2013 a good year for Arabic?

2013And so we enter a new year, and with it hopes and wishes that the world becomes a better place for people to live in. Welcome to new readers and thanks to those readers who comment, contribute or send in email with suggestions and constructive criticisms- I really appreciate them all, thank you. This short post is a review of the initiatives, activities, conferences and efforts to promote or re-instate Arabic language as the legitimate and proper language of native Arabic speakers in their home countries during 2013. These efforts are of course directly linked to the belief (of some) policy makers, educators and speakers in Arabic speaking countries who bemoan the danger they believe Arabic language finds itself in.

In looking over some of these fears and anxieties, take for example, the case of educators and teachers in the UAE who complained that many students prefer to use English as opposed to Arabic even in non-education/school settings.This of course is nothing new and definitely pre-dates 2013, but it’s a fear and complaint that is raised again and again. The teachers were further horrified because it was the parents who were demanding that their children be excused from the classes. Why? Because the parents argued that the children did not need formal instruction in Arabic since the language os instruction at university (the non-Arabic based ones) is English, (read more here).

The other anxiety in the UAE is the number of foreign non-Arabic speaking workers who outnumber the native Arabic speakers, which obviously makes it difficult to converse in Arabic in public. The writer of this article is frustrated with the difficult situation that the UAE needs foreigners to build its country and yet the price it may have to pay is the loss of the Arabic language (read more here).

As a way of discussing the issues surrounding the current state of the Arabic language in Arabic speaking countries, a conference was organised in Mid-2013 in Dubai. It was the Second International Conference on Arabic Language, organised by the International Council for Arabic Language in cooperation with Unesco, the Association of Arab Universities and the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States. The conference panelists discussed the state of the Arabic language in many of the Arab countries and many agreed that the curricula used for teaching needed urgent attention. Some of the experts blamed globalisation, others the pervasive use and nature the English language is taking on in these countries, and apparently the use of Arabizi (Roman characters and Arabic numbers) in speech and text, and other dangers were also discussed (read more here).

The other anxiety in the UAE is the low numbers of children who are able to read and write in Arabic without difficulty. The concern was so serious that an initiative was taken to present these concerns to a minister and presented as a case that needed to be addressed urgently. But, I must say this is not true just in the UAE, there are other countries in which students do not know how to read Arabic either (read more here). There are also students (together with their families) who do not see the benefit in mastering how to read and write Arabic and deliberately refuse to take the classes or care about their proficiency (it is their linguistic right, and I think any meaningful research into the so-called demise of Arabic language as a result of neglect from its speakers must also take this group into consideration when studying the topic!).

A panel of researchers were appointed at the end of 2012-April 2013 to understand the issues and challenges facing Arabic in the UAE by the Dubai government. The researchers all agreed that the Arabic language is not dead but that it needs better and more innovative teaching styles in order to revive an interest of the language within the students and their parents. So far I think this is a more productive manner through which to gauge the situation of the Arabic language, by way of study and research and to then produce a manageable plan by which teachers and educators can work (read more here). It would be great to see the notes/ papers presented at the conference or the report itself to understand how this study was carried out during those six months.

Again in response to the fears and once again based on some research it was announced in Dubai that the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) would oversee and ensure that all Arabic teachers employed in Dubai were of a high standard. This means teachers are to be assessed throughly for their knowledge of the language and their teaching methods (read more here). It sounds like a good idea and it would be great to see what the outcome will be in 5 years from now, would they have ensured that all teachers are at the same high standard? How would they measure the impact of this new initiative?

The Sharjah Government has also set out plans for improving the acquisition and maintenance of Arabic language for its native speakers. This will be achieved through supplying each student and teacher in the emirate of Sharjah with a tablet, according to the article this is initiative is the first of its kind in the Arab world (read more here). This seems like a good idea and perhaps a creative step away from the old traditional text books that relied on rote learning, again this is another initiative the needs to be looked at closely there may be a solution in it- who knows?

Finally, the creative twofour54 in Abu Dhabi aims to revive Sesame Street in Arabic, they hope and claim that this will help and promote the Arabic language and make it fun for the children. See that article here, I am working to get a comment directly from them about this initiative and I hope to write about it soon.

