So Wednesday 18th December was World Arabic Language Day as set out and proposed by the UN, because Arabic is one of its official languages. It is the first time ever that I have seen on Twitter such excitement and preparation for this day, tweets started circulating since last Tuesday. One of the ideas to create an awareness for the day, was to tweet in Arabic using the hashtag #بالعربي (meaning in Arabic) with the intention that by the 18th of December the hashtag would be trending on Twitter. It is also the first time that the day has received open official backing, in the case of Dubai the Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum Foundation supported the #بالعربي (bil- Arabi) initiative on Twitter among other initiatives in place to celebrate the importance of Arabic on the day.
Many parts of the Arab world were excited about the day, in Egypt the Supreme Council of Culture commemorated the day, whilst in Dubai free Arabic classes have been offered (among other activities) to non-Arabic speakers since the 15th of December until today the 19th and anybody can enrol. Dubai is also opening a new centre for Arabic language to coincide with the Arabic Language Day, this is in keeping with the recent programs and plans in the emirate to promote the learning of Arabic for native speakers. Saudi Arabia marked the day at it’s Riyadh book fair, and the day was celebrated as far away as India. And I could write forever about the fun and joy of the day, how children were treated to cakes in Arabic alphabet shapes, sweets and colouring books or if they were lucky enough they read a book in Arabic at school and listened to lovely poems and songs about the Arabic language- and I am sure it was that fun.
But in reading about the preparations for the day, receiving emails from various organisations about their plans for the day, and in reading about how different people celebrated the day, I wondered what the opportunities and challenges (if any) a day like World Arabic Day presented to policy makers and native Arabic speakers? I am sure you know that on Arabizi we are constantly trying to understand the current situation of the Arabic language based on how it is used by its speakers and the ever-problematic question of diglossia and the future of the language in its native lands. So a day to celebrate the Arabic language almost always get my mind working and thinking.
Is the 18th of December all about celebrating Arabic on that one day 1 every year? Reading poems, or indeed tweeting or posting them up on Facebook, and forgetting about it the next day? Is it about following the trend on that day (by tweeting, reading an Arabic book, writing about how much the Arabic language means/meant to humanity and civilisation) and showing everyone that Arabic is the best language? Is it about reminding the Arabic speakers that Arabic is the language of the Qur’an? I saw some good tweets, whilst I thought others were slightly over the top in their exaggeration of the uniqueness of Arabic compared to other languages (I don’t deny that its unique, but I don’t compare it to other languages with the intention of claiming its superiority). It was also fascinating to see that in their bid to demonstrate the superiority of Arabic language over other languages, some writers misspelled words and messed the grammar around, and the worst irony in all this, was that they didn’t even realise their mistakes!
The day offers many great opportunities for Arabic language speakers, especially native speakers, it reminds them that their language is good enough to (re)learn and use in everyday communication. By openly celebrating the day, people who perhaps felt judged at their insistence for the use of Arabic language in everyday communication feel rewarded and will maybe revamp their efforts with a new energy. I know that the Arabic language protection societies took the opportunity to prescriptively instruct people about the importance of ‘correct’ Arabic, ‘pure’ Arabic and their responsibility towards their mother-tongue the Arabic language. For some native Arabic speakers this is stifling and does not interest them in Arabic further, which is counter-productive if the aim was to encourage people to rekindle their relationship with their language.
Non-native speakers also have the opportunity to experience Arabic from a linguistic perspective (usually it’s food, dancing and some history for an Arabic themed day) and not just from a cultural perspective. During my masters I was an Arabic teacher and each year the school would put on an Arabic language day. For the entire week before that day, students would prepare small 10 minute presentations about Arabic language facts and present for the rest of the school during the morning assembly. In the end, even students who were not taking Arabic as a modern language, learned a few words and some facts about the language. So I would say for non-native speakers the day is a brilliant opportunity for them to learn about the Arabic language, or indeed the language itself.
However, in all this, I think that there are challenges that must be addressed and must be overcome, and I do acknowledge that there are efforts in process to overcome these challenges. Although, a day to celebrate Arabic presents opportunities, I think that it mainly presents for its native speakers and policy makers many challenges. First, the language policy in education needs to be addressed urgently. Children go through education and are confused about their languages and the roles those languages (should) play in their lives. I have numerous times discussed here on Arabizi. So a day celebrating Arabic raises many questions for native speakers,and in the last week I have received emails from people wishing that the situation really could be a reason to celebrate. They want to be at peace with their language, and still be modern and still be educated to the highest levels they can reach-all without losing their language. They have nothing against English or any other language.
