Fight for Arabic? But which Arabic?

arabic dialectsWith the current concern for the loss or weakening of the Arabic language among some scholars, one question pops to mind….which Arabic are they talking about? Egyptian? Yemeni? Oh but is it Sana’ani or Southern Yemeni? And even within the south which dialect, which style? Which words? Or is it Syrian or Saudi Arabic? Which Arabic really is deserving of being saved?

should we ignore dialects just because they are unwritten (at least most of them, but egyptian Arabic and others can be found in print)? Should  we only concern ourselves with the Fusha (Classical or Quranic Arabic) or MSA (Modern standard Arabic) which many people in day to day conversation do not use (unless they are teaching, reading the news to viewers etc….). Arabic is a complex language, as I am sure you already know that, but if there are claims it is weakening the obvious thought is, “well let’s strengthen it then”. Yes but which Arabic?

While I sit here with all these hundreds of people passing by me, others sat down near me, others saudi dialectseating and talking, each is using language in one way or other. Through conversation (some even being annoyingly loud!), some texting, or blogging, or writing they are communicating and their only wish is to send a message across effectively, so should the type or style of the language matter? Is not the most important thing that the other person (recipient of the message) understand the words, meanings and inferences of the speaker (or communicator)? I think yes. That is key to language, and how it has evolved in history to what we understand it to be today. People have always to a huge extent affected language use, through contact with other people and their languages or through their own natural development and movement through time, their use of language has become accepted and standardised.  Should we apply the same principle and reasoning to the Arabic language, and consider all dialects as worthy of being part of the Arabic language, and therefore worthy of being fought for? I think yes, we are our languages! What do you think? Do you think that dialects weaken Arabic in any way? Something to think about, a matter I think about a lot…..

Just thought I’d share a quick thought that I’ve just had because of sitting somewhere where so many people from all parts of the world are surrounding me….naturally language, its dynamics and role came to mind and more specifically the case of the Arabic language.

 

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Learning Arabic: Robert Lane Greene’s perspective

Arabic Books

It’s great to be back after a break, Ramadan is over, wishing everybody Eid mubarak (Happy Eid), a new academic year- so it’s back to the usual.  There are exciting things for me this year and for Arabizi too I hope. A warm welcome to the new readers, I hope that Arabizi will be a good resource for you and not rubbish in your inbox. And also thanks to all those who wrote emails and comments on the blog these are very much appreciated….. now to the post….

When I wrote the previous short post about Emarati Arabic being taught to expats in the UAE, it never occurred to me how a non-native speaker might feel about that. Nor did I ever know that as a result of one of the shortest posts I have ever written, that I would learn so much about the perceptions, feelings and frustrations of Arabic language learners. But that is exactly what happen in the form of a clear and constructive comment from Robert Lane Greene, journalist at the Economist and best-selling author of ‘You are what you speak- Grammar Grounches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity’.  A keen language learner and enthusiast of Arabic language himself (the number of languages he knows would put any linguist to shame), saw the beneficial side of the teaching of Emarati to non-Arabic speakers. The points he raised made me think not only about the challenges non-speakers face, but it also allowed me to see what I deemed as negative in a new way.  What his comment made me do was realise that given the diglossic situation of Arabic with its complicated grammar (not a negative thing) and many dialects, that perhaps an effort such as the teaching of Emarati Arabic was to be appreciated. And maybe should be looked at as a step towards strengthening Arabic learning on part of the non-native speaker as it would give them access to ‘real- spoken’ Arabic as opposed to textbook examples of ‘how’ things should be said. Following that comment and subsequent conversations he kindly agreed to honour Arabizi and write a guest post for us :-).