The Taghreedaat initiative that I have written about many times before have worked very hard in 2013 to make as much online content as possible available in Arabic. This year they ventured with help of volunteers to arabize: Whatsapp, TED (and in 2014 they will have special segment at the TED Global in Arabic for the first time in the history of TED), Khan Academy, and GameLoft among other online content. So it seems that 2013 was yet another busy year for policy makers, academics and educators who believe Arabic deserves a place in this modern and rapidly developing world, and more importantly in the lives of future native Arabic speakers. I chose these particular aspects about the Arabic language to give an overview of the fears, but more importantly the initiatives suggested to overcome and address those fears. Some of these anxieties are baseless whilst others have research as evidence, in all more research needs doing to understand the sociolinguistic situation of the Arabic language among its native speakers.

My next blog post will be an interview with an Arabic language teacher (but what kind? You’ll have to wait and see) so watch out for it, and my first review on Arabizi books is about to go up as well. Thanks for reading, and comments are welcome especially from those countries I have not mentioned.








3 thoughts on “2013 a good year for Arabic?

  1. SLC

    Thoughts on the parallel between Arabic and the Greek Language Question, part 4 … and I’d better start by apologising for the length of this post; it’s grown into more of an essay than a blog post. I can only make my usual excuse, that there is so much to say about this fascinating subject.

    Well, I’ve thought about it all for another few months, and now I’m convinced that all the threads of the discussion converge on just one issue: early education in Arabic languages.

    I found your article “2013 a good year for Arabic?” a really good starting point, with all its links. I was particularly struck by this article by Rana Askoul in The National, 31 May 2013 (it was linked to by one of the linked stories):


    And within that article, by this story, which I think encapsulates the whole problem:

    “A 16-year-old daughter of a friend of mine called me up for help with an Arabic language assignment. She was tasked with writing an essay on a topic of her choosing. As I sat down to review her first draft, I was simply shocked. Her essay contained a flood of slang Arabic words, a couple of English words and too many grammatical errors to count. She is an honors student. … She tells me that the only people she speaks Arabic to are her grandparents, and mainly because they are not comfortable conversing with her in English.”

    So far, a common enough experience. I assume that by “slang Arabic” the journalist meant colloquial spoken Arabic. But I really wonder if she gave any thought to the effect her own reaction would have had on the girl (we aren’t told her name, so I’ll just call her Miss A). Miss A has just been told that her spoken language, the one she thinks in and speaks to her grandparents, is “a shocking flood of Arabic slang”. She could potentially write it expressively and enjoyably, but she won’t be doing that now. On the other hand, her attempt at MSA is so bad that she won’t be writing (or reading) that with any enthusiasm either. She can’t be praised for writing in her spoken Arabic, because that’s ‘just slang’; she can’t be praised for her MSA, because it really isn’t very good; the only language in which she is likely to get any praise at all for her writing is English, so that’s naturally where her effort and enthusiasm for writing will go. She won’t be motivated to improve her writing of either version of Arabic, her next attempt at an essay will be even worse, which will prompt an even more contemptuous reaction from her elders … so there is a strong negative feedback loop here, which is at the root of the problem.

    And what struck me particularly about this article was that the journalist seemed completely unaware that she herself was one half of this negative feedback loop, and therefore part of the problem, not the solution. She has just dismissed ordinary spoken Arabic as “a shocking flood of slang”, and is then baffled when Miss A feels better about herself when she speaks English. Small wonder that “The younger generation of Arabs shuns Arabic because they feel inferior when they speak in that language.” (This quote comes from another linked article: http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/arabic-language-is-losing-ground) It isn’t globalising foreign plotters who have convinced Miss A that her spoken language is contemptible; it’s her school-teachers, and the Arab adults around her.

    So much for the problem, or rather the three interrelated problems:

    1) Losing touch with Classical Arabic
    2) General lack of literacy – the “only reading three pages a year” (of any language) habit
    3) Feeling more comfortable speaking English than Arabic

    Now on to the solution. Because there is a clear solution: the Greeks faced and solved exactly the same problem a century ago (although for them the “threat languages” were Bulgarian in the rural North, and French for the city elite, rather than English). I’m thinking here of the period 1880 – 1917, leading up to the successful educational reforms promoted by Delmouzos, Triantafyllidis, and the Educational Association. (I am emphatically NOT thinking of the much later and quite separate 1976 decision to adopt demotic as the official language of Greece; I am not advocating abandoning MSA as an official language. Far from it.)

