Arabic needs protection, but who should protect it?

ArabicThe short answer is nobody. Except of course the speakers of Arabic language themselves. They can do this through various avenues such as: schooling and education, books and publishing (not just translations), the culture at large, and as any scholar of language maintenance or Ecolinguist will tell you- their ideology. What do they think about (and of) their language? How do they measure their language to other languages? and many other questions, and once those can be answered (and importantly implemented) then the status and importantly the future of a language can be determined. Arabic language is not dead but socially something is happening, something that is making some Arabic speakers nervous and many sociolinguists like myself are trying to understand what that is. I am basing this post on an article I read back in May and I have been meaning to write something on it ever since, so here it is.


The article is quoted below:————– (May 2014)

Scholars call for laws to protect Arabic

Arab countries urged to ensure that legislation related to the official language is implemented

Dubai: Laws and legislations should be imposed by Arab countries to protect the Arabic language, said Arab scholars and educators during the third International Conference for the Arabic Language.

The two-day conference, which was organised by the International Council for Arabic Language in cooperation with Unesco and the Association of Arab Universities, brought Arab scholars and officials under one platform to discuss the state of the Arab language and ways to improve it.

“Between the eighth and 16th century, the Arabic and Latin languages were the only two in the world used to document science and philosophy. This is proof that the Arabic language is a global language and it is up to this generation to conserve and protect it,” said Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development during his opening speech.

The conference was attended and inaugurated by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

To preserve the language for future generations, Shaikh Nayhan said we must have curriculums with clear objectives that are based on thorough studies.

“We must also ensure that the Arabic language is lively so that its learners will find it both fun and beneficial. Training qualified teachers and utilising technology also help spread its usage.

The Arabic language faces many dangers according to Dr Abdul Latif Obaid, member of the Tunisian Council of National Constituent Assembly.

“Our Arabic Language is facing dangers from foreign languages that are used in our schools and our media, slang is also a danger as it is overwhelming and slowly replacing the standard language,” said Obaid.

To help protect and preserve the language Dr Ahmad Al Dhabib, former member of the Shura Council and Editor in Chief of Arab Magazine, said legislations and laws should be imposed to protect it.

“Many Arab countries need legislations and laws to ensure that the Arab language is used in tourism and education. We are not against other languages; we are against other languages overwhelming ours.”

Coming up with legislations is not enough, Arab countries should make sure that these laws are actually implemented said Amr Mohammad Al Zain, Secretary General of the Union of Arab lawyers.

“Having unified Arab terminology is very important for Arab laws and legislation. We came up with unified terminology since 1944, but it has never been implemented. Having a unified terminology is important if we want to come up with legislations that protect the Arabic language,” he said.

Al Zain called on policy makers to implement unified Arab terminology.

Arab people have a huge role in protecting the Arabic language said Dr Abdullah Nasir, a Member of the Shura Council.

“The Arabic language is being shut out by its own people in the name of literature. We are the only people who have two types of literature the standard one and the colloquial literature. The later has taken the place of the standard language.”

Nasir also said the Arabic language is being threatened by slang language, and if the Arabic language is in threat, so is the Arab identity.

Mohammad Al Qatatsha, a member of the Jordanian House of Representatives also believes that the Arab people are the ones in charge of protecting their language.

“We are the ones who push our children to invest in the English language because we believe that it is a valuable investment. We believe we need this language because the owners of this language are the rulers of the world.”

Al Qatatsha said laws and legislations are not enough to protect the language. The Arab people should also have an effective role.


The article of course coincided with the annual Arabic language conference that takes place in Dubai each year for the last few years. Reading through the article one can see what speakers at the conference thought the current status of Arabic language is. The vast majority of speakers show anxiety, there is a call to refer to a 1944 unified terminology! 1944? We need one for today and it shouldn’t be imposed either people should ease into using good terminology otherwise it will feel too prescriptive. Nobody is against a unified terminology there are benefits to such a thing but it needs updating and it needs to reflect the world we live in today. It cannot be archaic in its words when describing modern ideas and objects (words such as internet, selfie, nerd etc….need quick short Arabic equivalents not transliterations or inconceivable words).  There is also a call to use Arabic language in tourism, not sure what that means because most tourists will not speak Arabic, why not in both Arabic and English? And how does a brochure in English affect the Arabic speaker or indeed the future of Arabic?

Practically though there is a call in the article to implement change and ensure better command of Arabic among native speakers through an improvement in curricula and in the quality of teaching through better teacher training and more creative resources. Many have always felt sorry for both the Arabic teacher and the Arabic student because many times the subject is neglected and whilst other schemes of work are updated and made more accessible (like maths & science) Arabic language syllabi have always been the same for decades in many Arabic speaking countries. However, that is changing because many people both those in education and publishing in the Arab world have agreed that there is an issue and it needs to be addressed, Arabic has been neglected for too long. So schools, publishers and writers have begun implementing many changes to the way Arabic language is presented and represented in both print and schooling.

There is also a reference to slang or colloquial affecting the Arabic language, I don’t know how factual that is because as I have said time and again nobody really speaks MSA as an everyday code or language. It has always been that way for thousands of years, so why does it pose a problem now? And importantly how?

