“We must make space for non-standard Arabic if we really care about FuSHa”: Interviews with Spoken Arabic language teachers

dialects I have mentioned previously, more than once that the relationship between standard (FuSHa) and non-standard (spoken) Arabic has for a long time, been one of tension and nervousness. The main reason being that many Arabic speakers view Classical /Standard Arabic (FuSHa) as flawless, perfect and as the language through which God chose to address mankind (Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam used in the Qur’an and hadeeth). Therefore, for many of these speakers learning, let alone teaching spoken Arabic in a systematic manner should not be done because it violates the sanctity of FuSHa. Some speakers also feel that if efforts are made to promote spoken Arabic, then FuSHa will not be understood by future Arabic speakers, this feeling is shared by many despite the fact that nobody actually casually speaks in FuSHa.


For the last couple of years I have been fascinated by the increase in spoken Arabic language classes here in London, and during a number of recent trips I found that this is also true in Arabic speaking majority countries. I began wondering why this was the case.  Why was there a renewed interest in spoken Arabic at a time when many educationists, Arabic language teachers and some Arabic speakers are warning against the waning and eventual death of the Arabic language? So I started reading about this phenomenon wherever I could (mostly from Arabic magazines/blogs), speaking to Arabic language teachers and I began writing about why it is done, how it is done and for whose benefit it is done. One of the avenues I took recently was to interview (via Skype & email correspondences) those who teach spoken Arabic systematically in a classroom setting with books and language education material. I wanted to find out why they teach spoken Arabic, what they think about the official learning of spoken Arabic, what their thoughts about the future of the Arabic language are, and how (if at all) their teaching of spoken Arabic impedes the development and learning of FuSHa in any way. I incorporate here the opinions and views of 3 spoken Arabic language teachers (Emarati Arabic, Levantine Arabic and Egyptian Arabic), I thank them again for agreeing to be interviewed, for being so open and honest, and I will keep two of these teachers anonymised as per their request.

To begin, I asked the Spoken Arabic (SA) teachers why they taught SA instead of FuSHa. The first teacher Hanan AlFardan who is the managing director of the AlRamsa Institute in Dubai, UAE (http://www.alramsa.ae/), and who is also a teacher at the centre said,

“I teach Emarati dialect because no one speaks Modern Classic Arabic, FuSHa. All the students that I met want to learn spoken Arabic rather than reading and writing. The purpose of teaching Emarati Arabic is to help non-Arabic speakers engage with Emarati and Arabic communities. Communication and engagement between Emaratis and non-Emarati communities is my mission”.

And a worthy mission it is indeed, because many expatriates living in the Arab speaking world do not ever get the chance to learn Arabic and communicate freely with the native Arabs of the country or indeed their other Arab colleagues in Arabic.

Asmaa (psuedonym) teaches Egyptian Arabic in London, I asked her the same question,  and she answered, “I teach Egyptian (Cairene dialect) to non-Arabic speakers who want to settle in Egypt or to British- born Egyptian children, who have a non-Egyptian mother or father and they wish to learn the dialect. This could be because they want to communicate with their relatives back in Egypt or to feel more “Egyptian”. Many come to me not knowing how to read Arabic and the first thing I do is teach them the Arabic alphabet and we take it from there. As for the non-Arabic speakers, well, I teach them using English Roman letters and not the alphabet [because] it takes too long”.

This may come as a shock to many Arabic speakers, that non-native Arabic speakers are taught Arabic using the Roman alphabet! Such a decision may be because these teachers are doing the best they can with the time they have and their teaching methods are dictated by the individual reasons each of their students have for learning SA (work, family, identity).

