Jordan: Giving Arabic its rightful place?

Petra's Treasury (al-Khazneh) in southern Jordan.

Image via Wikipedia

The Jordan Times reported that the president of the University of Jordan, has urged lecturers to do their utmost to speak formal Arabic in the classrooms. This has been met with mixed feelings as some people agree whilst others are skeptical of the idea. Below, as usual I have pasted the article without editing…


Standard vs. colloquial Arabic debate surfaces on campus

By Thameen Kheetan

AMMAN – Several students at the University of Jordan (UJ) have criticised UJ President Khalid Karaki’s suggestion that standard Arabic be used in lectures, while many professors welcomed the idea. Last week, Karaki sent a letter to the university’s teaching staff asking them to “do their best to… refrain from utilising colloquial Arabic [amiyya] inside lecture halls,“ because he said amiyya usage affects the national Arabic identity.

“Using the colloquial in addressing each other, in addition to being lax on standard Arabic grammar… is an indication of bad taste and intellectual shallowness,” said the president, who is an Arabic language specialist. He noted that amiyya has become widespread at the expense of formal Arabic, and considered this a threat to the Arab world’s “cultural identity”.

Several students said they would not accept lectures in standard Arabic because they are not used to it in their daily lives and it could lead to difficulties in understanding the course material.

“It’s weird, students will laugh at each other when they speak classical Arabic in class,” 20-year-old Haneen Bisharat told The Jordan Times. The business major pointed out that standard Arabic could be used in language classes that are obligatory for all Jordanian students, as well as optional lectures and activities in order to preserve the classical language, which she admits is fading out.

“I do not agree with the president,” said history student Rami, 21, who added that although he understands the standard Arabic, “I would face difficulties since I am used to amiyya”. Second-year marketing student Zuhdi Abu Issa agreed with him.

“The colloquial dialect creates an atmosphere of fun and comfort,” he told The Jordan Times, and described standard Arabic as “strict, formal and depressing”. Saba Obeidat, who studies theatre, explained that the colloquial makes her feel closer to the professors “as if I am talking to someone in my daily life”.

But many lecturers were partial to Karaki’s proposal. Political science professor Omar Hadrami believes amiyya undermines the language and affects Arabic thought. “It has been taking the place of standard Arabic and the biggest danger is that English words like ‘hi’ and ‘hello’ are being introduced to amiyya,” he told The Jordan Times.

Noting that the president’s suggestion is “very applicable”, he said, “I can feel this in my lectures, during which I always try to speak standard Arabic.” Geophysics and seismology professor Najib Abou Karaki also lauded the idea, but said it would take time to be totally applied on campus.”The main goal should be to make the student understand… it’s OK to adopt classical Arabic as a general trend,” he said, adding that it should be applied in a “flexible” manner so that the language used in lecture halls is also acceptable to students coming from different Arab countries, “who don’t have to master the Jordanian dialect”.

Abeer Dababneh, an assistant professor in the faculty of law noted that many lecturers employ a mixture of standard and colloquial Arabic.She said the implementation of standard Arabic would be difficult in the beginning, but over time, “people will get used to it and won’t find it strange”.”In an academic frame, there should be a formal atmosphere because we are not talking about personal issues,” she told The Jordan Times.

Not all students, however, are averse to the idea.Among them is Obada Shahwan, who studies Sharia (Islamic studies).”Of course I agree… the Koran came in classical Arabic and we should protect our language,” the 22-year-old pointed out.


The most positive aspect about this article is that at least the difference of opinion is in which type of Arabic to use, not the fear that Arabic is not used- something I have not shown for a long time. As far as I know the Jordanian education system emphasises the use of Arabic as a medium of instruction making their students strong and proficient users of their language. They excel in literature, science, and in learning English, and their English is very good which reminds me of a theory in second language acquisition (L2) that states- one’s proficiency in their mother tongue (L1)  will determine their level of proficiency in the second language (L2). So could it be that their English language is so good, often better than those in other Arab states who learn English from nursery, because they were well grounded in Arabic?  Anyway that’s a whole different topic, maybe we can discuss it next time.

 Due to the fact that their Arabic language is so good many of the Arabic teachers in the Gulf schools and universities are Jordanian (and Syrian, Yemeni and Egyptian which gives one an idea of the place Arabic takes in their education system and yet they too worry about the demise of Arabic!) and their early Arabic instruction allows them to be able to teach Arabic at advanced levels.  Both sides acknowledge the importance of Arabic and yet have good arguments for their point of view, I hope that these types of discussions can continue because at least Arabic has been put on centre stage and is not fighting to reclaim its rightful place in an Arabic speaking country.


