The most common complaint about Arabic teaching materials is that they are out dated and do not reflect the real world in which the student lives in. And the poor quality of materials is often claimed to be the reason why students fail to acquire Arabic to the desired levels (especially native speaking Arabic students). I was sceptical about that for a while because as an Arabic teacher myself I knew, as any teacher would, that the teaching materials are just half of the equation to a successful language teaching lesson, the other half depends on the teachers’ qualities of creativity, enthusiasm and his/her general ability to convince the student to learn. A teacher who is passionate about their subject will almost always attract the attention of the student and over time the student will realise the teacher’s efforts and learn the subject well. I am sure we all had that teacher whose passion for their subject influenced us in one way or another, and that it was those lessons that we not only enjoyed but excelled in.
The teaching of Arabic is no different, and as a secondary school teacher I never used only one book I mixed maybe 4 or 5 separate curricula and made some materials myself. This I found, apart from taking up all of my summer and being a welcome distraction from my then-MA thesis, changed the Arabic class from monotone-like, boring, repetitive, and often predictable lessons of the previous year into lessons that kept the students excited. A new wave of interaction, questions and creativity crept into the Arabic class and I was motivated even more to teach the subject.
But, what I realised (over time and through observing other classes) was that the content of the materials mattered for real language learning to take place, it wasn’t enough to have it on flashcards, or on online specially designed online platforms I had made. Nor was it enough that each week one of my lessons was a “free class” where students came in and taught one another something great they had learned in Arabic from the previous week. It was all great, not to mention the crazy amount of work and preparation I had to do, but I always felt as if it was not enough. I felt that in addition to all of the above the material had to also challenge students to think deeply about the way they used language. Of course I do not mean 5 or 6 year olds but 8, 9, 10 and secondary school students (especially native speakers of Arabic) deserve material that challenges their thinking.
So although it is the teachers’ passion and creativity that plays a big role in the teaching of Arabic, I have come to see that the content of the material is also important (I probably will always think about this). Content that not every teacher will have the time or the knowledge to think up independently in addition to their other teaching or non-teaching duties. Therefore, the Arabic curricula, or book or teaching material designers and printers need to produce high level materials in Arabic. It would be great if they consulted Arabic teachers in the process.
I will give one example, for fear of this post becoming too long, that of comprehension and in particular the question section. Traditionally, most Arabic language books (the ones I have seen) have a very simple method through which to test a students comprehension of a text. So it will be something like (I am making these examples up):
“Why did the man go to the big house?” The expected/acceptable answer would be: “The man went to the house to get his coat” and this answer would be deemed correct because the student has shown understanding and most probably an ability to conjugate verbs. The questions move on to other aspects of the text with the intention of making sure the student has understood the semantic (meaning) content of the story or lesson. Which is absolutely fine and great- but as a starting point. My quarrel is that the questions are always so simplistic and never go beyond that starting point. The questions never really fully challenge the student to use all their vocabulary or structures to answer a question. Can you imagine challenging a student so that they go beyond the simple answers, words, structures, synonyms, can you imagine pushing the student to think in Arabic at a higher level? I know there are improvements being made all the time to Arabic materials, but more needs to be done for both native and non-native learners of Arabic. Well, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and thought I’d share it with others…thanks for reading and as always any ideas are welcome.
The following links maybe of useful to anyone who has an interest in Arabic as a medium of instruction at schools, it’s taken from the ever-exciting blog by Lameen Souag:
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.
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.
It 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.
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):
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.”
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
So Wednesday 18th December was World Arabic Language Day as set out and proposed by the UN, because Arabic is one of its official languages. It is the first time ever that I have seen on Twitter such excitement and preparation for this day, tweets started circulating since last Tuesday. One of the ideas to create an awareness for the day, was to tweet in Arabic using the hashtag #بالعربي (meaning in Arabic) with the intention that by the 18th of December the hashtag would be trending on Twitter. It is also the first time that the day has received open official backing, in the case of Dubai the Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum Foundation supported the #بالعربي (bil- Arabi) initiative on Twitter among other initiatives in place to celebrate the importance of Arabic on the day.
