Is Arabic in danger or not? When will we agree?

Another post discussing the popular topic of, ‘Is Arabic language in danger of being lost’? It is well written, not too scientific though. The writer raises some important points about the situation of the Arabic language (at least in the Gulf or more specifically Kuwait) and gives his view that Arabic is not really in danger. Have a quick read and see my discussion at the bottom, the article is lifted as was written without any changes from myself. (I made the titles bold in the original they are not).  


Arabic: Surviving and thriving

Published Date: June 04, 2010 —————By Ahmad Saeid, Staff Writer

Languages have lives too. They have families, they are born, they give birth to other languages; they grow, develop, transform and change, and they die. Linguists predict that half of the approximately 7,000 extant languages will die by the end of this century. Just as global warming is driving numerous species into extinction, globalization is killing many languages.

In recent years, some have begun to suggest that Arabic language faces the danger of extinction. Those suggesting this warn that globalization is affecting the development of the language, and various dialects of the language, are ‘eating’ the language from inside.

The Friday Times asked the opinion of a number of Kuwait University (KU) professors searching for the answer to this extremely important question: Is Arabic dying?

I believe that Arab literature is at its peak now,” said Marie Therese AbdulMessih, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at KU, who argues that the level of literature in any language could be an indication of the level of that language’s development. “We have had an international award for Arabic literature for three years now, and there is an abundance of Arabic literary works, especially Arab novels, many of which are translated into many foreign languages,” she said.

Low readership
According to AbdulMessih, the problem of Arab literature is in the low Arab ‘readership’ rates. “I blame the media for that,” she said. “How many TV shows are shown on Arab channels about books or writers that you can think of?” she asked.

Language is not just words and sentences, it is a way of expressing meaning, a ‘dialogue,’ a form of speech,” she explained. “Language cannot change until the dialogue changes, and the Arabic dialogue now is divided between frozen tradition, and attempts to blindly mimic of what is modern.

According to AbdulMessih, there is no Arabic philosophy or ideology, which is the main driver for the development of any language. “Languages don’t just develop in a vacuum; they need advancement in all fields of science, but if a nation has a lot of restrictions and red lines that are extremely limiting to creativity, they will not allow ideology to develop, and the language will not develop as well,” she asserted.

AbdulMessih argues that the adoption of foreign languages in any nation is not wrong in itself. “In French there are numerous foreign words, in English too. It is not a wrong thing to do. It is wrong, however, if it is used as a mean for compensating for a shortcoming in a nation’s attempt to develop itself,” AbdulMessih said.

She said that in order for any nation to rely on translation sciences, it should have translators and interpreters who are qualified both in the field of language and in the field in which they are translating, which is not present in the Arab world today. Among the reasons why translation is not playing its required role in the Arab world, according to the Egyptian professor, is because of the contempt for the humanities as subjects in the region’s academic circles.

There’s this belief that only losers study at arts and literature colleges, and that the most losers go the college of Arabic language,” she concluded. The prestigious standing of engineering and medicine in the Arab world, combined with the fact that these and other professions are taught in most of the region’s universities in English, means that they are viewed by many as part of adapting to globalization.

Professor Abdullatif Al-Khalifi, the Vice-Dean for Academic Affairs at KU’s College of Engineering and Petroleum, said that language is only a tool, not a goal in itself. “What matters most to me is that my students get the latest information about the specific field they are studying in; the language they are obtaining it with is not the main issue,” he insisted.

He explained that there are numerous advantages to studying in English. “When we send students to complete their education abroad, English language knowledge becomes very handy,” he said. “Not only that, but even after finishing their studies, when engineers start working, they find out that most of the menus of devices and all the manuals are in English, so they will need to know the technical terms in English in order to be able to use these devices,” he added.

The last thing we would think about is to undermine the importance of our language; on the contrary, it is the language of the Quran, and we are proud of it,” he emphasized, adding, “Our culture has nothing to do with the education we are acquiring – one must learn to live with having a [linguistic] dual personality, and the best example for that is South Korea; they have a principle that they want civilization but not westernization, and I am a profound believer in that philosophy.

Language of preference
Muhammad Rashid, a student at the Engineering Faculty in his fifth year of an electrical engineering degree, also said that students in this field prefer to study in English: “All the new research is published in English,” he said, “All the scientific websites are in English too, so it’s definitely better to study in it.

Third-year student Sheikha Al-Sama’an, said that studying in English doesn’t affect the learning process: “At the beginning it is a little bit difficult to learn in English, but with time you get used to it,” Al-Sama’an said.

Noor Al-Hassan, another third year student, said that having studied in English offers graduates better work opportunities: “If you are an engineer who cannot speak English, then your chances of getting a decent job are drastically reduced,” Al-Hassan noted. “That is why it is important that we study in English.