It is candid, detailed to the point and describes Arabic from a non-native learner’s point of view which is rarely read about. Most learners complain at the complicated nature of the grammar, the rules and the impossibility to converse in Arabic. Most students will relate to the struggles and challenges he mentions and I am sure even the funny parts. I also hope that Arabic teachers can take note of how non-native speakers feel about the learning of Arabic language and hopefully work towards making it easier for the students. Yes, I know it is only one person’s experience but, it is a consistent, sincere and continuous one therefore lessons need to learned from it.

I have added it below without editing from myself- thank you Lane, a real treat for us at Arabizi. Comments are most welcome and I am sure Lane will not mind answering or adding to any points readers will make.

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Six years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate on learning Arabic. Since it’s still the second Google result for “learning Arabic”, people occasionally write me and ask me if I’ve made it past the problems I described there (with some attempt at humor, but no exaggeration). I’m happy to report that yes, I have made a lot of progress over the years, alhamdulillah.  I can read a newspaper with minor dictionary help, I can chat with cab drivers in Brooklyn who are usually amazed by the white American guy who speaks with them in decent colloquial, and I can follow, with some difficulty, a full-speed al-Jazeera broadcast on a familiar topic.  It’s been a long road, but fascinating.

When I started the journey, the hardest part was for me was the forbidding grammar of Modern Standard Arabic: ten verbal paradigms, reverse-gender agreement of numbers, the feminine singular for plural inanimate subjects, the litany of mind-bending quirks familiar to the student of the language. These are the things I focused on in that piece for Slate.

Since then, though, the single most frustrating thing about making progress is the polyglossia of the Arab world. Yes, we refer to diglossia most of the time, but that implies two varieties, high and low. For a journalist like me, who has followed the fascinating news from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to the Gulf in the past year, the problem isn’t just learning just one “high” for reading and another “low” for speaking, but picking one of several colloquial Arabics, maybe picking a sub-colloquial among them, finding good teaching materials, and sticking with it.

My first Arabic teacher was a very nice Moroccan, and a very bad teacher. He began by teaching us the letters, having a hard time explaining the emphatic consonants to his puzzled students (to him the difference between daad and daal was just obvious). But worse, he began teaching us to speak in Moroccon colloquial, while never telling us that that was what he was doing.  I learned ish taakul, “what are you eating?” or “what will you have to eat?”, with no idea that this was Moroccan dialect. What can I say? The class was free. You get what you pay for. I quit.

My next class was at New York University’s continuing education school, with Karam, a Palestinian. He was also a very nice guy, and the quality of the class was much higher.  But once again, diglossia was a problem. Karam was a big believer in colloquial, and so taught it alongside MSA from the start.  We had a big book (a bad one, in my opinion: Ahlan wa Sahlan from Yale University Press) for MSA, and Karam’s home-made handouts for the Palestinian colloquial. He would teach us something in MSA, and then give the colloquial straight away. It was too much. I simply shut my ears at the colloquial parts, trying to remember only one version of everything. MSA was hard enough on its own. 

With my third teacher, things improved. Ahmed was an Egyptian, but taught no-nonsense MSA. He was pot-bellied, loud and funny, and it was hard not to enjoy just being in his classroom. The only Egyptian we got was in the form of songs, which he would occasionally teach, and positively insist we sing along. Looking back, I think it was a good pedagogical technique; it was painful for everyone, but so it was funny, and everyone relaxed as we got back into the MSA.  And I still remember one song:  Salma, ya salama, ruhna w giina b-salaama. I never learned any Egyptian colloquial beyond that, though I remember Ahmed’s typically Egyptian stress pattern:  al-qaa-HI-ra, not al-QAA-hi-ra.

After Ahmed, I was on my own, with no time for classes. I kept the much better books he used in his class, the Al-Kitaab series, and worked my way through them on my own. As I started putting fairly fine finishing touches on my knowledge of MSA, I began to want to learn a colloquial properly. I had met two Egyptians at a bar in South Africa who didn’t speak English, and the only thing I had been able to resort to was MSA, very weird for all of us.  I wanted to start speaking the way Arabs speak for real.