Ruba (psuedonym) agreed with Asmaa and she teaches non-native Arabic speakers Damascene Arabic using Roman letters if they are adults or only need the dialect to communicate quickly and effectively. She says that she teaches people Damascene Arabic because, “I love my dialect, I feel that it has meanings in it that I cannot find even in FuSHa, I do it also because people want to learn it for work purposes, for study purposes, or for personal interest or to feel “Syrian” again!”. She also gets students who are Syrians but are born in Britain or have never learned to speak their dialect, and now as adults they wish to learn Damascene Arabic for identity purposes.  Hanan also has native-Emarati student saying,  “Most of my students are non-Arabic speakers. However, I have some Emarati students who want to learn the Emarati dialect. Some of them [were] born outside the UAE, and spent years abroad and they’ve now come back. Unfortunately, if you don’t have access to spoken Arabic at home, there is no other proper way to learn it. Most of the books available are in FuSHa or basic Gulf Arabic”. Which obviously does not help those who need to learn the SA and have no formal education in FuSHa.


The issue of scarce materials to learn SA was brought up by the teachers many times, and that is why Hanan is making her own text books to be used at the AlRamsa institute, because the books available now are not made for classroom teaching. They were made for language learners going on holiday to these Arabic countries, or as accounts of the words people in those countries use. Ruba and Asmaa have to improvise mostly, using already published materials, but again they have to make their own resources, but both inform me that, they are in the process of publishing simple text books to aid learners of SA.

I also asked the teachers, in relation to question 1, that, some people may say that you are corrupting Arabic by teaching SA, what do you say to that? Hanan said, “Yes, I hear some people saying that. However, no Arab speaks FuSHa at the end of the day…I understand that FuSHa is important and I fully support teaching students in schools and universities in FuSHa but we need to offer the option of learning dialects for people who are interested in learning the dialect.”

Asmaa says “I am not corrupting Arabic in any way, I am simply teaching my SA to those who wish to learn. I think for a long time many non-Arabic speakers felt that learning to converse with Arabs in their everyday language would be near-impossible, and that they would have to learn FuSHa first. But in the last 10 years many of those eager to understand the Arab through his dialect have realised that they can learn just the spoken without the Standard Arabic. And I think as an Arabic teacher, I too have realised that yes, I can do this I can teach my SA, and it will not affect FuSHa in any way”.

Ruba agreed once again with both Hanan and Asmaa and added that “If we as Arabic speakers are serious about the future and the current state of the Arabic language, then we should do something about it through our education systems and media. And we must make space for spoken Arabic if we really care about FuSHa, we act as if we are ashamed that we have this other spoken form of Arabic. There is nothing to be ashamed of, it is a part of who we are, the quicker we acknowledge that, the quicker we can sort out the mess we are in right now!” Strong words from Ruba here, and it may be the way many experienced Arabic teachers view the whole situation, that language is a natural consequence and that in the case of Arabic we must find a way to reconcile the many components of the language, and not overcomplicate its nature and allow that to get in the way of Arabic developing as a modern language.

Finally, I asked each of the teachers, how they viewed the future of Arabic in their (home) countries and whether Arabic would be a major language, or if English will take over?  Hanan said, “I think English will be [the] dominating [language]. However, because Arabic language is so linked with Emarati identity and Islam, Arabic language will always be a priority for Arabs, [the] Emarati community and [the] government.”

spoken Arabic

Asmaa said, “For centuries, other languages have existed in Egypt alongside Arabic, and through all the years Arabic has always prevailed. I think that English will be a major language in Egypt as it will be in any other country in the world. But, I do not see it overtaking Arabic in a big way, and I think that there is a new sizeable group of young well-educated people (ironically from English-based universities), who make a point to use Arabic consciously, to read in Arabic and to speak to their children in Arabic. They feel that English will always be there and one can always learn it, but Arabic must take priority”.