Arabic language is one of the oldest languages in the world. Different statistics give various numbers of Arabic language speakers. Over 280 million people speak Arabic as their first language, while about 250 million people speak it as second language. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and is among the official languages of all the countries in the Arab League, amounting to 22 countries. So far, then, there seems to be no indication that the language is dying.

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This topic as always really gets me excited and last week I completed a book chapter on the way that Gulf Arabs use Arabic as a language and whether Arabic is in real danger of being lost or not. It will be published later this year in a book edited by Dr. Al Issa and L. Dahan, she teaches writing studies at AUS (published by Multilingual Matters, UK) titled: ‘‘Global English: Issues of Language, Culture, and Identity in the Arab World’.  As soon as it is out I will post the information here.

Back to this article, the writer focuses on three main issues, low readership, translation and language preference. He begins by claiming that languages live and die, an idea widely accepted in linguistics, though the family part I am not sure about, I have to say it is creative!  The professor in question blames ‘the media’ for not promoting literature and reading. One would not expect television to promote reading; these are opposites if all viewers read what would happen to TV ratings? If the reference is to newspapers and magazines well there is always a culture corner and these do touch upon new and old books/ literature in general. The people must take it into their own hands and not blame the media, the media is a reflection, I think, of how people use language in a given society. If that society is unhappy with the way the media treats language they must act- before it is too late.

As for translation, the professor makes a good point in that humanities as a specialism is not really encouraged or looked upon as something important in the Arab word in general. That is not to say that there are no parts or sectors of society that not only appreciate humanities but will fund highly for it. But because of this neglect of translation and lack of a unified uniform corpus of Arabic language today, Arabic speakers prefer to read in English. This does put Arabic language in great danger of being shifted (when a language is replaced temporarily and if shifting continues it may result in language death. See: Fishman 1991 and 2001), there needs to be new efforts in the area of translation. There are many words from English that are now used in Arabic and there are no equivalents, what does that say about a language? I am not referring to a language using a word for specific purposes, like in English we use ‘Guru’, in the sense of “business-guru”- but this is specific and yet non-essential. It is not true that without this word the speakers of English cannot understand the idea of a specialist person/ expert in a specific field. English can afford to do this, can Arabic?

Finally, there is the issue of language preference, which links directly to the two points above. If there is adequate promotion of one’s language and adequate material to read in one’s language then the preference will be their language. Although, we study French and Italian at school, and we can get ourselves around Italy or France without major problems, there is never a preference to read about linguistics in say French despite its beauty and eloquence. The Arab students in universities (and in schools especially in the Gulf) study in English, are given lectures in English, English is the campus language, all written work is in English- why will they prefer Arabic? They are studying technical aspects of the world around us in English, and these are modern advancements, that the Arabic language cannot express why will they prefer Arabic? 

The fault is not with the Arabic language; rather it is with the speakers of Arabic language. So far, as I have said in this blog (in previous posts) there is much talk- “Arabic is in danger”, or “oh no Arabic is not in danger”, by the time these two opinions agree what will the status of Arabic be?  When will we agree?

The writer ends his article in a way that would annoy any linguist- especially those working in the language planning field. This is by no means an attack on the author, I think he is defending Arabic as his language, I would too but here we want objectivity as much as possible.  I quote here what he says: “It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and is among the official languages of all the countries in the Arab League, amounting to 22 countries. So far, then, there seems to be no indication that the language is dying”.  If we all used the number of speakers as an indication of whether a language is dying or not we would really be mistaken. Even if it is the language of the Arab league that does not mean it is not in danger of being lost; and how many of those 22 countries use Arabic as their official language?  Very recently (as late as 2008) Arabic was made the official language of the UAE?! Yes, you read correctly your eyes did not mistake you. The issue of language policy is one that is complicated and yet very important in the linguistic lives of speakers ( a topic for another post). I think that the issue must be looked at with great detail and objectivity. What is the situation of Arabic among its speakers, do they use the language correctly, what signs should we look for before concluding that Arabic is in danger of being lost or of NOT being lost?   I think more attention needs to be given to an Arabic corpus (a body of words that are used in dialogue/ education/ media- this avoids adopting foreign words) where foreign words can be Arabized and incorporated into the language. There is no quarrel with English language or its values, but there is a real need for speakers of a language to feel empowered using their own language. I will be keeping a close eye on these issues and as always I will be posting these up.


Article above:

Fishman, J. A (1991) Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundation of assistance to the threatened languages. New York: Multilingual Matters

Fishman, J.A (2001) Can threatened languages be saved? New York: Multilingual Matters