    We might start by focusing on the first of the three problems, losing touch with Classical Arabic, because that has the deepest emotional and cultural resonance. We could imagine that we were free to design an educational system from scratch, with just one priority: maximising the CA skills of the pupils at 16. Imagine that nothing else matters. How would we go about it?

    We would have to start by recognizing two facts. First, at primary school level, the colloquial Arabic spoken by the pupils really is a different language from the written CA (or MSA) that they are being taught. Of course later on, as adults, they may start to mingle the two in “Educated Arabic” and so on – but in primary school MSA “feels” like a different language. My precise meaning here is that MSA is “different enough” for their instinctive feel for the spoken language to be no use as a guide. The language instinct that effortlessly gives us our native language can’t bridge a gap this wide, and MSA has to be learned by rule, from a book, which is a completely different skill. I am not saying that MSA is a foreign language, but I am saying that the skills needed to learn it at primary level are the same as the skills needed to learn a foreign language from a book.

    Second fact: CA (or MSA) will never be learned as a native language, in the home from parents’ everyday speech. Ferguson, in the 1959 essay “Myths about Arabic” that I quoted in my first post here, makes it clear that fifty years ago most Arabs hoped and believed that CA, or MSA, or something like them, would soon be the common native language of all Arabs. Nobody actually spoke CA in their own home, to their own children, but everyone believed that other people would, and that CA would resurrect itself naturally as a spoken language. In this they were behaving exactly like the Greeks at the 1830 stage of the Greek Language Question debate. They believed that if they could only convince speakers that their colloquial language was ‘ungrammatical’, ‘poor’, ‘corrupt’ or ‘adulterated’, ‘vulgar’ or ‘base’, and ‘profane’ (it’s the Greek terms I’m quoting here), then those speakers would naturally “correct” their speech into the classical language.

    But this 1950s strategy of making people so ashamed of colloquial spoken Arabic that they will start speaking CA to each other and to their children has failed, just as it did in 1830-1880s Greece. The language instinct doesn’t work that way. And instead of driving them away from colloquial towards MSA, it’s driving them away from colloquial towards English.

    So I think it may be time for a new approach. It’s time to recognise that CA cannot be resurrected as a native language, learned instinctively by infants from parents and a community of speakers, any more than Ancient Greek or Latin could be. CA (or MSA) will always be a school-learned book-language (as, of course, it has been for the last thousand years, and always was for all the non-Arab Muslims).

    The problem now reduces to a simpler one, with lots of data and experience to guide us. How best to teach a book-language to primary-school pupils?

    Method A: Forbid reading and writing in the spoken language; and try to teach literacy itself, and the book-learned language, at the same time. (This was the 19th century Greek way, and is the current Arabic way.)

    Method B: Do it in two stages. Teach the students to be literate in their own spoken language first. Then, after they’ve thoroughly mastered the skill of literacy, teach them the book-language. (This is the way everybody else in the world does it.)

    There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Method B gives the students a better command of the book-language, in a shorter time, than Method A.

    Explicitly: if Arab children were taught to read and write their own spoken languages first, for the initial four years of primary school, and when they were thoroughly literate were then gradually introduced to CA (or MSA), they would end up with a much better command of CA at 16 than if they’d just done CA all the time. (This is the successful solution the Greeks introduced in 1917.)

    This does seem counter-intuitive to some people. Surely time spent on colloquial literacy is just time taken away from CA – and how can spending less time on CA make you better at it? But that argument disregards the way learning actually works. In fact, in education, the Telescope Rule applies. This principle, as famously set out many years ago in (I believe) ‘Amateur Telescope Making’, states that if you want to home-build your own 6-inch telescope, you will get there more quickly if you make a 2-inch, then a 4-inch, then the 6-inch, than if you just start on the 6-inch. The point is that you learn the craft of telescope-making much more efficiently that way than if you just struggle with a difficult project from day one.

    In most educational contexts this rule just looks like common sense: if you want to fly an F-22 jet, you start on a little Cessna. If you want to play wind instruments, you start on a recorder, and so on. But it also applies to language learning. It is well established that learning a foreign language – any foreign language – makes it much easier to learn another one, even if it is totally unrelated to the first one. Your mind is just mastering the craft of language-learning. If the first one is particularly easy, so much the better.

