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.
Last month I posted a comment written by SLC with regards to the similarities between the Arabic and Greek diglossic situations, today I post the third and final part of our discussion below. This part delves into the role globalisation may play in the current situation (confusion, uncertainty) of the Arabic language, and it is in response to a point I made……
Now on to your next point, about whether globalisation is to blame for the current problems of Arabic:
“One may argue that globalisation has nothing to do with it, you just have to look at China, Russia, Germany and all the other very modern, very successful countries who have maintained their mother tongues …”
Yes, I agree, and I’d like to add Japan to your list of examples. Japan has been fully engaged with globalisation for several generations now, including an American military occupation with enough cultural influence to make baseball and American football into popular sports with a mass audience. Japanese has also adopted thousands of loanwords from English. Yet if you are Japanese you can describe yourself as a “sarariman” with a “modan-na gaarufurendo” (a salary-man with a modern girlfriend) without feeling your language is under threat at all. Indeed more than half of the Japanese vocabulary already consists of loanwords from Chinese, but even over many centuries the Japanese have never seemed in any danger of being culturally overwhelmed by China. The Japanese language has simply evolved structures that enable loanwords to fit comfortably into a Japanese sentence. (The “-na” in my example is one of these. It gives the loanword “modan” that distinctive halfway-to-being-a-verb quality that Japanese adjectives have, and works equally well with loanwords from any language.) The Japanese language is in no danger at all despite military disaster, occupation, globalisation, and tens of thousands of loanwords.
So, for example, the Japanese took ‘pocket’ and ‘monster’, adapted them to Japanese phonology as ‘poketto’ and ‘monsutaa’, abbreviated them to ‘poke-mon’, and sent them back to us as the global Pokemon franchise. This is how language exchange should be: playful and relaxed, both sides gain, and both languages are enriched. Language exchange is definitely not a zero-sum game, where a gain for one is by definition a loss for the other.
The same thing applies to the rest of culture in general. The Japanese took Western comic books and cartoon films, gave them a uniquely Japanese flavour and sent them back to us as manga and anime, now global in their turn. This is what a healthy linguistic culture is like; it doesn’t cower away from foreign influences, blaming them for everything that goes wrong in the country. Instead it embraces those cultural imports, improves them and sends them right back out again.
The often cited ‘globalisation fact’ that “Computer manuals are all in English” is not too much of a problem for the Japanese either, since their language has already assimilated all the technical vocabulary as loanwords. The Japanese for “error log” is “eraa rogu”. So when a Japanese computer engineer reads an English manual, he is already familiar with all the technical terms. Together with some basic English grammar remembered from school, this is usually enough to get by. Notice how much more difficult all this would have been if some purist National Language Academy had enforced the use of invented words based on Japanese roots for things like “error log”.
So the Japanese language, full of loanwords though it is, still feels completely Japanese, and one of the things that gives it that quality is its uniquely rich system of registers, or politeness levels. (This is where I come back to the idea of registers …) I won’t describe any of the details here, just point to the Wikipedia article on Keigo. But the important thing is that wherever you are on the politeness spectrum, from barking a reprimand to a military subordinate at the bottom, up to formally congratulating the Emperor at the top, the basic sentence structure doesn’t change. As you go up the scale the vocabulary changes (often in several steps, and even for quite basic words like “I” and “do”), and the phrasing grows longer and more flowery, but there is never a step-change in the grammar like a different way of expressing “not”, or the sudden introduction of a new set of inflections (as there would be in switching up from ECA to MSA). This means that you have quite a fine-grained control of politeness level; whatever nuance of social position you want to assert, there will be suitable language available.
When you’ve seen the way Japanese handles such an elaborate system of levels so smoothly, you realise that code-switching in Arabic is doing something linguistically quite different (although of course with the same social purpose); it is mixing two different languages, with nothing in between (or at best embedding chunks of one language in sentences of the other). There’s a simple way to demonstrate this. In Japanese, about halfway up the politeness spectrum, there is a ‘Neutral Polite’ style. This is the one that foreigners always learn first; everyone will understand you, you won’t offend anyone, and native-speakers won’t feel awkward replying to you at the same level (this is the only level I personally can use with any competence). Of course all languages with registers have a neutral polite level like this; it’s just particularly well-defined in Japanese.
