Qatari Arabization of Twitter: Where even the smile is Arabic!

Qatar, the beautiful hot Gulf country, is small and it might be quite possible to travel the whole country in one day, but it has not allowed its size to affect its place in the modern world. Everywhere you read the name Qatar is present, sports, education, politics, and one wonders is there a way stop this creative country moving forward? I think not. If Qatar continues to move the way it is today, it will become a huge, effective and influential global leader- no exaggeration. Neither am I praising Qatar for my own ends- I am simply stating a fact.  Most recently whilst I visited Doha during  the wonderful month of Ramadan, I learned that the Qatar Foundation had agreed to support an idea to increase the content of Arabic language on Twitter. The post is long overdue but as usual, I will use the age-old excuse of being busy due to other writing commitments.

This post is about the vision and idea of a student by the name of Fatima Al Khater, who wanted to see more Arabic content on twitter, and had consequently suggested that the 31st of May of each year be a day in which everybody tweets in Arabic only.  She says that she never realised that her idea would grow into something so big and that the Qatar Foundation would help her realise her vision, and that it would become an everyday thing. But this is exactly what happened through the Qatar Foundation’s coordination and the help of the Qatar Debates and their director Dr. Hayat Marafee. A debate was hosted, in August, at the Weill Cornell Medical College (Doha) with the title: “This house believes that the advantages of Arabic content on the internet outweigh the disadvantages”. Qatar debates is an established centre that trains young people in Qatar and the Middle East in the art of debating. An important skill I think especially when people do not share the same views, they have to learn how to put their views across and still respect the other side. The debate, of course, had two sides, those who put forward the advantages and those who put forward the disadvantages, and the debaters were high school and university students. It was interesting, stimulating and in the end the advantages of having more Arabic content online was the side that received most support from the huge audience that attended. Attendees came from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Bahrain and the UAE, and each went back as an ambassador for tweeting in Arabic.

Qatar foundation is known for its immense care and attention it gives young people in Qatar and in the Arab world in general because it sees them as future leaders and people who will make a difference; the current growing interest and success in this project is evidence of the foundation’s good intentions. Dr. Hayat al Marafi the executive director of Qatar Debate, said that supporting this idea was based on their willingness to support anything that contributed towards the preservation and promotion of Arabic language. She also mentioned that they as a trust have published the first book on ‘the art of debating’ in Arabic language and they hoped to soon hold an inter-university debate between 12 Arab countries. 

The call or main aim of this debate was to raise awareness about the idea of increasing Arabic content online first through Twitter and then through other sites. Fatima al Khater said in her speech at the debate, that she wanted all young people, in all spheres of life and sectors to be conscious of how they used Arabic language. In addition to that she asked for them to publicise the plans to others so that most, if not all, Arabic Twitter users can tweet in Arabic language- and correctly too. I know we have discussed on this blog many times the fact that Arabic language is sometimes not used well, and at other times its importance is overlooked, as I pointed out in the last post.  Such an initiative is a reaction; to some of those feelings speakers of Arabic language have about how they have neglected their language.

The increase in Arabic content will be done through ‘Arabic Twitter ambassadors’ those who will act as role models in tweeting in Arabic, instead of English. This way each ambassador’s followers will be encouraged to tweet in Arabic even if they thought they could not.  Some of these ambassadors have over 4-5,000 followers…the numbers of people reached will be many. Despite the huge number of Arabic Twitter users there is still not a huge linguistic representation of Arabic language on Twitter. Apart from the odd proverbs, verses from the Quran and some broken Arabic one is hard pressed to find tweets back and forth on everyday matters in Arabic only.  Since returning from Doha last month, I have seen a change in the way that a lot of people use Twitter, there is a huge support for this initiative and efforts are being made by users to tweet in Arabic.

Nearly every concept on Twitter has been replaced with an Arabic equivalent (I know some translators or believers in non-equivalence are unhappy with this statement. I know sometimes words can never have translations or equivalents; like the English concept of privacy does not exist in Russian— but I make my point here in a general way) and transliteration is not used. Concepts and words like, follow, followfriday(#FF), followers, tweet (s), hash tag, retweet, mention, and trending topic are all now used in Arabic by those who choose to. Even further is the move from using J the colon, dash and closed bracket to create a smile, to using the third letter in the Arabic alphabet (taa ت) to symbolise a smile – that is creative! All these changes and substitutes are a result of the ambassador’s creativity.

Every day an ambassador posts up a short essay/article about Arabic language (they tweet the URL so we can go and read it in full), some are small notes on how to use Arabic correctly, and others are facts about Arabic language and Twitter and so on.

The complaint is always that ‘well we can’t use Arabic on the internet because it does not accommodate for us, therefore we can only use English’—not anymore! Something else that is exciting is the type of Arabic that will be used given the 140 characters limit, and how with that restriction Arabic language rules are still to be respected. It will also contribute to the wider interest and research in Arabic language and the world of social networking.

Many Arabic twitter users are so excited with this, it is new and it will be a while before we can say “yes Twitter has been Arabized” but so far it seems to be doing well. For one thing, it is an idea that has come to life, and has provided a tool for those who feel strongly about Arabic language presence online. Now it is a matter of choice, if you want to use it you can. It is also a matter of content, the mere presence of Arabic letters is not enough, does the content enhance proficiency in Arabic language? Does it promote correct usage of the language?  When the answers to these questions are yes, then we can say, “Twitter has been Arabized”, but until then it is a process in the making.

If you have a Twitter account go in and see @Taghreedat , the master tweeter in the Arabizing of Twitter. The hash tag used is #letstweetinarabic…I have not publicized personal Twitter accounts of any of the ambassadors due to privacy laws…but if you read Arabic you can easily find them through the master account I named above… I would love to hear your thoughts on this small post as always.

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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