But which dialect?  My biggest interest was in the Levantine countries, I decided. So simple: I’ll learn “Levantine colloquial.” I was loth to have to pick one, but that’s what I chose, with silent apologies to the Iraqis, Saudis and Algerians. Only to discover, as I gathered materials, there were coursebooks on Syrian Arabic, on Lebanese Arabic, on Palestinian Arabic… and these were far more different from each other than I wanted them to be!  And this was Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem Arabic.  Imagine my annoyance on learning that if I traveled to a small village in the Levant, much less talked to a Bedouin, I’d probably encounter yet another Arabic I couldn’t understand.

I flitted aimlessly between my three books. There really is such a thing as a Levantine continuum, and I understand that Syrians and Palestinians understand each other well. But there were all these choices I had to make, and didn’t want to: –kum or –kon for the 2ndperson plural attached pronoun?  Final taa-marbuta becomes –e, or no? (Hiyya or hiyye?)  In my own book, I write with joy about the messy real world of language. In learning Arabic, I wanted there to be one right variety, or by God, at least only two clear-cut varieties I had to learn.  But the universe didn’t offer me a simple solution.  Today I speak a sort of mishmash Levantine, probably mostly Palestinian.  (I re-hired Karam as a private tutor for a few hours of practice.)

 All of this has made me wonder about how Arabs feel about all this.  I have encountered opinions from 

– denial (“this isn’t an issue—everyone speaks one language, really”), to 

– scorn of the dialects (“the Bedouins are the only ones who speak real Arabic”—the belief that Bedouins basically speak Classical Arabic, but most children have to go to school to learn “real Arabic”), to 

– embrace of the dialects (“we speak the nicest Arabic in [my home country], which is incidentally closest to fusha”).  

Opinions seem as varied as the linguistic map itself.  

Pragmatically, it would be fabulous if the much-mooted “Middle Arabic”—combining the most common dialect features with a simplified MSA grammar—would appear as a kind of koine. But there is no one to bring it into existence.  So the result is many different “Middle Arabics” improvised by speakers from different regions trying to talk to each other, or by educated speakers on television trying to sound serious (classical) and real (dialect) at the same time by mixing elements of the two ad-hoc.

The situation is difficult enough for Arabs; it is harder still for the learner. But nobody promised it would be easy. I’m glad I’ve learned as much as I have, but I know that I’ll be adding piecemeal to that knowledge of Arabic—Arabics, really—for the rest of my life.

Reading Arabic ‘Different’ for the Brain, New Study Suggests

Well it’s been a few nice days and the weather is getting warmer here, which is always nice considering the amount of work I have to do! I came across a link to this post from a tweet earlier today and as usual thought I’d share it. The article is based on the findings of a PhD student (this year 2011 still fresh) who was investigating the areas of the brain used by Arabic readers….the findings are fascinating read on to see what they were..

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ScienceDaily (May 19, 2011) — Arabic readers recognise words in a different way from readers of other languages, a new study suggests.

