It has been a long while since I last posted anything due to the most intensely busy 6 months I have had in a long time. So here is a belated happy 2015 to all my readers and a wish that this year will be better than the last in terms of peace and stability for humankind. Hello to new readers and a thank you to all those who wrote emails, I am slowly replying to as many as I can.
So where do I start with this short post? Well, 2014 was great for Arabic in may ways because I think for the first time there is a shift from mere talk to action especially in the Gulf countries (UAE, Oman & Kuwait in particular) to put into tangible terms (laws, conferences and plans) their worries about the future of the Arabic language. The UAE, as you would have seen from previous posts, suggested/passed laws to protect the Arabic language and it was an oft-recurring topic among ministers and broadcasters in and beyond the country. One may criticise and be sceptical about these laws and question the panic of the loss of a language with over 400 million speakers, but whatever your opinion I think the laws may help frame the issue in a new light. As a researcher it is often very difficult to quantify such a phenomenon and understand (at least in numbers and figures) how ordinary speakers view and react to such a topic/issue. The law will allow people to agree, disagree, form their own initiatives to support the law or criticise it, and all that is data, information that helps me and others like myself get a grip on real people’s feelings and uses of the Arabic language. As I said previously no law can protect a language, rather it is the speakers who can create any true change (if needed) in order to protect the language. The other thing I noticed, and that might be because for the last 5 years I’ve obsessed over the topic, is that young Native Arabic language speakers seem to be more open about their preferences for English (for reasons of education, work, international collaborations) and their emphasis that they are also committed to the Arabic language. I have met Arabic speakers (18-30) who are re-schooling themselves in Arabic and who as a result are able to read books in Arabic without much trouble (save with the help of a dictionary) and can articulate themselves better (especially in Standard Arabic) when they write. So it’s an interesting mix of how I was initially interested in the cries and calls to save Arabic language and how I now see people who really matter, those on the ground who can make a difference (or not) react to such a dialogue and what actions they take as individuals or what they say about the subject that ultimately contributes to the future of this situation. To say that this is fascinating for me as a sociolinguist is understatement, it is something I will continue to watch for the future.
What does 2015 promise for Arabic language? In terms of content I think it’s exciting that Sesame Street is being re-launched, the Arabic version is known as Iftah ya simsim and previously ran from 1979 until 1990. It is exciting that it is making a return and it will be the first time I will see it because by the time I was ready to watch the show it had been off-air for some years. I have however heard from those who watched the original version that it was a brilliant tool for entertainment but more importantly for the learning, reinforcement and use of the Arabic language. Children were exposed to the Arabic language for everyday use, words for items and of course for learning new things, which for many people (especially parents) offered another support tool for the Arabic language. I think it may fulfil the same roles it did previously, and given that now it will be aired in a new globalised, connected and computerised world I am excited to see the true impact of such a show. The cast from producers, puppeteers and actors are from across the Arab world with varied, interdisciplinary and interesting backgrounds in terms of both education and experience. So as soon as I hear/see anything about the impact of iftah ya simsim on the use of Arabic language I will without doubt write about it here (maybe even try to get an interview from someone in the production team). There are also more efforts to make as much of the internet content as possible available in Arabic, and overall more universities across the Gulf are offering courses that are taught entirely in Arabic and this is leading to a need for students to write in academic Arabic (maybe even unify terms, expressions and styles like we have in English). Let’s see how the rest of 2015 goes.
I want to end the post with an article I saw a few days ago published in the National about Arabic speaking students’ preference for using English (pasted below unchanged):
An increasing number of Arab students say they are more comfortable speaking in English than their mother tongue.
Ayman Hussein, 25, is studying for a Masters in marketing and communications at Middlesex University. He was born in Sudan but says having been in the UAE since the age of three, he is now more comfortable with English.
“I would say that coming to the UAE is the reason for this,” he said. “I’ve never been to the US or Canada and yet my English is very strong and I say that’s because of growing up in the UAE.
“I can communicate well in Arabic and I don’t feel it’s a weakness, it’s a preference.”
Maha Hussein, 24, is a masters student at the University of Wollongong Dubai, studying media and communication.
Having lived in Canada and the US before moving to the UAE 12 years ago, the Libyan considers herself a native English speaker but she feels her Arabic skills are as strong.
“I would always choose to write assignments in English,” she said. “Going back to Libya makes me realise how important it is to speak and maintain Arabic because there’s no English there whatsoever.”
The reason her family moved to the UAE was to reconnect the children with Arabic.
“It’s easy to become too reliant on English and dismiss Arabic. I had Arab friends who sounded like five-year-olds and it was embarrassing,” she said.
Dr Afaf Al Bataineh, acting director of the Institute of Arabic Language at Zayed University, said: “The Arabic language has received extensive support from UAE leaders and policymakers.
“Most UAE and Arab families wish to teach children their national language. In fact, most families and young adults believe that Arabic is an essential part of their identity.”
However, he acknowledges that the diverse nature of the UAE poses challenges.
“As a result of the cosmopolitan nature of the cities in which we live today, and because of the multi ethnicities and nationalities that live side-by-side in the UAE, English has become the dominant language in the public sphere, trade, communication, entertainment and media.
“Hence, Arabic became no different than any other language. This means that individuals, families, schools, communities and the media must do more to consolidate the teaching, learning and use of Arabic.
Among Emirati students, Dr Al Bataineh said, the differences in their ability to speak and write are apparent.
“In general, students who study Arabic in public schools tend to have strong Arabic-language skills while students who study Arabic in private schools tend to struggle,” he said.
“The main challenge seems to be students’ inability to use Arabic for communication purposes effectively, particularly the written form.
“Most believe that Arabic is a difficult language to master and this difficulty is often attributed to inability to use the grammar correctly. Many students seem to be extremely weak in using Arabic for academic purposes and many complain that they received little training on how to structure the written forms.”
It’s an interesting article because it focuses on speaker opinions and brings to the fore how the speakers themselves view their relationship with the Arabic language. I am used to reading articles that begin with a lamentation, a judgement and then endless quotations from scholars and academics followed by a conclusion. This article, by allowing students’ remarks to be presented right away shows that language use is in fact mediated by speaker preferences, social benefits such as ease and the ability/possibility to communicate with others as well as the social circumstance. One thing is for sure though Arabic language education needs to change (nothing new there) and students need to be supported and helped instead of being blamed for their lack of Arabic. It is not easy to create and implement a whole new system or improve an existing one without much effort and great upheaval. Maybe as some have already suggested, a bilingual education model (for those who opt for it) could be effective because students without doubt need both English and Arabic. Who knows? Thanks for reading and as always comments are welcome.