Source: (The Jordan Times)

Omani Arabizi? Is no one immune to this?

Oman castle


 A wonderful day, great weather and lovely people around me, what more could one ask for whilst taking it easy? I was reading around and as usual I came across this news article in the Oman Observer (dated 2nd June 2010) in which the writer describes his surprise at the spread of Arabizi in Oman.    

I have put it here in full without alteration or editing: ———————————-    

“Arabizi” has found way into my house through junior and his sister. Although we come from the same clan of eastern part of this country where my grandparents were born and brought up, the two have subscribed to a new one. This new clan of theirs speaks a language that is strange to me. But because I am the chief of the house, I am trying very hard to learn it. You know as the saying goes, ‘if you can’t beat them join them’. For those who don’t know, ‘Arabizi’ is a hybrid fusion of Arabic and English. This clan also exists in Spain but there they speak ‘spanglish’ a good combination of Spanish and English.
My effort to learn ‘Arabizi’ is bearing some fruits and in the near future you will realise that I will be using words from that clan including using ‘tsabahing’ for bathing and ‘darabing’ to mean training. Very soon I will start writing in that language of ‘Arabizi’. Right now I have dedicated time to learn how to speak it. These days if somebody starts making up things i.e. being deceptive; I say to him/her “you are kharafing” I learnt that from my teachers, Junior and his sister. They tell me that it is unfashionable for anybody to speak in one language especially for those coming from biangular schools and that is the reason why ‘Arabizi’ was discovered. But I know one reason these children including other teenagers’ use this language is to hide words from their parents particularly when it is used in reference to them. Like the other day when I had overlooked the fact that junior’s sister got unsatisfactory results in her class. I heard her telling junior “Abui is very tayyib these days; I heeb him very much, this term I irisbti but he didn’t nazae me” to which her brother replied ‘stop kharafing and don’t adhab me”
My knowledge of ‘Arabizi’ told me that junior’s sister was saying that I am the best chap in the whole world because I did not put her off after she had brought unsatisfactory results in school.
Globalisation has changed my home so much so that junior and his sister along with their mother and their father (that is me the son of the soil) do not just speak Arabic or just English but a combination of both. This reminds me of one old friend of mine who said “ my grandfather smokes like a chimney and my father drinks like a fish and I am a good combination of both”
Anyway the problem here is that neither proper Arabic nor English are being used. ‘Arabizi’ is now common with teenagers. They use it in verbal and even written communication. The danger is that purity of both Arabic and English language is never maintained.
The father of junior is willing to learn any kind of language at any cost. But there is a limit to how far I can go. For example, I completely refuse to understand the kind of language that is spoken by some spoilt people in this city. These types have a habit of coming to me saying “father of junior, my best friend — the bank has blocked my account and this month I didn’t get any salary. Even some remaining change will help” Another would come saying “father of junior, my saviour — I paid all this month’s salary at my children’s school so much so that I have nothing left”
These types of clans will keep on talking about things you don’t want to hear and in a manner that cannot be said to be interesting. I refuse to understand their kind of language because if I did, I would be forced to wide open my wallet.    


What I found interesting about this article is that it’s personal. The author is living this Arabizi experience and he shows that although he doesn’t like it, he cannot resist it- a fact about language and change. In order to effectively communicate with and understand his children he has to learn this new language and way of being. His small examples of codeswitching/mixing is a natural phenomenon (according to linguists) that almost all bilinguals do when speaking. So when I am in conversation (with people who share my languages) I might switch between up to three languages at a time, it just adds something to the conversation. We can say all those switched words in English, but when we switch the exchanges become more interesting, there is a shared sense of meaning when we codeswitch. This reminds me of something I read about a New York Italian card club, where once a week men of Italian descent would meet and play cards and eat Italian food. What the researcher found was that to feel important, the young 3rd generation American-Italians, were switching into Italian even though they spoke very little Italian if any! How interesting?!    

