my Arabic so badly I really do wish the Arabic I learned in school really did go beyond the classroom. I am now so anxious for my daughter to learn Arabic and its even harder because her father is Swedish but I am hopeful thank you for loving Arabic enough to give it a platform here thanks for Arabizi, Allah ya3teekil3aafiyeh!

  4. A fresh blog! Thank God for it and in English at least we can appreciate the challenges faced in Arabic speaking environments keep up the good work 🙂

  5. Exactly Arabic is in danger and I fear I will not know the language in 10 years time, I blame the education system, I blame my parents in a way, but in another way I cannot because if it was not for my English and French I would not have the job I have today. I love this blog you are not pretentious you say that issues as they are without being too angry to see the real issues. So many people have agendas for reviving Arabic but I like that you say it should be preserved because it is a language and it has speakers who will lose out. We as Arabic speakers definitely need to do something about the situation as it is right now otherwise we will live to regret it, living in Australia has opened my mind up about languages as here the Maori people fought for their language and now some schools teach whole curriculums in Maori and the results are superb, kids get to hear stories they would have never heard in English it’s so good. But it needs dedication, hard work and a lot of perseverance. Thank you so much once again- Murad

  6. Amazing!! Great commentary adding to the research I’m doing! I’ll show you a video of an interview with an external expert I made when I was back home that mirrors this article! Great work! Hope to see you soon!

  7. Hi Arabizi just wanted to let you know that I am disgusted that the book you chose as an example of reviving the Arabic language has afront cover that is not Araboic at all! I was at the book signing and I saw they even had a character who was blonde and blue eyes and white I think the writer is so affected by Western people that she even made a character to reflect that! How can we say we are reviving Arabic not just the language but the view has to be authentically Arabic not Western. it’s supposed to be something new not a copy of the things alreadfy out there. We need somrhting new I feel deceived that your interview of her made me excited but I was put off at the expo where the book fare is now taking place after seeing the main character. I am very sad thank youu I had to write I have been upset since Thursday evening.

    • Wow! To say that I deceived you is huge! I am glad the interview got you excited, however I am unsure as to why you seem so upset? I know the old saying is so cliche but seriously don’t judge a book by its cover! I think the author had the right to choose her front cover and create her characters in the way she so wished- right? If you were disappointed about the quality of Arabic language in the book then we’d have something to discuss but since it is the front cover then I can’t see this becoming a productive discussion. Kindly write back when you have read the book and let me know how you found the language use since my post was on Noura’s struggle and creativity in writing a book in Arabic often having to coin her own words. Thank you Naila for stopping by and leaving a comment.

  8. excellent this is good thanks for sharing written I always enjoying to reading your blog please keep this up always thanks so much 🙂

  9. Nice points made, as a language teacher I know a language will only be used well if used outside the classroom, that’s why I advise my students to always practice their French….thanks again

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