Many parts of the Arab world were excited about the day, in Egypt the Supreme Council of Culture commemorated the day, whilst in Dubai free Arabic classes have been offered (among other activities) to non-Arabic speakers since the 15th of December until today the 19th and anybody can enrol. Dubai is also opening a new centre for Arabic language to coincide with the Arabic Language Day, this is in keeping with the recent programs and plans in the emirate to promote the learning of Arabic for native speakers. Saudi Arabia marked the day at it’s Riyadh book fair, and the day was celebrated as far away as India. And I could write forever about the fun and joy of the day, how children were treated to cakes in Arabic alphabet shapes, sweets and colouring books or if they were lucky enough they read a book in Arabic at school and listened to lovely poems and songs about the Arabic language- and I am sure it was that fun.
But in reading about the preparations for the day, receiving emails from various organisations about their plans for the day, and in reading about how different people celebrated the day, I wondered what the opportunities and challenges (if any) a day like World Arabic Day presented to policy makers and native Arabic speakers? I am sure you know that on Arabizi we are constantly trying to understand the current situation of the Arabic language based on how it is used by its speakers and the ever-problematic question of diglossia and the future of the language in its native lands. So a day to celebrate the Arabic language almost always get my mind working and thinking.
Is the 18th of December all about celebrating Arabic on that one day 1 every year? Reading poems, or indeed tweeting or posting them up on Facebook, and forgetting about it the next day? Is it about following the trend on that day (by tweeting, reading an Arabic book, writing about how much the Arabic language means/meant to humanity and civilisation) and showing everyone that Arabic is the best language? Is it about reminding the Arabic speakers that Arabic is the language of the Qur’an? I saw some good tweets, whilst I thought others were slightly over the top in their exaggeration of the uniqueness of Arabic compared to other languages (I don’t deny that its unique, but I don’t compare it to other languages with the intention of claiming its superiority). It was also fascinating to see that in their bid to demonstrate the superiority of Arabic language over other languages, some writers misspelled words and messed the grammar around, and the worst irony in all this, was that they didn’t even realise their mistakes!
The day offers many great opportunities for Arabic language speakers, especially native speakers, it reminds them that their language is good enough to (re)learn and use in everyday communication. By openly celebrating the day, people who perhaps felt judged at their insistence for the use of Arabic language in everyday communication feel rewarded and will maybe revamp their efforts with a new energy. I know that the Arabic language protection societies took the opportunity to prescriptively instruct people about the importance of ‘correct’ Arabic, ‘pure’ Arabic and their responsibility towards their mother-tongue the Arabic language. For some native Arabic speakers this is stifling and does not interest them in Arabic further, which is counter-productive if the aim was to encourage people to rekindle their relationship with their language.
Non-native speakers also have the opportunity to experience Arabic from a linguistic perspective (usually it’s food, dancing and some history for an Arabic themed day) and not just from a cultural perspective. During my masters I was an Arabic teacher and each year the school would put on an Arabic language day. For the entire week before that day, students would prepare small 10 minute presentations about Arabic language facts and present for the rest of the school during the morning assembly. In the end, even students who were not taking Arabic as a modern language, learned a few words and some facts about the language. So I would say for non-native speakers the day is a brilliant opportunity for them to learn about the Arabic language, or indeed the language itself.
However, in all this, I think that there are challenges that must be addressed and must be overcome, and I do acknowledge that there are efforts in process to overcome these challenges. Although, a day to celebrate Arabic presents opportunities, I think that it mainly presents for its native speakers and policy makers many challenges. First, the language policy in education needs to be addressed urgently. Children go through education and are confused about their languages and the roles those languages (should) play in their lives. I have numerous times discussed here on Arabizi. So a day celebrating Arabic raises many questions for native speakers,and in the last week I have received emails from people wishing that the situation really could be a reason to celebrate. They want to be at peace with their language, and still be modern and still be educated to the highest levels they can reach-all without losing their language. They have nothing against English or any other language.
The second (and final) challenge is keeping up the momentum and zeal for the language throughout the year, when all the balloons and grand elaborate calligraphy-inspired banners have all been put away. How can children and even adult native speakers feel encouraged to use their mother tongue for everyday use at work and in educational settings? What mechanisms are in place that will ensure that? And the age-old question of diglossia and standard vs. non-standard Arabic needs to be addressed. Does Arabic language not deserve to be a language of the future? A language capable of communicating information and knowledge? It’s a great idea to have such a day, but the work begins the day after the poetry lines stop appearing on our timelines and the newspaper articles no longer discuss the events of World Arabic day. A true and serious dialogue is needed, and practical steps must be taken to address any issues each Arabic country has with regards to Arabic (because different countries have different challenges). I will also be keeping an eye on the progress of the initiatives set up this year to improve the Arabic language situation to see the differences they will be making. Please share your comments and thoughts on the post. How did you celebrate the day? What challenges do you think exist?