Ruba gave a similar answer to Asmaa’s, ” I do not see English being the major language in Syria, I think there is a silent thing or rule or I don’t know something innate in Syrians, that as long as they live, as long as they have to communicate they will do so in Arabic, spoken and have a strong relation to FuSHa. We embrace other languages and learn them as long as they benefit us, but in the end Arabic will always be the majority language in Syria no matter what”. There is of course a difference between the situation of Arabic in the Gulf countries and Arabic in other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria (a topic for another say), but according to these Arabic teachers, it seems Arabic is here to stay even if English is a major language.

The interviews have provided a window into the world of teaching Spoken Arabic to non-Arabic speakers, or native speakers who have not, for one reason or another, had the chance to learn their dialects through their families. I realised that sometimes teachers use non-Arabic script to teach their students Arabic, as a way to speed up learning for those who want to learn the dialect just for communication purposes. All the teachers I interviewed explained that their teaching of Spoken Arabic does not affect FuSHa in any way, and one teacher said that in order for Arabic to thrive, its native speakers must change their view on the status of Spoken Arabic. I thoroughly enjoyed the interviews, and I would like to thanks  the teachers once more for taking their time to be interviewed. I look forward to comments on this story from readers as always, and finally, a big welcome to new subscribers to the blog, I hope you find Arabizi interesting.

Writing & the revitalisation of Arabic through Sci-fi: why the future of Arabic is bright? Part 1

 Arabic language is going through many changes, like all other languages do all the time, but the case of Arabic is a unique one.  It is a diglossic language (see Ferguson 1959 and this) whereby it has one main language broken roughly into two main categories and each with its function. The FuSHa (Classical Arabic) is used for religious, and official uses (though some linguists see Arabic as a tri-glossic even quadra-glossic language! But that’s another story for another post). Then there is the ‘Ammiyah or ‘maHkee’ (informal/ spoken) which has perhaps over 30 dialects (even more if you count tribal dialects, and city vs. countryside, speakers of different socio-economic backgrounds) which spread over 22 countries whose official (supposed) language is Arabic. For some Arabic language researchers like myself, there is a feeling that Arabic language is stagnating (and has done so for a long while) and that those who claim it to be their native language will perhaps one day in the near future lose it (my work here with other authors documenting the fears speakers of Arabic language have over the loss of their language). I know I have been criticized in lengthy emails about my opinion, but based on my limited research carried out on native speakers, I found the Arabic proficiency levels to be even lower than I had imagined. What was even more shocking was that speakers of other languages (Hindi, Urdu, Uzbek, Turkish, Malaysian) were learning Arabic at more proficient levels (comparison based on age and education level, and these non-Arabic kids were learning in addition to their native language and Arabic, English) and were able to read and write with an ability that amazed me (there are schools in India that teach using Arabic as a medium of instruction, FuSHa Arabic!) no seriously…. really.

I started reading around and thinking about the whole issue and I came across many different suggestions, but an excerpt written by Gibran Khalil Gibran, which I posted in the last post here on Arabizi caught my eye. In this excerpt, without repeating what I said before, he suggested that the only way Arabic is to be revived is through the creativity of its writers and poets- because they are masters of the language. I went on a search for exciting authors writing in Arabic about modern issues/ new genres and using language in new creative ways, in a bid to investigate he idea that creativity is the way forward (my research is still ongoing so no firm conclusions yet). I do not dismiss writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Hisham Matar, Ilyas Khoury (for more info on Arabic literature follow this blog) and others, and I have spent countless hours enjoying their writing and being transported into their different worlds. They do it for people who already love reading and can read well in Arabic, and for people like myself who love the challenge of translating or musing through the dictionary and being fascinated by lovely new words.  But I was looking for writing aimed at young people, a book(s) that might potentially have a similar genre in English, because then the author (s) would be pressed to write at such a creative level if they were to compete with their English-language counterparts; and get young people reading. Importantly, reading in Arabic and enjoying the story enough to feel pleased that they can read new concepts in their own language. I imagined these authors crafting new words, getting frustrated at not finding the adequate expressions in Arabic, and then creating new expressions and words (of course within the rules of Arabic, I was not looking for the equivalent of internet to be transliterated as ‘intar-nit’). I wanted creativity, innovation and a deep understanding of the Arabic language, to the point that the writer could spend days/months coming up with these novel expressions! I did eventually find some potential authors and subsequently wrote to them asking for interviews and they kindly obliged.I chose to focus on writers of young adults/children because they are the next generation of readers and of course speakers of Arabic. So the next four posts (broken into part 1 and 2 respectively) will discuss these issues in interview-commentary format of two authors- answering roughly the same questions. This is the theme for the Pioneers of Arabic language today©…. if you know any others please email me and I’ll do my best to interview them.