The second (and final) challenge is keeping up the momentum and zeal for the language throughout the year, when all the balloons and grand elaborate calligraphy-inspired banners have all been put away. How can children and even adult native speakers feel encouraged to use their mother tongue for everyday use at work and in educational settings? What mechanisms are in place that will ensure that? And the age-old question of diglossia and standard vs. non-standard Arabic needs to be addressed. Does Arabic language not deserve to be a language of the future? A language capable of communicating information and knowledge? It’s a great idea to have such a day, but the work begins the day after the poetry lines stop appearing on our timelines and the newspaper articles no longer discuss the events of World Arabic day. A true and serious dialogue is needed, and practical steps must be taken to address any issues each Arabic country has with regards to Arabic (because different countries have different challenges). I will also be keeping an eye on the progress of the initiatives set up this year to improve the Arabic language situation to see the differences they will be making. Please share your comments and thoughts on the post. How did you celebrate the day? What challenges do you think exist?
Finally, I should also say that I have started another blog (an extension to Arabizi) to review Arabic linguistic books/papers and articles (arabizibooks.wordpress,com), please visit it to learn more about it. Thanks for reading, the next post will be about Arabic and globalization.
In June (2013) I blogged about Arabic dialects and the post received much interest from readers either through comments or emails. But one contributor in particular (SLC, you can view his Wiki page here on the Greek diglossic situation) to the comment section was perhaps the most interested in the topic of dialects and their relationship to Classical Arabic (CA) or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, or whichever way one may wish to label it). That interest began a series of emails and comments (you can read the comments here). These comments have become so interesting (and much longer each time) that I asked him if I could blog them as a post and ask other readers to join in and discuss the situation of Arabic dialects as they relate to Classical Arabic (or any other similar diglossic situations).
The questions are quite simple really, 1. is the relationship between the Arabic dialects and the CA or MSA the same as Greek was to its dialect? (see previous comments and the Wiki page above) 2. Are the dialects so different from CA or MSA, so as to say that they are different languages?
You can read the details below ( I have re-blogged the comment without editing) to get a better idea of the Greek situation. SLC has done a great job and selected relevant excerpts and quotes from books he’s read about Arabic and Greek and he attempts to draw parallels.
Thoughts on the parallel between Arabic and the Greek Language Question, part 2 …
Well, I’ve read a bit more and thought a bit more, and first I’ll try to come back on some of the points in your reply. To start with:
“I would not go as far as to say that spoken Arabic is so different from Classical Arabic (CA) or MSA, in the way that Greek differs from its other varieties.”
Hmm. Well, with my own few words of Arabic I couldn’t possibly judge that myself. But here are some quotes about Egyptian Colloquial Arabic suggesting that MSA and ECA, at least, are different enough to be mutually incomprehensible.
I’ve just finished reading ‘Sacred Language, Ordinary People’ (2003) by Niloofar Haeri (she is from a Persian-speaking Muslim background) about the language situation in contemporary Egypt. In her preface she describes arriving in Egypt after learning MSA in graduate school. “Eventually, I went to Egypt to begin my first period of research in 1987-88, and was stunned to discover, like many researchers before me, that I was unequipped to have even a rudimentary conversation in the language. Of course I had been briefly told that the language I was taught was the language of writing and that it was different from the spoken language. But what I had not quite grasped was just how great the differences are.”
Of course Haeri was learning MSA and ECA as second languages, so she was unused to the mixtures of the two that Egyptians grow up with. But the quote does suggest that the two ends of the spectrum are far enough apart to be mutually incomprehensible.
In general Haeri comes across very much like the Greek demoticists of a century ago. In her ‘Conclusion’ she writes: “Preventing it (ECA) from becoming a language of writing and self-expression shows a highly uneasy relation to the self. Children grow up hearing at school and other places that their mother tongue is “weak”, “corrupt”, “has no grammar”, “is the language of donkeys” and so on. ” (p.149) Now that really does sound like Fotiadis and the Educational Association! And on the next page: “But the obligation to disown a central defining aspect of their identity – their mother tongue – when it comes to writing, to creating and evaluating what is or is not knowledge, mediates and intervenes in their relations to themselves and to the world. The censure of Egyptian Arabic from official and national culture, seem to prevent Egypt from tapping its many potentials.” And that sounds exactly like Psycharis and the Greek political demoticists.