But is there anything similar in, say, Egypt? A well-defined language level that foreigners can learn, and everyone can use, half-way between the formality of CA and the alleged street-slang of ECA? Well, if the ‘official’ position were true, and CA and ECA were simply different registers of a single all-embracing fuSHa, there would be. But there isn’t. A foreigner like Haeri (or me) has to learn CA and ECA as two different languages, and then learn how to mix them.
Again, I can think of only one parallel for this situation, and it is 1880s Greece, when even the most talented writers like Roidis and Xenopoulos struggled in vain to find a usable formality-level in between katharevousa and demotic. It’s not coincidence that Roidis was driven to coin the word ‘diglossia’ in 1885 to describe this unusual – and in his opinion, thoroughly unsatisfactory – split between the two forms of his language.
Right then, that’s the end of my digression on the register-spectrum vs separate-languages question. Now back to globalisation!
Despite the wealth of counter-examples provided by other countries, I know that some people do still claim that globalisation is the threat. Here’s one from bikyanews.com on 8th May 2013:
“DUBAI: United Arab Emirates Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan said on Thursday that the greatest threat to the Arabic language, as well as Islam, was the rising influence of globalization and the shrinking of the world.”
If I’d been invited to the conference he was opening (on the theme “Arabic Language in Danger: All Are Partners in Protection”) I would have asked: “Other countries have been much more exposed to globalisation than the Arab world, until recently at least, without their languages being weakened. Indeed some of them (like Japanese) thrive on it. The influence of English is the same for everybody. So if globalisation really is the threat, what makes Arabic so much more vulnerable to it than all the other languages?”
I’d then have presented the best counter-example of all: the Arabic and Muslim culture of the Abbasid Golden Age itself, when Islam and especially the institution of the Hajj promoted international links, which shrank the world, facilitated trade, and allowed Islam in turn to spread along the trade routes. Islam, Arabic, trade, and the globalisation of the Old World all reinforced each other with a kind of cultural feedback. How else did Islam reach Indonesia, and Zanzibar, and Xinjiang? They were far beyond the reach of Umar’s armies.
And the Arabs of the Golden Age did exactly what the Japanese do today: they took the best of foreign culture, improved it, and sent it back out again. They took chess and decimal numerals from India and sent them on to Europe; they took mathematics and astronomy from Greece, added algebra and hundreds of star-names and technical terms, and sent them all back out again. It was a “healthy linguistic culture”, as I said of Japan a few paragraphs ago, and all sides gained. So surely globalisation was always an integral part of Arabic culture at its strongest and best? Whatever is wrong with the Arabic language, it’s not going to be globalisation.
I’m actually very puzzled by the whole tone of the Minister’s statement (at least as reported by bikyanews.com), and especially by the slogan “Partners in Protection”. He sounds as if he is speaking for a tiny Amazonian tribe under threat from global logging and mining companies. For a small tribe whose safety has always depended mainly on isolation and keeping out of sight, then yes, the shrinking of the world would indeed bring threats. They would need “protection”, probably in the form of reinforced and managed isolation.
But what on earth does this have to do with Islam, which always used to be so outward-looking? Surely long-distance trade and pilgrimage were a way of life for the very first Muslims, even before Umar’s conquests? Why should Arabic and Islam (please note that it’s the Minister who is bracketing them together, not me) suddenly need isolation and “protection” now, when for so many centuries they didn’t?
Anyway, that’s enough about globalisation. And I’ll leave the question of whether a “threat to the Arabic language” is the same thing as a “threat to Islam” (as implied by the Minister’s statement) for another occasion.
In the next post I’ll get back to the parallel with Greek.