The first author is an Emarati, Noura Al Noman, who gained her BA English Literature from the UAEU (university of United Arab Emirates), the only university available for higher education at the time. She went on to work at a government school until 1991; and later for the Ministry of Information, a job she enjoyed saying, “ being paid to read books all day has got to be the best job in the world!” From 1996 onwards, she ran what she calls “…my one-woman “legal translation” business, after having acquired a license from the Ministry of Justice – I would not be exaggerating if I said I was the only female Emirati at the time to have such a business”. Her love for words and languages did not stop there, and she went on to obtain a Masters in translation in 2004, from AUS (American University in Sharjah). It’s clear to see the passion here and that what she in fact was doing would be in preparation for her to publish books in Arabic, some years later- even though at the time she did not realize it. You can see her blog here for more information.

She is the author of a two volume sci-fi book called “Ajwan”, which is a first for a modern author (as far as I know) aimed specifically at young adults (YA). It is often said that the first person in the history of Arabic literature to write science fiction was the great Syrian Ibn An-Nafees, in his book titled: ‘Ar-risaalah al kamiliyyah fil sierra an nabawiyyah’, which is also said to be the first theological novel. Some stories in the One thousand and one nights are also said to be sci-fi in genre, with jinns, flying carpets, exploring different worlds etc… There are other authors who have ventured into this paranormal genre such as Rym Ghazal who recently authored “Maskoon” a paranormal novel (which I have not read, but did write about on this blog) and earlier the Egyptian Nihad Shareef often called the father of Arabic sci-fi (you can read his books here in Arabic: http://www.neelwafurat.com/itempage.aspx?id=egb111551-5166710&search=books). But I think what’s different about ‘Ajwan’ is that it’s written in a post-Harry Potter modern-technologically-advanced-complicated world…. it’s clear to see the challenge of writing a book that will attract that impressionable age group.

Right I better start with the interview before you all get frustrated, in this first part I will put up five of the ten questions I asked her and add my commentary. Please feel free to email, comment on the post and both Noura and myself will be glad to reply.

—- Start (I have not edited any of Noura’s answers)

1. Why did you choose to write?

I’ve always been writing or translating, ever since I was in university.  A few years ago I started writing movie reviews for a local magazine, and people told me I had a very easy straightforward style of writing in Arabic – I think it was their way of saying that it was simplistic! But Al Qutta Qetna was written completely by accident as it took me 10 minutes to write about a subject I loved – cats and friendships. When that worked out, I recalled an incident which happened at our home, and also wrote “Al Qunfuth Kiwi”.  I discovered a long time ago that I can only write about things which I know and I am passionate about. I just didn’t know I can get published for it.

2. Are the youth in the Emirates struggling with their knowledge of Arabic language?  (If so, why? If not, how?)

Yes, and I am not sure exactly when this started. It is important to note here that not all the youth of the UAE can be lumped into one segment. UAE citizens are less than one million in a population of almost 8 million.  That one million is made up of a huge percentage of under 18 year olds – as far as the last statistics show. There are at least two segments: those who have received education in only government schools (read: bad education in all subjects in Arabic, and low-level English), and those who are educated at private schools (moderate to good education, where English is used for all subjects, while Arabic is the govt syllabus – pretty bad, taught by Arabs who have had little to no training in education.) The govt syllabus gets revamped almost every year, and there is no national educational strategy. If an “enemy” of the Arabic language were given the chance to destroy it, he would not have had the same success as our educational system.