Finally, I should also say that I have started another blog (an extension to Arabizi) to review Arabic linguistic books/papers and articles (arabizibooks.wordpress,com), please visit it to learn more about it. Thanks for reading, the next post will be about Arabic and globalization.
In June (2013) I blogged about Arabic dialects and the post received much interest from readers either through comments or emails. But one contributor in particular (SLC, you can view his Wiki page here on the Greek diglossic situation) to the comment section was perhaps the most interested in the topic of dialects and their relationship to Classical Arabic (CA) or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, or whichever way one may wish to label it). That interest began a series of emails and comments (you can read the comments here). These comments have become so interesting (and much longer each time) that I asked him if I could blog them as a post and ask other readers to join in and discuss the situation of Arabic dialects as they relate to Classical Arabic (or any other similar diglossic situations).
The questions are quite simple really, 1. is the relationship between the Arabic dialects and the CA or MSA the same as Greek was to its dialect? (see previous comments and the Wiki page above) 2. Are the dialects so different from CA or MSA, so as to say that they are different languages?
You can read the details below ( I have re-blogged the comment without editing) to get a better idea of the Greek situation. SLC has done a great job and selected relevant excerpts and quotes from books he’s read about Arabic and Greek and he attempts to draw parallels.
Thoughts on the parallel between Arabic and the Greek Language Question, part 2 …
Well, I’ve read a bit more and thought a bit more, and first I’ll try to come back on some of the points in your reply. To start with:
“I would not go as far as to say that spoken Arabic is so different from Classical Arabic (CA) or MSA, in the way that Greek differs from its other varieties.”
Hmm. Well, with my own few words of Arabic I couldn’t possibly judge that myself. But here are some quotes about Egyptian Colloquial Arabic suggesting that MSA and ECA, at least, are different enough to be mutually incomprehensible.
I’ve just finished reading ‘Sacred Language, Ordinary People’ (2003) by Niloofar Haeri (she is from a Persian-speaking Muslim background) about the language situation in contemporary Egypt. In her preface she describes arriving in Egypt after learning MSA in graduate school. “Eventually, I went to Egypt to begin my first period of research in 1987-88, and was stunned to discover, like many researchers before me, that I was unequipped to have even a rudimentary conversation in the language. Of course I had been briefly told that the language I was taught was the language of writing and that it was different from the spoken language. But what I had not quite grasped was just how great the differences are.”
Of course Haeri was learning MSA and ECA as second languages, so she was unused to the mixtures of the two that Egyptians grow up with. But the quote does suggest that the two ends of the spectrum are far enough apart to be mutually incomprehensible.
In general Haeri comes across very much like the Greek demoticists of a century ago. In her ‘Conclusion’ she writes: “Preventing it (ECA) from becoming a language of writing and self-expression shows a highly uneasy relation to the self. Children grow up hearing at school and other places that their mother tongue is “weak”, “corrupt”, “has no grammar”, “is the language of donkeys” and so on. ” (p.149) Now that really does sound like Fotiadis and the Educational Association! And on the next page: “But the obligation to disown a central defining aspect of their identity – their mother tongue – when it comes to writing, to creating and evaluating what is or is not knowledge, mediates and intervenes in their relations to themselves and to the world. The censure of Egyptian Arabic from official and national culture, seem to prevent Egypt from tapping its many potentials.” And that sounds exactly like Psycharis and the Greek political demoticists.
Of course you could say that Haeri is an outsider, as a non-native Arabic speaker, and despite her years of study and research might not fully appreciate the Egyptian situation. So my second set of quotes is from ‘Arabic Sociolinguistics’ (2009) by Reem Bassiouney, born and bred in Egypt. On her p.267 she explicitly challenges Haeri’s “highly uneasy relation to the self” description, and concludes that: “Given the cases studied in this book in which the diglossic situation provided an opportunity for speakers to project their identity and leave an effect on their audience, I would consider diglossia, once more, an asset rather than an impediment. … diglossia itself is linguistic diversity, and by eliminating it we are suppressing a linguistic richness in Arab societies.”
In 1880s Greece, then, Bassiouney would fit among the defenders of the status quo like Vernardakis and Hatzidakis. And they did have a point of a kind; to those talented and well-educated enough to really master katharevousa (Papadiamantis, for example), the situation gave an opportunity to interweave narration in the written language with reminiscence in the spoken language and create some great literature. But realistically, there were very few, even among the cultural elite, with the talent and education to exploit this “linguistic richness” in writing, and the result, with its archaic-sounding narration, was not to everyone’s taste.