Thank you SLC once again for a detailed response and a wonderfully-informed discussion on the topic. I will not make the response long, So I will address your response in a point-by-point format so that I address the issues I think may help us understand how similar or different to one another Arabic and Greek are in their diglossic natures, and the role of globalisation:
1. You are right, globalisation usually receives much negative press mainly due to the role it has played in the “killing off” of minority languages around the world. Hence, it becomes a charged word and cannot be viewed for its benefits (if any) and it that carries the connotations of taking away but not of giving positively. Your example of Japanese is perhaps one of the positive effects globalisation may have in certain situations. The way the Japanese have embraced English (and before that Chinese) is not only practical, but may even be seen by some as a revolt against English. How? Well, instead of speaking English, they bend, change, transform and manipulate English words into their own language and grammar so that they remain authentically Japanese. But by embracing and using English in this way, they modernise themselves and are able to then discuss and express ideas about modern-day phenomena in their own tongue. Arabic did that with Persian, Hebrew & Abyssinian words (some of which are in fact in the Qur’an itself), and English did the same with Arabic, French, Latin and Spanish words and so on because it is a consequence of language contact. This way children, and new learners of Japanese still have to learn the strict grammar regardless of whether the word has English or Chinese or indeed origins from any other language. Arabic speakers still have to decide how they will embrace English words, they have, and the process is being done, but I don’t think to the level of how Japanese has done it.
2. You are right again, and I have said this before- that during that time of the Arabian Golden Age Arabic thrived in a multilingual, multicultural and definitely a globalised environment. It did take what it saw as beneficial and good from other cultures and languages and adapted it to suit its own needs. There are also other historical, cultural and political aspects of language and religion that we do not have the space to go into, that also contributed to this strong fearless linguistic tradition. The situation of Arabic today, is most definitely not that of the Golden Age, and neither do today’s speakers possess the same view held by those at the time. We must also remember that the power has now shifted and those Arabs of the Golden Age were (in today’s terms) advanced and part of the first world, they were the trendsetters. Arabic language for the modern Arab world is more than just words, more than just Classic or spoken forms- it’s an identity, a culture, a history that for many cannot be forgotten. They fight for the Classic because it defines their history and cultural heritage, and they fight for the Spoken because it is the most authentic way in which to express themselves. As the notable Egyptian writer Naguib mahfouz said in a letter he wrote to luwis Awad: “Language duality is not a problem but an innate ability. It is an accurate reflection of a duality that exists in all of us, a duality between our mundane daily life and our spiritual one” (taken from Reem Bassiouney, 2009, Arabic Linguistics, p.28). So you see the struggle and reality! (I know you’ve read the book). Many Arabic speakers think that any new introductions will only contribute to the destruction of Arabic, that mind and view obviously needs to change.
3. As for the tone of panic for the loss of Arabic and it’s need for protection as if “it’s an Amazonian” tribe (your words!) is perhaps because the minister has had first hand experience of young Arab children not being proficient in their mother tongue. I think for a long time many policy makers were under the impression that as long as children learned to read the Qur’an and as long as they had Arabic speaking parents, then their children would obviously learn Arabic. They did not (esp. in the case of the Gulf) consider the effect of maids (who by the way are not proficient in both Arabic or English, and instead speak a form of pidgin) and other contributing factors during the early stages of language acquisition. And so when they are faced with the true linguistic situation, it may come as a shock, and they lament that Arabic will die and with it Islam! That’s the only reason I can think of why there may be a panic or alarm every time the future of Arabic is spoken about. As for why Islam is also under threat from globalisation, I don’t know, and I don’t think it is. But, it maybe because the Qur’an is in Arabic, and if Arabic dies they think the Qur’an will too; but you are right it is a topic for another post.
Finally, I wanted to address this paragraph you wrote, I am pasting it here: “But is there anything similar in, say, Egypt? A well-defined language level that foreigners can learn, and everyone can use, half-way between the formality of CA and the alleged street-slang of ECA? Well, if the ‘official’ position were true, and CA and ECA were simply different registers of a single all-embracing fuSHa, there would be. But there isn’t. A foreigner like Haeri (or me) has to learn CA and ECA as two different languages, and then learn how to mix them”
There is a variety that is not so formal and not so street-like either, we refer to that as educated Arabic. It uses words from both registers, and speakers usually pronounce most of the case markings, it makes a person look educated yet not too superficial through the use of CA only, and not too informal by using only “spoken” words. You would simply learn how to mix them from how other speakers use this variety, but it does exist. Which brings us back to the question, are they varieties of one language or are they two different languages? I still say they are varieties and not two different languages and that Arabic is in fact diglossic. But it is something as Arabic sociolinguistics, that we are constantly concerned with and interested in, so I think that with more research we may one day fully understand the relationship between the varieties. Thank you again for contributing to this interesting and fruitful discussion about Arabic and globalisation. Please feel free to add your comments below.