There is no real research done on the subject; but if you look at media/social media coverage on the issue, you’d surmise that the youth have lost touch with Arabic (al fuSHa). It is simply the language of school text books and they consider grammar as complicated as quantum physics. The youth only use our dialect, and what is now known as Arabizi (for those who know a fair amount of English). Adults blame the youth and the educational system, while the youth are busy doing more interesting things and cannot be bothered to even discuss the subject. They don’t read Arabic outside of the classroom, and those who are interested in reading only read English novels.

3. Why did you choose to write sci-fi, as opposed to adventure or crime?

I’ve loved SF & fantasy since I was a teen, and have been heavily influenced by the genre(s) before I moved on to read other things (horror, thrillers, crime, etc). SF is almost non-existent in the Arab world; and yet you can see how popular it is when a movie is released in the theaters. I’ve heard that an author should write about what he knows and is passionate about if he is to convince the reader, and I know SF. In it, you get to construct new worlds and make the rules governing them, which can be anything your imagination can come up with – unlike crime or other genres where the real world may limit you.

Plus, it is great to write SF where you have little to no competition. Everything written in the genre after that will be compared to what I write today. Kind of cool, I thin

4.  Your book is in Arabic- which type? Emarati, modern standard or classical (FuSHa)? Why that type of Arabic?

Writing in the Emirati dialect would have been very difficult as my aim was to promote Arabic reading for YA, and there are a lot of people who warn against the pitfall of “aamiyya”. I wrote in the Arabic I know, which I guess could be categorized as MSA as opposed to the flowery, often compact text of FuSHa. It didn’t take a lot of effort on my part to write an easy text, as this is the only Arabic I know, to tell you the truth. I have attached to this email an excerpt to see what I mean.

5.  Why did you make the conscious choice to write in Arabic? You could have written a culturally friendly Arabic-themed novel in English.

Because of my love for books, I had acquired a fair-sized library (more or less since I was a teenager – I have lost a couple of hundred to moving or loaning to friends). My six children grew up looking at my library and then taking some of them to read. After every book, they would come back and ask me to recommend more. Needless to say, this was thrilling for me, because none of my adult friends ever read my books (with the exception of one), and I never had a chance to discuss my favorites with anyone. But I didn’t like the deficit in Arabic books for YA, and my husband and I looked around but didn’t find anything which could ever compete with what I had on my book shelves. My husband had often encouraged me to write a “novel” and I have always laughed at the thought. But in 2009, I began writing, knowing that my Arabic would never be good enough; but at the same time keeping in mind what kind of Arabic is out there which no YA would like to read. There are a million English SF books out there; but how many in Arabic?  What a great opportunity to be a “trail blazer”. Alright, I’ll admit it too – my self-esteem could never take the comparison ———-end

It was great to get an insight into the situation of Arabic in the UAE, from someone who had gone through the education system, taught in its schools, worked in the government, and is a translator. We can see the reiteration of the observation that formal Arabic is hard for young people to grasp, but what Noura has done is written in that formal Arabic, but with new concepts. So perhaps through such attempts we can say that the future of Arabic is bright? Making this language accessible to its younger speakers and if more authors venture into new genres and aim their writing at young people perhaps there will be a renewed interest in Arabic language… who knows? I’ll post part 2 in the next two weeks, that will give you time to read (and respond if you wish to) this first part. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview and was awestruck at some of the things I learned not just about Noura but also about the situation of Arabic language in the UAE specifically. Stay tuned for part two……and a review of an excerpt I read from Ajwan!


See also: http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/books/science-fiction-for-young-adults-expands-in-the-uae


Ferguson, C (1959) (1959). “Diglossia”. Word 15: 325–340.