Efforts to ensure proper transmission of Arabic continue

The efforts to save, preserve, promote, transmit, and teach Arabic in the Gulf countries continues into 2016. In January the WORAL (World Organisation for Renaissance of Arabic Language) met in Qatar to discuss how Arabic speaking countries and scholars can work harder to ensure that younger generations of Arabic speakers get the best opportunity to properly learn their language.

In her keynote speech Sheikha Moza, the chairperson of the Qatar Foundation outlined a number of ways in which she believes that the Arabic language can be better transmitted to the next generation and hence firmly preserved:

  1. The “proper” use of technology: I like this one very much actually because instead of criticising technology, she advocates that it be embraced but used to its full potential and in this case to support the Arabic language. This is similar to other efforts across the region to use technology as one effective way of teaching Arabic to children without making it feel as if it is a burden (I will be writing a separate post about technology and language learning).
  2. The simplification of the Arabic curriculum as it currently stands: Yes please, a simplification is needed, I have said before that much of the curriculum on Arabic depends on rote teaching methods or the learning of texts that can never truly benefit a child of today. I am not against the learning and mastering of old important canonical texts, poetry and writings I just think these things can be better planned and distributed across the Arabic language education of a child (spanning over their years of education). We need those old texts because they add a rich context to language learning and in some cases they assist the student to remember grammar rules or certain complex syntactic structures. With much research on language acquisition (both first language, second language, and now increasingly heritage language acquisition) there is no excuse not to implement some of those findings into the education curriculum (especially) because of our globalised world today. By compartmentalising different aspects of the Arabic language and teaching those aspects at different stages (and ages) whilst taking into account the fact that children are constantly exposed to other languages and dialects, perhaps there will be a better chance for them to master Arabic- just not the way their parents did!
  3. The absolute use of Standard Arabic by experts and academics on television: Actually the suggestion was to “force” television programmes to use Standard Arabic, which can be a very hard goal to attain especially if television producers and writers should have a choice of what language(s) their programmes air in. If this rule is imposed and adhered to, it means that anybody appearing on television interviews or the like will have to speak in formal Arabic. A form they do not use in their everyday communication, for some people it may be hard and for others it may be inauthentic. To implement these laws is always so difficult because some speakers will interpret that as a way of controlling how they speak and perhaps even what they (should) mean. Some have suggested that different genres of TV should be required to use different types of Arabic (as I think they do so now), so news, documentaries and the like should use FuSHa (Standard Arabic. Whereas, other shows could be free to use a form of Standard Arabic but mix it with Spoken Arabic.
  4. The coming together of scholars, intellectuals, and other important figures to promote the use of the Arabic language: Anyone who works in language revitalisation, language planning or language curriculum planning would agree with this. It isn’t just the coming together, there has to be some unification and uniformity in the decisions that are made. Difference of opinion in grammar is not a bad thing and anyone who has studied Arabic enough knows that there have always been opinions and camps when it comes to Arabic grammar. But in all that difference of opinion there was a uniformity which is perhaps missing today. The other factor to think about is that globalisation and technology have definitely played a huge role in changing the way native speakers learn Arabic today. Arabic was once the language of enlightenment and technology of the day and so native speakers of Arabic, like native speakers of English today, did not have to work hard to learn the language. It was everywhere, it was the language everyone learned in order to access knowledge. Today the language of education and technology is English, and so speakers of Arabic have to learn English in order to access that knowledge. The challenge therefore is to strike a balance between learning English for advancement and contribution to the world and mastering their mother tongue the Arabic language. The Arabic language which carries the rich, complex and fascinating culture and world view of their forefathers. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.

The WORAL also held workshops and talks covering the following topics: Realities of the Arab Child’s Linguistic Upbringing’; ‘The Effects of Children’s Exposure to Current Arabic Media Content’; and ‘Alternatives to Develop the Arab Child’s Linguistic Future’.  Through four interactive workshops — ‘The Development of Arabic Language Skills for Children’; ‘Creative Writing for Children’; ‘Children’s Programmes on Radio and Television’; and ‘Modern Techniques to Enhance Children’s Use of the Arabic Language’. The even organisers confirm that 300 leading language experts met to discuss these issues and find a way forward. I am in the process of trying to get hold of the report or any written notes from the conference.

Qatar has also implemented some of what it has been saying for the last few years. That Arabic needs to become a language of academia if it is to be preserved, but importantly if it is to make important contributions to knowledge and learning. They did this in two ways: first by improving the Arabic language program at Qatar University and raising the points (grades) which a student needs in order to study an Arabic language degree. Their argument is that if the bar is raised for Arabic language, that will push high schools and colleges to better prepare their students for the degree. In turn this will create a shift in how Arabic is taught in schools in the pre-university stage. They aim to change the way Arabic language is socially viewed because in many Arabic speaking countries students’ university studies are determined by their final high school/college marks. The very brilliant students can go into the sciences, engineering and medicine, and those who do not do well have no choice but to go into Arabic language or Islamic studies! And very few end up in humanities (that’s a topic for another post). This then creates a social ideology about the Arabic language- mastering it is only for those who can’t do sciences, those who cannot think deeply or process complex ideas.

The second thing Qatar has done to combat this ideology and the way Arabic language is viewed is through the opening of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. A state-of-the-art university that primarily teaches in Arabic the following subjects: history, Arabic language and linguistics, media and cultural studies, philosophy and others soon to be added. They emphasise that students need to have a high proficiency of Arabic as well as English. They intend to publish papers, books and journals in Arabic and to make it a research-itensive university on an international level. This way they hope the Arabic language can not only be present in academia but that through the use of Arabic for technical subjects new ‘Arabised’ words can be created. This will put an end to transliterating words from English or French, and instead it will allow for agreed upon Arabic terminology (of course it will still be based on the original English or French). Thus making the Arabic language very relevant in academia and knowledge therefore cementing its future in the lives of native Arabic speakers (I will write more about the institute as I learn about it). It is ambitious but at least they are putting their talk to the test by walking it!

The deterioration in the proficiency of the Arabic language among native speaking children has been a topic of concern among Arabic teachers, educators and policy makers for a while, but the last 5 years has seen an increase in that concern. The steps that Qatar is taking now are based on those concerns, the only question is- will these steps be effective?

Sources:

http://www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/news/qatar/366681/renaissance-of-arabic-language-forum-from-wednesday/

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/qatar/qatar-to-host-arabic-language-renaissance-forum-1.1656068/

http://www.gulf-times.com/story/475962/Call-to-protect-and-preserve-the-Arabic-language/

http://www.qna.org.qa/en-us/News/16012015090048/The-Second-Renaissance-of-Arabic-Language-Forum-Kicks-Off/

http://dohanews.co/doha-institute-graduate-studies-prepares-open-fall/

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How’s Arabic doing? Some reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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