Of course you could say that Haeri is an outsider, as a non-native Arabic speaker, and despite her years of study and research might not fully appreciate the Egyptian situation. So my second set of quotes is from ‘Arabic Sociolinguistics’ (2009) by Reem Bassiouney, born and bred in Egypt. On her p.267 she explicitly challenges Haeri’s “highly uneasy relation to the self” description, and concludes that: “Given the cases studied in this book in which the diglossic situation provided an opportunity for speakers to project their identity and leave an effect on their audience, I would consider diglossia, once more, an asset rather than an impediment. … diglossia itself is linguistic diversity, and by eliminating it we are suppressing a linguistic richness in Arab societies.”
In 1880s Greece, then, Bassiouney would fit among the defenders of the status quo like Vernardakis and Hatzidakis. And they did have a point of a kind; to those talented and well-educated enough to really master katharevousa (Papadiamantis, for example), the situation gave an opportunity to interweave narration in the written language with reminiscence in the spoken language and create some great literature. But realistically, there were very few, even among the cultural elite, with the talent and education to exploit this “linguistic richness” in writing, and the result, with its archaic-sounding narration, was not to everyone’s taste.
Bassiouney’s argument for the “linguistic richness” of the current situation would also be far more convincing if all children were taught to read and write their spoken colloquial language as well as the ‘official’ MSA. Everyone could then enjoy the “richness” in writing as well as in speech. (All the positive examples she gives of people “projecting their identity and leaving an effect on their audience” are taken only from spoken Arabic – code-switching between ECA and MSA in TV talk shows and so on – and not from written materials.) It is hard to see how preventing children reading and writing their own spoken native language can enhance the “linguistic richness” of their reading experience.
However, the statement that really struck me in Bassiouney 2009 was on the previous page (p.266) where she writes:
“In a hypothetical world, if each Arab country started using its own colloquial in domains in which SA was used, then in fifty years, all Arab countries would be detached from SA, and the common SA literature which was read by all Arabs would be incomprehensible for a young generation trained only in colloquial.” (Bassiouney uses SA, Standard Arabic, to cover both CA and MSA.)
Here is a plain admission, from an apparent supporter of the use of MSA, that it is so different from colloquial as to be “incomprehensible” to a colloquial speaker. Take this together with Haeri’s evidence from the other direction, that ECA is in practice incomprehensible for a well-educated speaker of MSA, and it does seem that the two are in fact different languages, using mutual incomprehensibility as a common-sense definition of ‘different’. This is exactly the same as the Greek situation, where Ancient Greek and demotic are now different languages.
Of course I know that this is not the official Ministry-of-Culture position. If you challenge such a Minister with Haeri’s statement, that Arab children are all forbidden to read and write their own native language, he will simply reply that MSA really is their native language, just in a more formal register. (I’ll come back to the idea of registers in my next post …) But I think Bassiouney’s picture of a hypothetical colloquial-only future is a very effective touchstone for revealing what people really think. If you then ask the Minister why the schools don’t do what they do in every other country, and teach the children to read and write in the language and register they speak and use every day (in other countries they don’t usually pick up the more formal registers of their own language until their mid-to-late teens, as they begin to encounter social situations in their own lives where those registers are appropriate in speech as well as writing), he would probably say (or at least think) something like: “Are you crazy – if we teach them to write both ECA and MSA, they’ll choose ECA every time, and never learn MSA at all! MSA would be lost in a generation!” This is the point at which my imaginary Minister reveals that he – like Bassiouney – really thinks of ECA and MSA as different, competing languages, and not as complementary registers of the same living language. At heart, he thinks a gain for one would inevitably be a loss for the other.
On your point about there actually being a polyglossic spectrum rather than two separate languages: yes, I know about ‘Educated Spoken Arabic’ and its variations, and about all the practical code-switching that goes on in everyday conversation. Speakers move up and down the ‘spectrum’ all the time, as Bassiouney describes and documents very well. But that’s just in speech, and just among adults. There, spoken Arabic is following exactly the same common-sense path as spoken Greek demotic, and gradually adopting many technical words and turns of phrase from the Classical language.