Bassiouney’s argument for the “linguistic richness” of the current situation would also be far more convincing if all children were taught to read and write their spoken colloquial language as well as the ‘official’ MSA. Everyone could then enjoy the “richness” in writing as well as in speech. (All the positive examples she gives of people “projecting their identity and leaving an effect on their audience” are taken only from spoken Arabic – code-switching between ECA and MSA in TV talk shows and so on – and not from written materials.) It is hard to see how preventing children reading and writing their own spoken native language can enhance the “linguistic richness” of their reading experience.
However, the statement that really struck me in Bassiouney 2009 was on the previous page (p.266) where she writes:
“In a hypothetical world, if each Arab country started using its own colloquial in domains in which SA was used, then in fifty years, all Arab countries would be detached from SA, and the common SA literature which was read by all Arabs would be incomprehensible for a young generation trained only in colloquial.” (Bassiouney uses SA, Standard Arabic, to cover both CA and MSA.)
Here is a plain admission, from an apparent supporter of the use of MSA, that it is so different from colloquial as to be “incomprehensible” to a colloquial speaker. Take this together with Haeri’s evidence from the other direction, that ECA is in practice incomprehensible for a well-educated speaker of MSA, and it does seem that the two are in fact different languages, using mutual incomprehensibility as a common-sense definition of ‘different’. This is exactly the same as the Greek situation, where Ancient Greek and demotic are now different languages.
Of course I know that this is not the official Ministry-of-Culture position. If you challenge such a Minister with Haeri’s statement, that Arab children are all forbidden to read and write their own native language, he will simply reply that MSA really is their native language, just in a more formal register. (I’ll come back to the idea of registers in my next post …) But I think Bassiouney’s picture of a hypothetical colloquial-only future is a very effective touchstone for revealing what people really think. If you then ask the Minister why the schools don’t do what they do in every other country, and teach the children to read and write in the language and register they speak and use every day (in other countries they don’t usually pick up the more formal registers of their own language until their mid-to-late teens, as they begin to encounter social situations in their own lives where those registers are appropriate in speech as well as writing), he would probably say (or at least think) something like: “Are you crazy – if we teach them to write both ECA and MSA, they’ll choose ECA every time, and never learn MSA at all! MSA would be lost in a generation!” This is the point at which my imaginary Minister reveals that he – like Bassiouney – really thinks of ECA and MSA as different, competing languages, and not as complementary registers of the same living language. At heart, he thinks a gain for one would inevitably be a loss for the other.
On your point about there actually being a polyglossic spectrum rather than two separate languages: yes, I know about ‘Educated Spoken Arabic’ and its variations, and about all the practical code-switching that goes on in everyday conversation. Speakers move up and down the ‘spectrum’ all the time, as Bassiouney describes and documents very well. But that’s just in speech, and just among adults. There, spoken Arabic is following exactly the same common-sense path as spoken Greek demotic, and gradually adopting many technical words and turns of phrase from the Classical language.
But in writing, everything seems much more restricted. Most of the polyglossic spectrum (apart from the CA and MSA end) is missing or forbidden, so Bassiouney’s diglossic “linguistic richness” is not available to writers or readers.
And very significantly, it’s in the first 7 years of life (the crucial formative period in which we all learn to love reading – or not) that the diglossia is most clear-cut. Young children speak hardly any MSA yet, so it actually does seem to be true that their spoken dialect is a completely different language from the written MSA they are taught at school (or CA if they attend a local kuttaab, as described by Haeri). There is no useful overlap at all (useful in the sense that they could use their knowledge of the spoken language to predict how the written language will behave). I’ll leave it to others to speculate about the effect this has on literacy learning. My own experience as a teacher suggests that it will make it very difficult for the children to form new written sentences themselves, even with lots of encouragement, and even if they can read quite well.
So, there may be a lot of talk about registers and code-switching and polyglossia in adult life; but in the primary school, where it matters most of all for literacy, Arabic really does seem to be completely diglossic.