I should also welcome new readers and new subscribers, welcome to Arabizi and I hope you will find the posts useful. Wishing everyone a prosperous and wonderful 2014.
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.
This week Arabizi (this blog) celebrates it’s 3rd birthday! I didn’t expect to still be writing 3 years after I started this blog because I wasn’t sure how blogging would work or how readers would react to my thoughts and ideas about a topic close to my heart- linguistics and Arabic. But, thankfully, it has been an eventful 3 years both on and offline, and I have learned so much from both readers (through comments, criticism & opinions) and from reading the extra books/articles in relation to some of the topics here. So in that celebratory spirit, I spent this morning going through many of the posts I wrote in the first 6 months of the blog, and decided to track how (if possible) those stories/events have progressed over the last 3 years. One such story I thought I’d talk about again, and which seemed to have had some sort of progress was the F’il ‘Amr initiative in Beirut (See the post here written in April 2010). Since the 2010 festival in which Suzanne and her team addressed their concerns about the future of Arabic in Lebanon and across the Arab world, she has been quietly working away at improving the organisation and working to be more effective in her goals and endeavours. At the end of 2012 TED asked her to participate in their Beirut event and of course she obliged (you can see the video here sorry it’s in Arabic), and the Gulf newspaper did the following review interview with her (without editing):
How did Feil Amer come about?
About seven years ago, I started working in the [Lebanese] civil society but while I worked for many causes, I realised that I and the other people were speaking Arabic only occasionally. After meeting people from different age groups I soon realised that Arabic was becoming extinct. It’s looked at by the new generation as something that is old-fashioned — not cool or modern — and it was almost like no one felt the need to speak Arabic. This made me wonder how we reached this stage.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been this big change in the world, through the internet, technology, etc. We are just consuming because we feel we want to keep up or stay tuned, as they say. It became an emotional issue for me when I saw that even people from poor families would speak only in English just to prove that they are from a certain culture or maintain a certain image. This really made me raise important questions: Where are we now? What are we fighting for? What do we really want? What will I teach my children? What stories will I tell them? I needed to take this cause, the Arabic language, and put it in the civil society. I wanted to speak to the youth and do it in a very modern way, and to do that I had to establish an NGO and that’s why I established Feil Amer.
What do you think is at the root of this social issue?
Well, first of all, the new terminologies in Arabic are very poor. There aren’t any new terminologies that the youth can use and that reflects the world they’re living in, such as “CD”, “internet”, etc. Even if the terminologies are there, they are not easy to digest and are not marketed well. People will know about these terminologies from films, plays, songs, or the media, but they’re not marketed and if they are, they are marketed in a manner no one can relate to them.
Socially, the perception about the Arabic language is that it is very old and sometimes associated with terrorism. Many would rather say thank you rather than shukran because Arabic gives them an image they don’t want to project. It’s a matter of image in society. This is a very big conflict in our identity — between wanting to be a developed society and to be productive and creative and, on the other hand, wanting to forget anything that relates us to our identity. We end up consuming what is being given to us and building on that. So yes, socially and psychologically, we have a big conflict with the Arabic language.
What are you doing with Feil Amer at the moment?
Feil Amer has been around for two and a half years now and this NGO came about only because three people decided to say no to this situation. However, we’re still facing teething troubles. Although we have become known internationally, in the past year we’ve had a big problem with funding. I couldn’t find funds to continue working on our projects.
However, despite all this, the plan is to organise another Arabic Language Festival and make this an annual event in the Arab world to support all creative initiatives by the young in the different domains of graphic design, plays, films, Arabic calligraphy, novels, poetry and so on. It’s not only about making them aware, but making them interact in their own language and helping them realise that they can be creative in Arabic.
What do you plan to do next?
Right now, I’m planning to call for a meeting through social media to bring together all the people who want to help. I will present the organisation’s strategy and projects and see how we can do this together as the youth. I will not give up on this. Our target is the youth and our language is the language that the youth wants and our aim is to be creative in Arabic.