But in writing, everything seems much more restricted. Most of the polyglossic spectrum (apart from the CA and MSA end) is missing or forbidden, so Bassiouney’s diglossic “linguistic richness” is not available to writers or readers.
And very significantly, it’s in the first 7 years of life (the crucial formative period in which we all learn to love reading – or not) that the diglossia is most clear-cut. Young children speak hardly any MSA yet, so it actually does seem to be true that their spoken dialect is a completely different language from the written MSA they are taught at school (or CA if they attend a local kuttaab, as described by Haeri). There is no useful overlap at all (useful in the sense that they could use their knowledge of the spoken language to predict how the written language will behave). I’ll leave it to others to speculate about the effect this has on literacy learning. My own experience as a teacher suggests that it will make it very difficult for the children to form new written sentences themselves, even with lots of encouragement, and even if they can read quite well.
So, there may be a lot of talk about registers and code-switching and polyglossia in adult life; but in the primary school, where it matters most of all for literacy, Arabic really does seem to be completely diglossic.
This was also true of Greek primary schools before 1880, and for exactly the same reasons. For centuries Greek-language primary education had been run by the Orthodox Church. The only language taught was the Ancient Greek used in the Gospels, and the learning materials were almost all religious texts. The most able went on to work for, or at least with, the Orthodox Church, while the less able who dropped out early would at least know the alphabet so that they could read prayers (though they might not understand the Ancient Greek language of the words they were reciting). This seems very like the traditional Egyptian situation as described by Haeri, where ‘learning to read’ is practically the same thing as ‘learning the Quran’. Although the languages and religious beliefs are quite different, the social frameworks are exactly the same.
I also suspect that this social situation actively discouraged Greek primary-school children from producing new written sentences of their own (quite apart from the technical difficulty of doing that in – effectively – a foreign language). If the only teaching materials were religious texts which it would be blasphemous to alter or even summarise, how could the children ever practise writing original sentences? I don’t suppose the teacher (in those days usually a priest or a monk) was likely to set homework tasks like “Make up a story about Jesus performing a new miracle” or “Invent three new Commandments”. Even re-telling a Gospel story in their own words might well have been regarded as blasphemy (cf the Gospel Riots of 1901). I suspect that ‘writing’ in a pre-1880 Greek primary school was actually confined to just copying out the texts, or writing them out from memory.
Again, we can only speculate about the effect this had on literacy learning, but it can’t have been good. It’s only when we write our own thoughts for ourselves that we really start to feel ownership of our written language. Of course in Greece the more talented did grow up to express their thoughts in written katharevousa, but that was when they were much older. To really own a written language you need to start writing in your own words during the language-acquisition years (roughly ages 1 – 7). If you start doing it later, it will always feel as if you’re writing a language belonging to someone else. It’s a bit like the way learning a second language later always feels different from learning your native one(s) in those early years.
Of course the Orthodox Church was well aware of this. After all, the teachers had all been through the same system themselves. But they were quite happy to turn out generations of students who felt that writing itself belonged to the Church and not to the people; that policy had helped the Church maintain its political position for centuries.
Later on in their education the brighter pupils would meet the pagan writers of Classical Greece, but that doesn’t seem to have given them any more sense of ownership. They just felt that the written language now belonged to Homer, Sophocles and Plato as well as to the Church, and still not to them. Writers felt alienated from their own written language, but hated to admit it because that language had such a glorious past. It was only the inconsistency and incompetence of their use of katharevousa that revealed that it still felt like a foreign, second, language to them.
For the first few decades of Greek Independence (say 1830 – 80) the authorities were content to leave this system in place, quite logically, because it was official policy that katharevousa (and maybe even Ancient Greek itself) would soon become the universal spoken language of Greater Greece. In that case, the children would again be writing in school the same language they spoke at home, and the alienation problem would disappear naturally. It was only around 1880 that it became generally recognised that none of this was really going to happen, and that the educational system was therefore seriously flawed.
I’ll leave it to you and your other readers to judge how much of this also applies to Arabic today.