This doctoral research at the University of Leicester is analysing the reading differences of individuals as well as across languages — and has shown dissimilarities in how Arabic readers recognise words. Conducted by Abubaker Almabruk from the School of Psychology, the study has shown there are clear differences in how the right and left sides of the brain recognise Arabic words. Almabruk’s study is one of the first to examine the cognitive and physiological processes underlying word recognition and reading in Arabic, providing important insight into the effects of direction of reading, the form of the script and the construction of the language. His research reveals the intricacies of an everyday behaviour that most people find relatively easy and will help explain why some people find it difficult to read and provide insights into how these difficulties might be remedied. Almabruk commented: “Differences in left and right brain function influence the recognition of words each side of where a reader is looking on a page but only when these words are outside of central vision — this reveals both left/right brain specialisation for reading and evidence that the two halves of the brain collaborate when making sense of words in central vision. Native Arabic readers recognise Arabic words most efficiently when they fixate these words at their very centre.” “This shows that where we look in a word is very important for reading and the findings for Arabic are different from findings for English and other western languages, which are read most efficiently by looking at a location between the beginning and middle of the word.” On the possible causes for the reading differences, he said that “this might have happened because Arabic is read from right to left and words are formed from cursive text (i.e., the letters in Arabic naturally join together, even in printed formats, much like hand-written text in English).” Dr Kevin Paterson from the School of Psychology added: “Arabic is one of the oldest and most beautiful languages, and the second-most widely used language in the world, yet how it is read and understood has received surprisingly little attention. The experimental approach that Abubaker has taken in his research promises to reveal a huge amount about how this language and other languages are read and understood.” This research is being presented at the Festival of Postgraduate Research on Thursday, June 16. The annual one-day exhibition of postgraduate research offers organisations and the public the opportunity to meet the next generation of innovators and cutting-edge researchers. More than 50 University of Leicester students will explain the real world implications of their research in an engaging and accessible way. The event is open to the public and free to attend. More information at http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ssds/sd/pgrd/fpgr.

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Sometimes people imagine PhD students do crazy unimportant research well it seems this PhD student found a huge gap in the psychology of reading and filled it with excellent knowledge that was needed. Although Arabic language is popular for research students there are still so many areas to look into apart from literature, translations and politics. This new research, is one that gave attention to a neglected area in Arabic language studies; it claims that readers of Arabic read differently from readers of English or other western languages (i.e: Romanized orthography) and that this finding can determine for other researchers how people with reading difficulties can be helped. Researchers in fields such as speech therapy or those working with children/adults who suffer from dyslexia are always looking for specific real research and findings to help them to assist readers/speakers of languages other than English. As always I am wondering what it might mean for reading of Arabizi, reading Arabic words through Latin script mmm?! I am hoping to follow this research and hopefully get a copy of the thesis I am sure it will make good reading when I become less busy.

Source: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110518080109.htm

Arabic teaching methods need to be upgraded

Books

Image by Rodrigo Galindez via Flickr

I am putting something here about the work one person is doing to promote the teaching of Arabic to children outside the Arab world. Here is the piece below, without editing as usual- enjoy.

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Jinanne Tabra is promoting Arabic learning among children living outside the Arab region .Doha-May 25, 2011: It is time to upgrade Arabic learning approaches among children as the current ones are “outdated” and “lacking fun elements” which can attract children to learn the language, said Jinanne Tabra, entrepreneur and founder of ARABOH.com.

Tabra, who used to find learning Arabic an “awful burden” during her school days, has started an internationally acclaimed project to help make Arabic easier and more interesting for children, particularly those living outside the Arab region.

“I believe that we do need to look for more effective methods for Arabic teaching in which fun should be a key element,” she said to students at her former school, Qatar Academy, a member of Qatar Foundation.

While still a business student at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar – also a part of Qatar Foundation – Jinanne Tabra realized that Arabs living outside the Middle East had very few options for buying Arab language literature. So shortly after graduation, she founded Araboh.com, one of the first, and most successful, online bookstores dedicated to the Arabic language.

A graduate of business from Carnegie Mellon University‘s Qatar Foundation campus in 2008, CEO Middle East magazine named her as one of the “Top 30 under 30” and her company has become a vital resource for Arabs around the world.The online bookstore – which has sold thousands of books around the world and grown by 200% during the past three years – is now in the process of establishing a branch of her company in the US as part of an expansion plan for the company.

“I believe there is a need for the very best Arabic educational tools to be made available for every family living in non-Arab countries. I believe our children should feel proud to be Arabs and promote the true message of Arab peace throughout the world. I believe this has never been as important as it is today,” Tabra explained. Araboh.com is now visiting schools in Qatar and UAE and hosting Arabic language festivals to promote the language among children.