 Having said that, I think that the writer here makes an important point that it’s not so much the switching that saddens him, but that none of the languages are learned correctly or fully for that matter. And I think that is what I agree with, Arabic is not in danger because of English per se, but ultimately because there is a hurry to learn English before establishing Arabic as a mother tongue.  There is a belief in linguistics, in which we claim that bilinguals have very high IQs because their brains process more than one language at a time and so they are very intelligent at problem solving etc… Recently, this blanket term of ‘bilingual’ has been looked at closely, and what is emerging is that in order for this intelligence to be attributed, the speaker has to be fluent, well accomplished and very confident in their first language, before learning a second language (consecutive bilingual).  Or that they learn two languages at the same time, with the same input and are able to articulate both languages at the same level of proficiency (simultaneous bilingual). This is where true codeswitching becomes so easy because many of us grew up speaking more than two languages. But if you have a child who barely knows one language and then begins to learn another language and even that language they do not perfect- there is a problem. May be this is a linguist’s paranoia but I think a language needs to be understood really well, because language is more than just words.  Each language is a world view, a way of thinking, being, and seeing others and a speaker appreciates this the more they know the language. It is the most effective tool by which we communicate, get that wrong, everything else will go too. I usually sit and think what is the frame of mind of these speakers who do not master any language, but mix and  mesh? Interesting! I would love to read on that topic, I hope someone somewhere is doing the research and we’ll benefit from the outcome soon.  Notice how he refuses to ‘understand’ Arabizi, he claims if he acknowledges it, he will be obliged to give them money. Another evidence that language is more than just words,(see Steven Pinker’s book here) it induces action, emotions and obligations upon the hearer.  Once again as I always say I am keeping my eyes open to see the developments of Arabizi in the next few years and into the next decade. I wonder if there will be a generation of Arabizi only speakers, fancy that?!       

Oman dunes 2008



Suggested readings:    

Auer,J.P.C (1984) ‘Bilingual Conversation’ Amsterdam: John Benjamins    

Li Wei (2000) ‘The bilingualism reader’ London: SAGE    

Hamers, J and Blanc, M (2000) ‘Bilingualism and Bilinguality’ 2nd edition. Cambridge: CUP    

Romaine, S (2000) ‘Language in Society: an introduction in sociolinguistics’. Oxford, OUP

Is the Arabic language “dying”?

I should really be enjoying myself now that I am on holiday! But as usual I could not help it when I came across the article I am about to paste below, I am tired but looking forward the break just as soon as I find a decent cup of  English tea I will be fine! It’s all coffee here, it’s so early in the morning but my body clock has not adjusted yet or the clock on the blog?!  Hopefully I will try posting as mush as I can in the next few weeks.  Right, another posting on the so-called death of Arabic language, and some future predictions of what the fate of this powerful language will be. It does make for a melancholic read, and as usual could be a wake-up call to those who regard Arabic language as part of their culture and heritage to do something.



DOHA // Abbas al Tonsi sees something wrong in a future where citizens of Gulf countries wear dishdashas and abayas but are unable to speak Arabic.

“How can you say ‘I am an Arab’ if you don’t know the language?” said the professor of Arabic at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

For Mr al Tonsi, who has written several Arabic textbooks and has been teaching the language for almost 40 years, the crisis is personal. “I am afraid that after 20 years,” he said, “Arabic will just be a language of religious ritual.”
The native tongue for more than 300 million people and used regularly by 1.6 billion Muslims, Arabic is in no danger of extinction. But because of the dominance of English, its usage in everyday life is under threat in several of the Gulf’s smaller states.

A senior official at Qatar’s ministry of culture, arts and heritage recently acknowledged Arabic’s decline and underscored the seriousness of the problem. “Language is the key issue for the identity of a society,” Marzook Basher Binmarzook said last month.

Mr al Tonsi’s forthcoming study of Arabic instruction reveals how Qatari schools are helping to erode that identity. Standards are vague and not communicated well to the teachers, he said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Meet this level of efficiency’. But how do you guide the teachers to get the students there?” said Mr al Tonsi. “What exactly are the main ideas? In these standards, there are no indicators of intent, no uniform lesson plans or content.” Secondly, he said, most of the Arabic teachers were inadequately trained and relied on outdated methods. “The teachers mainly teach grammar, and it’s mainly teacher-centred,” Mr al Tonsi said. “They lecture rather than engage the students.”

Finally, schools use a wide variety of textbooks, which complicates proficiency testing. They also lean too heavily on grammar, according to Mr al Tonsi, and use simplistic drills that fail to develop critical thinking. Further, most books are overly proud and authoritarian, he said.

“‘We are the best, we are the bravest’ – you feel this is nonsense if you’re a young person,” said Mr al Tonsi, who co-authored Al Kitaab, an Arabic textbook used in about 700 universities worldwide.

In addition, fewer Gulf nationals are opting for teaching careers because of low pay and a lack of cultural respect. And a major reform programme in Qatar has instituted a more westernised curriculum.