    Many studies have been done on this effect, often using Esperanto as the first learned language. The Egerton Park School study showed that “if all children studied Esperanto during the first 6-12 months of a 4-5 year French course, they would gain much and lose nothing.” (This and many other such studies are detailed in the Wikipedia article “Propaedeutic value of Esperanto”). In other words, after a year of Esperanto and 4 years of French, the students are better at French than if they had just done 5 years of French. The Telescope Rule applies, because the year spent learning Esperanto is more than repaid by improved efficiency in learning the French later on. Much of what the students gain in that first year is simply learning how to learn a language.

    Of course in the Arabic case we are dealing with “learning literacy” more than “learning how to learn a language”, but the mental processes are so similar that it does seem likely that the same principles apply. It’s more efficient to learn literacy first, using an easy language (in this case, your own native language), and then apply that skill to learning the book-language. I’ll present some hard evidence for this later.

    So imagine that Miss A has a twin sister, Miss B, who goes to a hypothetical school where CA is taught using Method B.

    In School B, the spoken language is regarded as an essential stepping stone towards CA, not a rival alternative to CA, so it’s never called “the language of donkeys” or anything like that. In fact, since her earliest years her parents have been reading her traditional Arabic stories from books written in the colloquial Arabic that she speaks herself, so that she can pick out the familiar words on the page as she hears them.

    Once she starts school, she still reads with her parents, but now it’s often her reading to them. Since the school readers are in the colloquial spoken by the family, her parents can still help and encourage her even if they don’t have much education themselves and know no MSA. As for grammar, the school aims “to render children conscious of the grammatical rules that come unconsciously to their lips …” (in the words of the Greek Educational Association), which means that they encourage her to start writing in her own (colloquial) words within the first year or two. After four years or so, she can express her own feelings effectively in writing. (And if she is anything like the girls in Delmouzos’ pilot project school in Volos, she will enjoy doing it).

    By the age of 10, she feels that she owns reading and writing, because she has become fully literate, including writing, during the formative language-learning years. That timing is crucial in childhood development. (Of course not everyone progresses this fast, but I’m assuming that Miss B, like her twin Miss A, is honours-student material.) When she starts CA in her fifth year of education, she is far better prepared than Miss A was when she began, and can go twice as fast – which means she will be well ahead by age 16. Also she can compare and contrast the two dialects, and translate one into the other, so she won’t produce the random mish-mash of the two that so offended Rana Askoul when she read Miss A’s essay.

    There are two major differences between the school experiences of Miss B and Miss A. The first is that over her whole school career, Miss B has had far more practice in active writing than Miss A. (By “active” I mean expressing her own thoughts in her own words, rather than writing out memorised phrases.) Although we’re concentrating here on using this to improve her CA skills, it brings many benefits for other subjects as well.

    One of the most provably effective educational techniques is to get the students to explain the subject back to the teacher in writing, in their own words (for as we all know, the best way to sharpen your focus on any subject is to try to explain it to someone else). When Miss B learned about magnets, for example, she had to write a clear description (in her own colloquial words) of how they behave, and this didn’t just sharpen her understanding of magnets; it gave her practice in writing a clear factual explanation, and that is a skill that can easily be transferred to another language (or to CA).

    On the other hand, when Miss A learned about magnets in her Method A school, her MSA wasn’t yet good enough to write a clear description of magnetic behaviour in her own words; so she and her classmates had to concentrate on learning by heart the MSA passage in the textbook, which they could then copy out from memory in exams. In Miss A’s school it was always more important to memorise the MSA words than to understand the magnets.

    The other major difference is that in Miss B’s school her colloquial spoken language is deeply respected, not only because it’s at the heart of family life but also because the school recognises that native-spoken-language literacy is the root from which any book-language grows.

    I should probably emphasise here that I’m not describing some imaginary Utopia of ideal education for Miss B – I’m just describing what every non-Arab modern literate culture does as a matter of course.

    So it seems plausible that teaching colloquial literacy first would improve standards in CA at 16. But is there any experimental proof that Method B really is more effective than Method A in teaching a learned book-language?

    It would be very convenient if I could point to a full scientific trial, with two matched populations of students using the two methods, and a standardised test of book-language proficiency at the end.
    But Method A is so uncommon that such trials are few. The only close parallel I know of is Greece 1830 – 1917, and there they switched the whole primary education system to Method B in 1917 with only Delmouzos’ s school in Volos as a pilot project. But we do know that the change there was successful, indeed so successful that it was never reversed even in the teeth of determined opposition from the Greek Orthodox Church and all kinds of political vested interests.