“We have high standards for books we are selling. They must be fun and attractive,” she said, describing the online bookstore that now delivers books to young Arabic learners in 50 countries around the world. Tabra describes her constant surprise at the achievement her bookstore has become, especially considering her dislike of learning and Arabic.

Born in the UK to a Scottish mother and Iraqi father, Tabra had very few resources for Arabic learning while growing up. She spent ten years in Scotland before her family moved to the Gulf.

“During these years I was struggling to learn Arabic with other Arab children, but the books were very boring and difficult to understand. I hated Arabic so much. The text books were boring and I was a slow reader,” Jinanne told the Qatar Academy grade five students. Jinanne, who maintains that studying at Qatar FoundationQatar Foundation has armed her with the attitude, knowledge and skills needed to achieve great things, stressed that she was not financially driven when she started her business.

“It was passion rather than business which led me to start this project. I was looking for a meaningful thing and seeking for a goal to pursue. And I found that Arabic was a worthwhile goal. I want to promote it to be the first language in the world,” she said.

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Brilliant achievement and I think she has realised something we all realised as young students learning Arabic- the resources were not so great. Filling this gap might actually help students better their Arabic language proficiency and perhaps even love the Arabic language. If one loves a language they then move on to do great things with that language like writing high quality books (and not just translations, no offence to translators they do an absolutely marvellous job) in all areas of reading not just literature. There is a real need to write self-help book in Arabic language by someone who understands the Arab lifestyle and way of being, translations are good but a book that uses examples the readers relate to in reality are always better.  I think she has begun something great and that the next 50 years are bright for Arabic publishing as the demand for good high quality works will ensure this.  I also think that the Arabic teachers in the Arab countries can also take tips on how to improve their resources, although here the intention was to make books for students outside the Arab world I think the region itself is in as much need of those much improved books too (and a renewed teaching style but that’s another topic for another day). There needs to be a change in the resources and in how the students are taught that way students all over the world can learn Arabic in a way that keeps them motivated. It’s all good…slowly but surely.

Source: http://www.zawya.com/story.cfm/sidZAWYA20110525122613

Does language shape your thought? Join the debate

The Economist

Image via Wikipedia

Once again the debate has resurfaced- does language shape thought? I think it will always be a question and each time both sides of the argument have some type of evidence. This time it is  The Economist who are currently running a live debate on this question. They allow for readers to vote on the website asking for people’s view on this somewhat complicated question. Two brilliant scholars represent each side, Dr. Lera Boroditsky [whom I have mentioned before on this blog] and she is for the motion that yes language does shape thought. In opposition is Prof. Mike Liberman a linguist at Pennsylvania, who sees that we shape language to a certain extent, and that language cannot shape the way we think.

I thought I’d share this with the readers as the voting ends tonight and the results will be announced on Thursday. If Linguistic Relativity interests you, this is where you need to go as there are recommendations on what to read, and a summary of the whole idea from both the linguistic and psychological perspectives.  Go and read and vote- enjoy.

The link- http://www.economist.com/debate/days/view/626

I am still thinking- does language affect the way I think? The New York Times super article

In the last post I said I’d post the popular article featured in last month’s New York Times, titled: Does language affect the way you think? I have pasted some of the article below, please go and read the rest…..it is a good read.

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by Guy Deutscher

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century.

At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

Horacio Salinas for The New York Times

 In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

BUT IS THERE any evidence for this happening in practice?

Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant “The Awful German Language.”……….. READ THE REST HERE

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See? How interesting was that? He could have also added Arabic as a language that assigns the masculine, feminine, and sometimes neutral gender! Maybe one day we’ll get to the bottom of this.  The writer has written a book, ‘Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages’  to be published by Metropolitan Books. I thinnk it’s a must read for anyone intersted in the topic, I have just ordered my copy so maybe I’ll put up a review! 