Gulf culture has in recent decades shifted towards the West. Arabs represent a minority population in Qatar, as in the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain. English dominates business, and is more common in many public places, such as malls. Many schools now favour English as the primary medium of instruction. And Education City in Doha, American University in Dubai and Sharjah and New York University in Abu Dhabi point to a higher educational system that is embracing English. Many students and their parents see it as the best route to success.

“Many Arab families now want their children to learn English before they learn Arabic,” said Jinanne Tabra, the founder of Araboh, a producer of contemporary Arabic learning materials. “There is this ridiculous impression that English is somehow superior to Arabic.”

But instead of becoming bilingual, most students in Qatar lack fluency in any language. In the past four years, only five to seven per cent of primary and junior high school students in Qatar achieved acceptable standards in national tests for Arabic and English. He urged schools to improve teacher training and create extra curricular activities in which students could converse in Arabic – book clubs, speech groups, drama clubs and poetry readings. He also thinks schools should use audio and video as the main texts, and teach an Arabic that is challenging, enjoyable, respectful of young minds and develops critical thinking.

Maybe learning Arabic could even be fun. “You will never learn a language unless you are willing to learn it,” he said. “No one learns a language by force.”


What a predicament for the Gulf countries! The more I read these articles and the more I think about the issues raised even by top government officials of the concerned countries; and I constantly ask myself , “what are they doing about it”?  To what extent does Arabic in their countries need to deteriorate in order for something to be done about it? Or is it that simply no one cares enough to do something about it? You might think that putting a law in place might be the solution, but people usually have this tendency to break the law when they can, so how effective is the law that Arabic must be used in all public buildings? When most of the workers are foreign or even if they are not all the software and interface used in the workplace is in English and has no Arabic equivalent what are the chances that Arabic will be used?  I could go on, but the more I am reading about this the more I am surprised that nothing of real substance is being done to save “their” language.  As I always say let’s give it five to ten years and see what will happen will Arabic still be in decline or will it not? I am collecting every article, every conference paper, every book and news/entertainment article on this issue and I am hoping to compile a corpus on the issue of Arabic being in ‘danger’. After five years it will be an excellent source of research and discourse analysis to see where the rhetoric is going and how the discourse on this subject is being shaped.  As usual your emails on this topic always interest me and I am grateful to those who email me with new ideas and links to other similar topics. Keep reading!


How Hindi and Urdu might just take Arabic over in the UAE!

Arabic language is in a huge decline- yes we are talking about that again- and really it is becoming tiresome! The new article I am putting here is taken from the Khaleej Times (online), and it addresses the decline of Arabic in the UAE. There is even a hint that Hindi and Urdu might take over the status of Arabic as a national language, both in terms of the number of speakers and how easy they are to learn and communicate in. Here is the article (without any changes):  


‘Arabic language use on decline in its own lands’ 

 Is Arabic the lingua franca of an Islamic-Arab state of the stature and eminence of the UAE? The spectre of doubt sweeping through the minds of Dr Nasser Shrouf, Editor of Deutsche Welle, the state-owned German TV/Radio and Internet portal in Arabic language has brought forth the answer in the negative. Dr Shrouf, a Syrian national, said he was surprised by the fact that the use of Arabic language is on the decline in its own lands although he did not venture to advance reasons for the plight. Dr Shrouf, who was the chief guest at a dinner reception hosted by Erwin Ganzer, Head of Chancery/Press Affairs of the German embassy in the capital recently, said his Arabic was “showing signs of rust”, as he had a long stint in Germany to develop the online web site for the Arabic programmes of Deutsche Welle, and that he was looking forward to interesting interactive sessions with residents here which may serve in good measure to refresh his knowledge of, and conversational prowess, in his mother tongue. “But I do not find people, including those whose native language is Arabic, conversing in the language,” he said with a lump in his throat.  It is up to the academicians and connoisseurs of Arabic language to examine the cause, he said, referring to students in schools here who have undergone more than a decade of academic exercises, but were unable to even spell out their names in Arabic. “When I return home to file stories on the online Arabic web site of my organisation (, that was created in January this year, I shall make it a point to muse over this dismal state of affairs,” he said. A heartening feature, however, is that since the web site was created, there have been over 1.5 million impressions from residents of the UAE, second only to Egypt, and considering the relatively small geographical size of the UAE. This is a matter of joy.  A cross-section of residents spoken to, whose mother tongue is not Arabic, said they would love to learn the language, but did not know where or whom to turn to. Private tuitions are expensive and the language institutes are not up to the mark, as at the end of the sessions, “you are where you were at the beginning of the course”, is the common refrain. Muslims are particularly eager to develop functional prowess in Arabic, as it is the language in which the Holy Quran was revealed. But they have also not gone far in realising their dreams, including many Pakistani and Indian expatriates whose mother tongue is Urdu, and are therefore, quite familiar with the script, although their comprehension of the text of the holy book in pathetically wanting. There are educational institutes in Syria which offer three-month courses in Arabic for a nominal fee and those who can take time off can benefit from the exercise. “But how many employers will let you off the hook to pursue the ambition?” is their query. Krishna Bihari Tiwari, a teacher of Hindi at the Abu Dhabi Indian School, wondered how Hindi and Urdu, apart from of course English that is credited as the universal language of business and commerce, could spread so fast, while even those with a flair to pick up languages, could not come to terms with Arabic language. He suggested that popular film songs, that come in audio and videocassettes, should carry the lyrics in Arabic, so that people can understand the meaning and hum the tunes as well. The film is a popular medium and the songs and dialogues can help popularise the use of the language, he averred.  Tripati made a pointed reference to the classical Sanskrit language, which also languished in similar plight, and ultimately perished and is no more a “living language”. The longevity of a language is not measured by the scale of human life, counted in generations, for it to vanish from practice, but takes eons to fade out unless the protagonists take appropriate steps. It will be a sad story, for any language suffering neglect, particularly in its own citadel, he added. 