    I should probably also emphasise that the 1917 reforms did not seek to switch the national official language from katharevousa to demotic. From Year 5 onwards, katharevousa was still taught in school (as indeed was Ancient Greek), but now much more efficiently. Someone who left school able to read and write only demotic would have been unemployable, since katharevousa would remain the official written language for another 60 years; so the reforms were judged by their immediate effect in increasing katharevousa literacy rather than demotic literacy (although that did help too – the political aim was mainly to increase literacy, but crucially also to make sure that this literacy was in some form of Greek, and not in Bulgarian, or Turkish; a foreshadowing of Arabic’s battle with English).

    I should also say that in my hypothetical description of Miss B’s education I introduced CA in the fifth year of primary school because that was the timing used in the Greek 1917 reforms, and the Educational Association had thought long and hard about exactly how to switch from Method A to Method B. I’m just following their practice.

    More evidence: if Method B really is more efficient in teaching CA than Method A, then foreigners (who have all learned literacy in their own native languages before starting CA) should speak better CA at 16 than Arabs (all taught by Method A) do. Is this actually true? Here I have to appeal to Fatma, since some of her remarks here on Arabizi suggest that it might be. (“I have met non-Arabic speaking students who are fluent in MSA and they even pronounce all the markings at the end of the word (including all moods), which at first is comical, but is amazing. They read and write very well …” and in another Arabizi article: “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”.) Well yes, their “amazing proficiency”, compared with Arab students, is just because they are being taught using Method B.

    In any case it would be easy (in principle!) to set up a proper trial, a few pilot schools using Method B. The answer to the inevitable opposition (“All the mire of the streets, everything foreign, barbaric and vulgar that has ever been introduced into the mouths of the lowest social strata, has been fondly picked up and imposed as the form and model of the language of primary school” – to quote a Greek opponent of the reforms of 1917) would simply be to say “Wait until they are 16. Then see who writes the best essay in MSA”.

    The support of the parents and families would be one of the most important factors in a pilot school. They don’t have to be well-educated or even know any MSA; as long as they read colloquial to and with their children, and encourage them to write it at every opportunity in the first few years, they’ll be making the crucial difference.

    (Here again I have to appeal to Fatma and the readers for information – all of these ideas are well-accepted best practice elsewhere in the world, so have any of these pilot studies actually been done already? Surely Arabic teacher-training institutions must cover all this? And Arab teachers who happened to be educated in non-Arab countries obviously know it all from experience anyway.)

    So it seems that switching from Method A to Method B would help with Problem 1, losing touch with Classical Arabic. But what about the other two problems?

    2) General lack of literacy – the “only reading three pages a year” (of any language) habit

    Well, since Method B works by strengthening early literacy, it’ll certainly help. But it’s worth pointing out that because it involves the parents much more than Method A, its effects also diffuse out into the family. Even uneducated parents who can’t read or write MSA can join in their own children’s colloquial reading and writing, and become a bit more literate themselves.

    3) Feeling more comfortable speaking English than Arabic

    Teaching people to be ashamed of their own spoken language is part of Method A. Taking pride in your colloquial language is part of Method B.

    Now I can think of many possible objections, but this post is already far too long so I’ll only deal with the biggest five:

    Objection 1: “The step is too big – we can’t get there from here.”

    Well, if the Greeks could do it then the Arabs can. Of course it did take time (see the Greek Language Question article on Wikipedia for the details). If the Arabs used exactly the same time-line as the Greeks but 120 years later (very simplistic, I know) the whole 90-year process would look something like this:

    1950-ish political independence. Hope and expectation that MSA will become native language.
    1950 – 2000 Method A enforced, but no sign at all of MSA replacing colloquial in the home.
    2000 – 2010 Much agonising over state of language. No ideas on what to do about it.
    2010 – 2020 Colloquial begins to be recognised as independently evolving language, not a degraded version of the ancient one, and potentially just as capable. Calls to value what you are now, as much as what your ancestors once were.
    2020 – 2030 First colloquial prose literature appears. First educational pilot projects with Method B. First academic discussions in colloquial prove its capability. Consensus starts to emerge on colloquial spelling and vocabulary.
    2030 – 2040 Campaign for educational reform gains strength.
    2040-ish First educational reforms passed. Fightback against English begins.

    I’ve just described the Greek process with 120 added on to the dates. Very simple-minded, I know, but it does give some idea of what a realistic time-scale might look like.