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Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html?pagewanted=all

Arabic dying? Not in Egypt

As I was reading I came across this blog posting which sort of affirmed what I said in the last post and what I keep saying- that Arabic native speakers will lose their language if they do not make efforts to learn the language. Once again just to re-affirm Arabic as a language will NOT die not now not EVER, but the people will lose out, especially the native speakers. My claim is always this: Arabic will remain among Muslims as a language of religion but the cultural aspects will be lost, because without native speakers there is no sense to the proverbs or the historic aspects of why words are the way they are. What’s wrong with this? Nothing much but there will be an absence of culture and without culture a people or their way of being will be erased. It’s something that we can discuss forever, language and culture and does it really matter anyway! I have pasted the posting below, and at the bottom I make some comments.

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 Is Arabic a dying language?

From where I sit, in Cairo, the question seems a bit laughable. Dying? True, English is a “higher status” language here. Often, when I read a menu, I will find something like this: الآيس كريم That particular word (ice cream) has legitimately made its way into the Arabic language, but you can also find the transliteration of cheese instead ofجبنة and so on. Still, Egypt is a country where life and literature are conducted (by and large) in Arabic. Of course, if I squint at the question sideways, I can say: Sure, sure. After all, I’m dying. You’re dying. We’re all dying! But scholars in the Emirates mean this in a much more urgent way—and perhaps this is part of the reason why so much Emirati money is being laid down for culture: book prizes, poetry channels, literary fairs.

 In the Emirates, Tom Hundley writes, Arabic is “no better than the third most-spoken language” after English and Hindi. And since Arabs are a minority in the laborer-laden Emirates, that’s hardly a surprise.

 But apparently even Emiratis aren’t interested in their language. Hundley reports that last fall, only five new students enrolled in UAE University’s Arabic language and literature program. And most university students, he says, take their instruction in English.

Hundley says the Emiratis are aware and concerned: A new national plan, unveiled earlier this month and aimed at 2021, the United Arab Emirates’ 50th anniversary, highlights the concern: “Arabic will re-emerge as a dynamic and vibrant language, expressed everywhere in speech and writing as a living symbol of the national Arab-Islamic values,” the plan said. But it offered few specifics on how this would occur. Hundley said that some have called for laws enforcing the use of Arabic.

 But he quoted Professor Kamal Abdel-Malek, a professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Dubai (AUD) as disagreeing with this sentiment: “We shouldn’t end up with language police,” he said. “Laws cannot maintain the vitality of a language. I don’t think you force people to preserve a language.”

Agreed. (Although I might like to read a novel where this was happening.) How, then, are we to preserve languages? Perhaps, as the Emiratis are doing, with more money for culture? After all, the death of a language is no small thing: a number of social scientists liken the deaths of languages to the deaths of species. Could we end up in a world with only a few languages, and thus fewer ideas, fewer ways of structuring existence?

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I like the way the post ends with powerful questions, we might not have the answers but at least we can begin thinking. I am not sure if money is the answer, it does help, but can it save a language? I think not. It is all to do with how people see their language, what are the benefits of me learning and deeply understanding this language? If the speaker sees no real benefit they will not ‘waste’ their time learning language. Maybe it’s only us linguists and those who love languages, who learn language for the sake of loving words and how they are similar or different from each other (like trying to see the similarity between Spanish and Italian)?! He is right that the death of a language is a serious issue, though I don’t think Arabic will ever make it to that list. He touches on an issue that has gained much attention recently – that of the connection between language and ideas or the perception of reality. I have written on it before, the linguistic relativity theory, so based on the claims of this theory we could say: if Arabic becomes weaker among its native speakers then the ideas encapsulated in Arabic language will also be weakened and not understood so well? Interesting, like I always say I have not made my mind up yet as I am reading on the subject – does language affect the way we think? And if so to what extent? I read a New York Times article on this issue so I will put it up on the next posting. Thanks for reading!

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Source: http://arablit.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/is-arabic-a-dying-language/