The article ends with a call for Arabic speakers to take responsibility for their language. Speakers of course should ensure that they learn and use their language well, and that it is one of the only effective ways to preserve the Arabic language- it is common sense really. And any Arabic bilingual can tell you that it is not impossible even in a non-Arabic speaking majority society to learn and master Arabic well, so what’s difficult about it in a place where everybody speaks some form or other of Arabic? No law or implementation of a law will work, and we have seen the futility of such laws in workplaces and places of business because even among themselves Arabic speakers prefer to use English. I don’t know but I think a law will not work. There is a lot of anxiety and there are also many good practical solutions out there, it’s not easy but it’s not impossible to make Arabic the main language (alongside English) of its speakers now and in the future. Please share your thoughts as always.


Source of article:

9 thoughts on “Arabic needs protection, but who should protect it?

  1. Lameen Souag

    This article is indeed ridiculous (can you imagine believing that “Between the eighth and 16th century, the Arabic and Latin languages were the only two in the world used to document science and philosophy”?), and its fear that colloquial Arabic is damaging Fusha is the reverse of the truth (were it not for the existence of colloquial Arabic, nobody but specialists would even learn Fusha). But the fear they’re feeling has some justification, and you put your finger on why:

    : “even among themselves Arabic speakers prefer to use English” [or French]

    Not all Arabic speakers, of course – not even most. But the ones that do tend to be in rather influential positions and in rather prestigious contexts. That really is a threat to the status of Arabic, and to some extent one that depends on specific, top-down policy decisions: what language is chosen for university teaching, for instance, or (in the Gulf) which countries immigrants are coming from and in what numbers. Even in the most laissez-faire state, the government is going to have policies on such issues: the only question is whether those policies take their own sociolinguistic impact into account or not.

    1. I think that sometimes people who claim that Arabic is in real danger or near death will make inaccurate claims about it. Your point about colloquial Arabic is right and spot on but I think when people are anxious they usually tend to dip into their most irrational ideologies and one of those is the age-old wrong belief that “colloquial or ‘ammiyyah spoils the Arabic language” or hinders it in some way (the ‘pure’ versus ‘non-pure’ dichotomy in Arabic). You are right again about the top-down policies and that is the single biggest problem in countries where there is a heightened anxiety over the future of Arabic- laws that cannot and do not relate to the actual sociolinguistic context on the ground. In the end they over-complicate the situation and they do not address the issue thus making speakers even more anxious….thanks Lameen for relevant and fruitful comment!

  2. Klara

    Hi thanks I appreciate the posts like always; this one in particular made me run to the keyboard and put my feelings out there. You raise good points in your post when you say laws don’t work; I agree because people may not always want to follow the law. So the solution would be that those people making the law have to help the people follow the laws, by for example making it mandatory to pass Arabic at the end of school. Or make work communication (that is not international business related) written in Arabic, and then if needs to be in English it can always be translated. Or you know like help expats to learn Arabic for example, I worked in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain for many years but I never had the chance to learn Arabic, and everyone spoke English. So over 25 years and all I have seen is the increase of the use of English. I know that they need this because they want to be ahead in technology and so on (I know Europe at one time sent people to learn Arabic so that they too could be ahead in advancements) but what I worry about is the future of Arabic in places where year on year they employ hundreds of foreign teachers to come and teach their children in English!

    I think also what Lameen said was good and pointed out that the law has to be in line with what people are doing right now, nothing blanket it must address the problem. When I visited Egypt the effect was the opposite, I had to rely on a translator or try to understand people through their very bad English, but I felt a sense of happiness inside me because I thought well at least he speaks his native language better. As a native English speaker (Australian) I would never allow my children to speak and master any other language no matter how important it was, and if my country started making laws to protect my language I would be in panic mode.

    1. Hi Klara thanks for the comment and for sharing your experience. I think yes the issue of laws is a contentious but we all know that they exist in almost all countries. But these laws (in conjunction with other initiatives) have to be passed and implemented -as you say- in a way that will support people’s current “linguistic situation” so that real results and changes can take place where they need to. Thanks for your thoughts and opinions on this.

  3. Walid Khalil

    I think that Arabs should do what the European nations did starting with the 14th century: establish a grammar for the vernaculars so that they become script languages that can be read and written. This is how Europeans pulled themselves out of the old ages and embrassed modernity. You cant make people change the way they speak, but you can help them read and the write the way they speak in their daily language.

  4. etonuae

    Arabic language is more popular among foreigners because there are many foreigners who enroll for arabic language course especially in dubai and abu dhabi to learn and understand the arabic culture and some enroll to fulfill their job requirement.

  5. mokhtari souad

    I think arabic is pearl itself.but it is in danger because many the problems is in the speakers who code switch in their conversation using other foreign languages rathar then use it alone .arabic id the language of the Holy Coran.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I don’t think code-switching itself is a problem. This is because for people who speak more than one language, switching between them is very normal and in some instances it is a sign of language expertise. But what we have to understand is: is this switching due to lack of knowledge of Arabic? Or due to style and linguistic reasons? So we cannot single out the act of code-switching by itself and say that it alone weakens Arabic or it is the reason for the current state of the language. There are bigger issues at play most of which we are still trying to work out. Thanks again.

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