    Objection 2: “Method A worked for me and my colleagues. So I can’t see why it wouldn’t work for everyone else. Why change?”

    Well yes, the top few percent are so talented that they can practically teach themselves to read, and Method A does work for them (just not for the other 95% of the population). The few who succeed become a small literary elite, often with strong ties to the local religious establishment. The great majority, who fail (in the sense that they can’t write effectively), are convinced that literacy (and therefore power) are not for them. Historically, in both the Greek and Arab worlds, this was all very convenient for the Ottoman overlords, who for centuries employed those meritocratic literary elites to do much of their administration. This is how Method A became so deeply entrenched in the traditional Greek and Arab educational systems under the Ottoman Empire (but nowhere else in the modern world).

    And of course that elitist tradition continued even after the Ottoman overlords had gone. In Greece, many of those who had mastered katharevousa themselves using Method A were opposed to educational reform. The last thing they wanted was to make it easier for the common people to become literate, and they accused the educational reformers of anarchism, atheism, freemasonry, feminism, socialism (which was partly true) and being the tools of foreign conspiracies (which was the exact opposite of the truth). However, common sense eventually prevailed, and they were outvoted for the good of the nation.

    Any move which broadens and deepens popular literacy can expect some opposition from the elite who are already literate; but the Greek example shows that this can be overcome.

    Objection 3: “Which colloquial? There are dozens … or should we create a synthetic merged one?”

    The Greeks spent a lot of time and energy arguing about this question. But history came up with a simple answer: the everyday spoken language of Athens, because that’s where the cultural and political power was. In the same way, history has already given Arabs the answers: the spoken languages of Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad … whichever cultural and political metropolis is nearest. Nothing else will feel natural.

    Objection 4: “Where will the learning materials come from? And those traditional Arab tales written in colloquial that parents are supposed to read to their children?”

    Well, 20 years ago this might have been a problem, but not today in the age of the internet. For factual material, for example, there is already a version of Wikipedia in Masri, Egyptian colloquial: http://arz.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page. I don’t know how good this is, and I wouldn’t suggest using it as a school text, but it does show that there are many people out there already working on related materials. (Aside to Fatma: how about an Arabizi interview with some of the people involved in arz.wikipedia.org?)

    As for fiction, I can’t resist quoting from the Arabizi article “Another struggle: what happened to our Arabic? Just open a book to find out”. Here Rym Ghazal, who has just published Maskoon (“Haunted”), talks about writing fiction in MSA:

    “One of the biggest issues I have noticed is that Arabs perceive the Arabic language as “sacred” because it is the language of the Holy Quran. Immediately after my “horror/ fantasy” book came out, my conservative friends slammed me for writing in this genre in Arabic. “This stuff should be written in English, not Arabic. I hope they release a fatwa against you and using Arabic to write horror!” one friend messaged me.
    “I sent her a copy, and asked her to first read it before condemning it just because it is based on imagination. But it exposed a very thorny issue that other authors of Arabic books have shared with me.
    “How does one find a balance between using classical Arabic, and the Arabic that the young are now speaking, without compromising the integrity of the language itself?” asked a prominent Emirati author who also writes for young people.
    “It is a struggle finding the “right Arabic” that will reach our younger generation.”

    — end of Rym Ghazal quote —

    Yet again, this sounds exactly like Roidis agonising over finding the “right Greek” in about 1888. But only two decades later, spoken Greek had become recognised as a self-contained language with a formidable story-telling tradition; and Penelope Delta began writing the series of historical teen adventures that introduced a whole new generation of young Greeks to literacy, by writing in the simple colloquial that the children used themselves. Her first book appeared in 1909, so that by the time the 1917 reforms took effect there was already colloquial literature for school pupils to read.

    I wonder if Rym Ghazal might consider writing a version of Maskoon in the equivalent Arabic ‘educational storyteller colloquial’ language? Then she wouldn’t need the services of a “translator”, and then have to dumb it down to make it comprehensible; she could simply write the words she is thinking. Since it would clearly not be trying to be CA, she would not be compromising the integrity or dignity of CA at all, and she would be safe from the threat of fatwas. After all, it would be an alternative to English, not an alternative to CA.

    She wouldn’t even need a publisher. I’d suggest something like Wattpad (at http://www.wattpad.com; and there is a good article about it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/technology/web-fiction-serialized-and-social.html). Wattpad encourages positive and detailed feedback from a community of readers, which would be very useful here.