This was also true of Greek primary schools before 1880, and for exactly the same reasons. For centuries Greek-language primary education had been run by the Orthodox Church. The only language taught was the Ancient Greek used in the Gospels, and the learning materials were almost all religious texts. The most able went on to work for, or at least with, the Orthodox Church, while the less able who dropped out early would at least know the alphabet so that they could read prayers (though they might not understand the Ancient Greek language of the words they were reciting). This seems very like the traditional Egyptian situation as described by Haeri, where ‘learning to read’ is practically the same thing as ‘learning the Quran’. Although the languages and religious beliefs are quite different, the social frameworks are exactly the same.
I also suspect that this social situation actively discouraged Greek primary-school children from producing new written sentences of their own (quite apart from the technical difficulty of doing that in – effectively – a foreign language). If the only teaching materials were religious texts which it would be blasphemous to alter or even summarise, how could the children ever practise writing original sentences? I don’t suppose the teacher (in those days usually a priest or a monk) was likely to set homework tasks like “Make up a story about Jesus performing a new miracle” or “Invent three new Commandments”. Even re-telling a Gospel story in their own words might well have been regarded as blasphemy (cf the Gospel Riots of 1901). I suspect that ‘writing’ in a pre-1880 Greek primary school was actually confined to just copying out the texts, or writing them out from memory.
Again, we can only speculate about the effect this had on literacy learning, but it can’t have been good. It’s only when we write our own thoughts for ourselves that we really start to feel ownership of our written language. Of course in Greece the more talented did grow up to express their thoughts in written katharevousa, but that was when they were much older. To really own a written language you need to start writing in your own words during the language-acquisition years (roughly ages 1 – 7). If you start doing it later, it will always feel as if you’re writing a language belonging to someone else. It’s a bit like the way learning a second language later always feels different from learning your native one(s) in those early years.
Of course the Orthodox Church was well aware of this. After all, the teachers had all been through the same system themselves. But they were quite happy to turn out generations of students who felt that writing itself belonged to the Church and not to the people; that policy had helped the Church maintain its political position for centuries.
Later on in their education the brighter pupils would meet the pagan writers of Classical Greece, but that doesn’t seem to have given them any more sense of ownership. They just felt that the written language now belonged to Homer, Sophocles and Plato as well as to the Church, and still not to them. Writers felt alienated from their own written language, but hated to admit it because that language had such a glorious past. It was only the inconsistency and incompetence of their use of katharevousa that revealed that it still felt like a foreign, second, language to them.
For the first few decades of Greek Independence (say 1830 – 80) the authorities were content to leave this system in place, quite logically, because it was official policy that katharevousa (and maybe even Ancient Greek itself) would soon become the universal spoken language of Greater Greece. In that case, the children would again be writing in school the same language they spoke at home, and the alienation problem would disappear naturally. It was only around 1880 that it became generally recognised that none of this was really going to happen, and that the educational system was therefore seriously flawed.
I’ll leave it to you and your other readers to judge how much of this also applies to Arabic today.
I think it’s also worth pointing out just how unusual the Arabic and pre-1917 Greek primary education situations are. Four things are happening:
a) Pupils are forbidden to read or write the language they speak themselves.
b) They are taught to read and write a different, learned language.
c) This learned language has no living native speakers.
d) The materials for new readers are often religious texts that cannot serve as models for the children’s own writing.
This is quite an extreme situation. For example, the teaching of Latin in Western, Catholic Europe was never like this, because (a) and (d) didn’t apply. As for (a), literacy in one’s native language always went hand-in-hand with learning Latin. And for (d), the model texts have always been non-religious things like history (Caesar and Tacitus), letters and speeches (Cicero), and poetry (Virgil and Horace), not one of them Christian, and all chosen for their purity of style, which students were encouraged to emulate. Even though the Catholic Church might have sponsored much of the teaching, written Latin was never felt to be the property of the Church.
As for point (a), perhaps “forbidden” is the wrong word. Bassiouney (p.267) makes it clear that Egyptian children do not experience this as any kind of prohibition; it’s not as if they were constantly sneaking off to write ECA and being punished for it. Instead, children generally take the adult world as they find it, and just accept that spoken ECA belongs in one “domain”, while writing belongs in another different “domain” (Bassiouney’s word for it). They then retain this attitude throughout their lives; it seems natural to them, even if it seems extraordinary to non-Arabic speakers who have grown up reading and writing their own spoken languages, and take for granted the freedom to do so.
This again is exactly the same as the situation in Greece in 1830-80. People thought of writing as part of a “domain” belonging to the Orthodox Church and the Ancients, and even professional writers felt like intruders there, constantly afraid of getting into trouble for making grammatical mistakes. Less talented school pupils must have felt even more excluded. It was a completely different world from that of everyday demotic speech where everybody felt at home.