I don’t think any Arab wants Arabic to be like Sanskrit! It is a good read though, it makes people think especially the language planners and those in the education department. 



Sheikha Mouza: ‘The Arabic language is in danger because of “trendy English phrases” ‘ 23rd March 2010 reports on Sheikha Mouza’s trip to a Jeddah women’s college. She addressed the women about the importance of education for them as Gulf citizens and her firm belief that women deserve the same educational opportunity as their male counterparts. Qatar’s first lady is very popular among young Gulf women especially those in education or university students because she understands what it means to live in that part of the world and to be a woman. 

For any researcher this is excellent data, a type of reality of how Arabic is used on the ground, and a testimony by a speaker themselves not an outside researcher! 

 She spoke about education and its importance and in the same breath warned against the weakening of Arabic because of English phrases. It is very common for a televison/satellite channel presenter to begin speaking Arabic (Modern Standard or slang)  and then insert many English phrases in place of Arabic ones, even though the Arabic lexicon has words that can express the same meanings.  A lot of codeswitching takes place and some people do not see the use of it. For example they might say (excuse the non use of IPA characters still working on getting them on this blog:

Tayyib ya jama’ah naakhudh BREAK wa narja’  BYE

okay everyone let’s take a break and then come back bye

Both these English words are available in Arabic but the switching still took place. There are many other examples but I do not have them at hand.

The most frequent codeswitching I have seen is on shows that discuss fashion and beauty or movies.  All the information will be given in Arabic and then there are continuous insertions of English words, such as; lip gloss, style, hair, dryer, perm, colour, eyeshadow and many others etc..  Is Arabic that weak that it does not have these words available for its speakers? 

It is interseting that the first lady chose to speak about education and language threat at the same time! Do the two relate to eachother? If so how? Most of the higher education in the Gulf is in English and increasingly so is the medium of instruction in most secondary schools- so why the sudden warning? Is Arabic really under threat? This is what I asked in one of my initial postings. Do we blame English?  Part of the answer may lay in the symbolic meaning of English as a language in the Gulf. It may stand for sophistication,  a certain prestige or more precisely a status marker meaning that perhaps the speaker is educated. But seriously is English forced upon these speakers?

Is English to blame or are the speakers the reason? The so-called danger English poses to Arabic is a topic of great debate in the Middle East. Many different opinions and many different suggestions of how to overcome these fears are becoming increasingly popular. The situation is very complex and those in charge of the language planning and policy perhaps need to look closely at language use in Education and other spheres of interaction. If many people, both unknown and those of a high profile such as Sheikha Mouza say Arabic is in danger may be they have a point.  But the solution?

Something interesting on Diglossia

I have just read this excellent paper written by Dr. Reem Bassiouney at Georgetown University. It discusses the idea of the diglossic nature of Arabic from the point of view of an Arabic novel by Baha Tahir titled:الحب في المنفى Love in exile.

Enjoy reading it, it is attached here :