1. Talk, involve and address the youth in a language they can relate to.
2. Create a space where youth can express themselves.
3. Focus on linking creativity to revitalising the language.
4. Support youth initiatives to preserve the Arabic language
Well if you want to help you know where to contact her, I don’t think there is anything to add. She seems to be moving the organisation from one that panics to one that is organised and willing to think through this current perceived problem. Her tips seem straight-forward but it is as simple to implement, especially because of social beliefs, where some speakers prefer English as the language of modernity. A note about the pictures I’ve added, the one right at the top (on the left) is the original advert for the first Fi’l ‘amr event that took place in Beirut in 2010, and reads “we are our language”. The second picture is of the props that were put outside the convention centre where the event took place and is creative in its format, almost CSI-like, with the Arabic letter on the floor as if it is a dead body! The script on the yellow tape reads ” do not kill your language!”…
Let’s hope it lasts beyond the Sinatra sense, and that actually 2012 will be remembered as the year Arabic language made great changes, hopefully significant advancements so that its speakers can have more access to it now, and in the future. I hope it will be remembered as the year in which Arabic language was used seriously by its users and explored and stretched to accommodate new words and ideas. This is a belated happy new year to all Arabizi readers, I wish I had posted earlier in the year, but due to writing and other commitments I was not able to. I wanted the first post of 2013 to be a summary of everything that had taken place the previous year, based on my readings it would seem that many important initiatives were started or strengthened further in 2012 more than in previous years. I am sure readers have noticed that I tend to focus on the Gulf countries, not because in other countries there is not such effort for Arabic, but because the Gulf countries publically report on their efforts, both the good and those in progress or in need of improvement. In an overview style, and taking into account only the major events, we’ll start with:
1. The Taghreedat initiative born in Abu Dhabi and Doha in 2011 aimed to increase Arabic content on the internet, through the help and cooperation of volunteers all over the world who spoke Arabic. I have written about Taghreedat a number of times and I think their idea of arabizing online content is brilliant. So far Twitter has been Arabized and it is possible to use the entire site in Arabic instead of English see here. They are also in the process of arabizing, TED, The khan academy (this is taking place very fast!), Storify, and Wikimedia, and as of 2013 Taghreedat is in the process of arabizing Whatsapp! so any volunteers out there can read up more at Taghreedat’s website (you can follow them on Twitter @Taghreedat). Last month (Dec. 2013) they held important conferences in Abu Dhabi and Doha with Google, TED and Twitter and other internet giants to discuss a way forward because Taghreedat’s work in 2012 has proven innovative and very popular among Arabic speakers and users.
2. Last month I wrote about ADEC (Abu Dhabi Education council)’s initiative to assist parents to understand their children’s Arabic curriculum which was a welcome publication by many parents. The UAE aims by 2021 to become the centre of excellence for Arabic! A huge ambition but they have started work since 2012 in a huge way to increase their chances of achieving their goal. AlsoZayed university‘s Arabic language institute is working with the ministry of education to improve Arabic text books and material so that the acquisition of Arabic for children can be eased and made slightly more appealing than it already is. Of course they are also working hard to ensure teachers are well versed and proficient in Arabic as well as modern language teaching methods. There are many challenges in ensuring that this will be a successful initiative, remember it is also the enthusiasm and passion of the teacher, it is not enough to have a system in place. Dubai Women’s college has now stepped up efforts to improve the standards of Arabic language among its native speakers, which is welcome news to many students. Most students at the college, and based on my research, prefer to be proficient in both Standard Arabic and English rather than focus only on English. There are many other initiatives, but I don’t want this to read like an academic review! These examples give an idea of the work on the ground being done to improve Arabic language in the UAE in 2012.
On a slightly different note, a Palestinian mother living in Abu Dhabi decided to publish her own line of Arabic language resources in an effort to teach her children Arabic. She felt that they were not being motivated enough in school and named her collection Karam and Tamar after her children this is the website and this is her story!
3. The Arab Thought Foundation‘s (FIKR) 11th annual conference which took place in Dubai in November (amongst other issues discussed) introduced a new initiative to help promote the Arabic language. They call it “Let’s Rise with Our Language” through which they hope to make Arabic language more appealing to its native speakers. I do not have the complete details of the recommendations FIKR made as a result of a two-year research but you can read more about it here.
In 2013: Watch out for the Arabic language conference to take place in May in Dubai and I will try my best to post details about the conference if I go, or if I know someone going. It would be great to see their approach and their methods in meeting their goals for the promotion of Arabic language. In the meantime if there is anything significant I have missed that took place with regards to the Arabic language in 2012, please let me know!
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……
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?
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.