Well, I’ve only come back on one point so far, and this post is already much too long. But there is so much to say …
What I would really like is some more feedback. As you know, I’m very much a beginner in the Arabic side of things, and I need to know if I’m getting that about right. To an Arabic speaker, does the Arabic situation feel like the Greek one?
Thank you SLC for that wonderful and very informative response, I am learning a lot about Greek! Thank you also for quoting from my two favourite books (Bassiouney and Haeri). I will not make this response too long, as I would really like others to join in, and yes there is always too much to say, and I always say when it comes to language we will blog forever- quite literally.
I will take the points you listed about Greek and try to compare those to the Arabic situation today, I am listing my response right next to your original points (italicised here):
a) Pupils are forbidden to read or write the language they speak themselves: Like you said “forbidden” is a strong word, it is generally frowned upon and not encouraged. I don’t think the “suppression” of the spoken forms is like that of Greek, it’s all a matter of ideology, and how native Arabic speakers come to view and consequently treat their language. Those who wish to write their variety do so, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed that to become widespread. Before the advent of social media, songs in Arabic were/still are almost always in one variety or another with only very few exceptions in FuSHa (CA/MSA).
b) They are taught to read and write a different, learned language: “Different” again is too strong a word, but let’s not forget that learning Arabic in school in Morocco is not like learning it in Damascus or in Dubai! Each case is different, and I for one cannot generalise I can only go with what I know, through experience and study. For some students (depending on their dialect) it might well be a NEW language, and to others a very similar one, it would be great to do research on each case, the we’d really be able to answer this question well.
c) This learned language has no living native speakers: This is exactly like Arabic.
d) The materials for new readers are often religious texts that cannot serve as models for the children’s own writing: Yes and no, there are great materials in CA for children due to recent efforts to make the language accessible to learners and young children. Many people learning Arabic (MSA or CA) usually watch children’s cartoons to improve their diction and grammar, and these are in pure CA. Religious texts are almost always in Classical Arabic, though there are both texts and religious speeches now in both CA and spoken Arabic (See for example, Bassiouney’s (2013) new article here on code-switching in religious talk).
But as I said previously this is one of those very complex issues, as you are just discovering, and people (both laymen and academics) can argue for both sides. I see some similarities between Arabic now and Greek pre-1917, however, I am not sure that Arabic is so precisely the same.
I think that negative attitudes are changing, and the reference to these being the languages of “donkeys” is not shared by all, and perhaps in part due to satellite television and other factors (I am deliberately avoiding “education” as a reason for positive attitudes, because I think that it’s too essentialist to assume that). Satellite TV has allowed millions of Arabs to be exposed to other Arabics they never knew of before, and before the advent of TV it was only the well-travelled Arabs who would return to their native lands and recount among other things, the discoveries they made about the Arabic of other Arabs. But now that has changed, there are even shows that teach non-dialect speakers how to speak in such and such a dialect. Surprisingly though, that teaching takes place through CA or MSA, for instance, a sentence is presented in MSA and its equivalent in ECA or Levantine Arabic is given. I can see Bassiouney’s point about the “richness” of the dialects, it is what makes Arabic, what Arabic is. It is a language that has a unique, even if a contentious, relationship with its dialects, but that’s how it has been for many centuries.
Did you know that CA as we know it today (and in going with the fact that it is based on Qur’anic Arabic) was once a dialect itself? It was the Qurayshi dialect, that became standardised for the obvious reason that it was now a sacred language, language of the Qur’an (see Mustafa Shah’s 2008 informative essay on this here). So, Arabic philosophically is not against dialects and varieties per se, as long as CA or MSA remains in tact untouched and free of mistakes (referred to as ‘Lahn’ in the grammar books).
I think if Haeri had taken her trip to Damascus instead of Egypt, her experience would have been so different, she would have perhaps said that her CA improved. She might have gone as far as claiming that CA actually does have native speakers! This is because it all depends on ideology, national language policies, agendas and how people eventually form opinions about their languages. Some Arabic speakers are comfortable with the fact that their variety is not written or used for official purposes; whilst others prefer to use their variety, and would welcome a change.
What do other readers think? Is the Arabic diglossic situation like that of Greek? Can we say the dialects are so different from FuSHa (CA/MSA) that they are different languages altogether? Comments are welcome, thank you for reading, and thank you SLC once again.