    It’s interesting that in the Greek case, many of the early books in colloquial demotic also had supernatural folklore themes (like Karkavitsas’ 1899 “Words of the Prow”, traditional sailors’ tales). It fitted in with Politis’ folklore revival, and the deep desire to celebrate the long history of the people in their land. So “colloquial teen horror” may sound a bit trashy, but it can actually be very effective in putting young people in touch with their traditional linguistic roots.

    And to return to my main point: teenagers who read hundreds of pages of Arabic script for pleasure, whatever the subject matter, will be far better students of CA when they’re back in school.

    (Another appeal to Fatma for information: surely someone must have done for Arabic what the brothers Grimm did for German, and Politis did for Greek – collect all the traditional stories in the spoken language that the traditional story-tellers used? The “1001 Nights” captivated Europe three centuries ago – have they been updated?)

    Objection 5: “But doesn’t this open the door to the possibility, sometime in the future, of abandoning MSA as an official language and replacing it with some descendant of ‘educational colloquial’, as the Greeks did in 1976?”

    Maybe. But the Arab lands are not Greece, and there was nothing inevitable about that 1976 decision. With the help of strong roots in colloquial literacy there seems every likelihood that MSA could continue as a pan-Arab official language for many centuries (after all, Latin served as a pan-European cultural and official language for four centuries after European colloquial literacy took off around 1300 – and that was without the religious status that CA has).

    On the other hand, however, if the Arabic literary establishment and Method A continue to chop away at those colloquial roots … back to Rym Ghazal in the Arabizi article:

    “More and more Arabs are losing their intellectual strength as they lose fluency of their own native language. The sad reality is that, given the choice, if an English version of my book is next to the Arabic one, it will be picked up first. I have done it myself numerous times when I felt I just didn’t have time to read an Arabic book.”
    In a straight linguistic contest between written English and MSA, English will win every time because it can be learned from native speakers (even in films!) and our language instinct makes that seem easy, whereas MSA has to be learned from a book.

    But suppose she had written a third version of her book, in clear, vivid colloquial Arabic. Then that is the one that would be picked up, especially by 6-10 year olds, and they are the ones who have to be won over to Arabic. Later on, in their school MSA lessons, those children will easily outperform their classmates who picked up the English version.

    So it’s not as if the colloquial version is somehow “undermining” the MSA one; children that young would never have picked the MSA version anyway. The colloquial one is there to compete with the English one, and to lay a strong foundation for later MSA lessons to build on.

    But to get back to the long-term survival of MSA as a pan-Arab cultural and official language, co-existing with and drawing strength from a dozen varieties of colloquial (essentially the well-known Latin-in-Europe model): just why did the Greeks decide to abandon katharevousa in 1976?

    Well, in the short term, local politics – but in the long term the survival of any book-language depends overwhelmingly on the skill and enthusiasm of those who write in it, and katharevousa just lost the writers. (It doesn’t depend on how many people can read it. Katharevousa had plenty of those. But a language that is no longer being written for pleasure is already dead, no matter how many readers it has. You can tell when this has happened because the writing starts to look like set phrases of officialese just strung together.)

    So to survive, MSA will need writers (and not just the “translators” who correct published work into grammatical MSA). It will need people who have been writing their own thoughts, page after page, since they could first hold a pen – and that means people taught using method B. I don’t think MSA will be able to survive without a Greek-style renaissance in colloquial literature to support broad, early and enthusiastic literacy. But MSA and colloquial together, supporting each other, would be a robust and resilient linguistic ecosystem that could stand up to English.


    1. SLC! As always such well thought out and relevant comments. I don’t think I’ll add much except that there are clear similarities between Arabic and Greek as we have discussed before in more than one post. I think your final paragraph sums it all up really, MSA and colloquial together are stronger and perhaps the way forward for a future in which Arabic will be spoken as a language of everyday dealings and communication. A renaissance of sorts may have to take place first, perhaps through publishing and writing (as you suggest) and there are efforts now to get young Arabic speaking children to read books in Arabic and more than the ‘3 pages a year’ some are currently manage. So only time will tell what path Arabic will take, the Greek one or an entirely new one of its own, who knows? Thanks for going into great detail on the Greek situation and I am sure anyone interested will not mind how long the comment is. So now a paper needs to be written on this topic!

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