I think it’s also worth pointing out just how unusual the Arabic and pre-1917 Greek primary education situations are. Four things are happening:
a) Pupils are forbidden to read or write the language they speak themselves.
b) They are taught to read and write a different, learned language.
c) This learned language has no living native speakers.
d) The materials for new readers are often religious texts that cannot serve as models for the children’s own writing.
This is quite an extreme situation. For example, the teaching of Latin in Western, Catholic Europe was never like this, because (a) and (d) didn’t apply. As for (a), literacy in one’s native language always went hand-in-hand with learning Latin. And for (d), the model texts have always been non-religious things like history (Caesar and Tacitus), letters and speeches (Cicero), and poetry (Virgil and Horace), not one of them Christian, and all chosen for their purity of style, which students were encouraged to emulate. Even though the Catholic Church might have sponsored much of the teaching, written Latin was never felt to be the property of the Church.
As for point (a), perhaps “forbidden” is the wrong word. Bassiouney (p.267) makes it clear that Egyptian children do not experience this as any kind of prohibition; it’s not as if they were constantly sneaking off to write ECA and being punished for it. Instead, children generally take the adult world as they find it, and just accept that spoken ECA belongs in one “domain”, while writing belongs in another different “domain” (Bassiouney’s word for it). They then retain this attitude throughout their lives; it seems natural to them, even if it seems extraordinary to non-Arabic speakers who have grown up reading and writing their own spoken languages, and take for granted the freedom to do so.
This again is exactly the same as the situation in Greece in 1830-80. People thought of writing as part of a “domain” belonging to the Orthodox Church and the Ancients, and even professional writers felt like intruders there, constantly afraid of getting into trouble for making grammatical mistakes. Less talented school pupils must have felt even more excluded. It was a completely different world from that of everyday demotic speech where everybody felt at home.
Well, I’ve only come back on one point so far, and this post is already much too long. But there is so much to say …
What I would really like is some more feedback. As you know, I’m very much a beginner in the Arabic side of things, and I need to know if I’m getting that about right. To an Arabic speaker, does the Arabic situation feel like the Greek one?
Thank you SLC for that wonderful and very informative response, I am learning a lot about Greek! Thank you also for quoting from my two favourite books (Bassiouney and Haeri). I will not make this response too long, as I would really like others to join in, and yes there is always too much to say, and I always say when it comes to language we will blog forever- quite literally.
I will take the points you listed about Greek and try to compare those to the Arabic situation today, I am listing my response right next to your original points (italicised here):
a) Pupils are forbidden to read or write the language they speak themselves: Like you said “forbidden” is a strong word, it is generally frowned upon and not encouraged. I don’t think the “suppression” of the spoken forms is like that of Greek, it’s all a matter of ideology, and how native Arabic speakers come to view and consequently treat their language. Those who wish to write their variety do so, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed that to become widespread. Before the advent of social media, songs in Arabic were/still are almost always in one variety or another with only very few exceptions in FuSHa (CA/MSA).
b) They are taught to read and write a different, learned language: “Different” again is too strong a word, but let’s not forget that learning Arabic in school in Morocco is not like learning it in Damascus or in Dubai! Each case is different, and I for one cannot generalise I can only go with what I know, through experience and study. For some students (depending on their dialect) it might well be a NEW language, and to others a very similar one, it would be great to do research on each case, the we’d really be able to answer this question well.
c) This learned language has no living native speakers: This is exactly like Arabic.
d) The materials for new readers are often religious texts that cannot serve as models for the children’s own writing: Yes and no, there are great materials in CA for children due to recent efforts to make the language accessible to learners and young children. Many people learning Arabic (MSA or CA) usually watch children’s cartoons to improve their diction and grammar, and these are in pure CA. Religious texts are almost always in Classical Arabic, though there are both texts and religious speeches now in both CA and spoken Arabic (See for example, Bassiouney’s (2013) new article here on code-switching in religious talk).
But as I said previously this is one of those very complex issues, as you are just discovering, and people (both laymen and academics) can argue for both sides. I see some similarities between Arabic now and Greek pre-1917, however, I am not sure that Arabic is so precisely the same.
I think that negative attitudes are changing, and the reference to these being the languages of “donkeys” is not shared by all, and perhaps in part due to satellite television and other factors (I am deliberately avoiding “education” as a reason for positive attitudes, because I think that it’s too essentialist to assume that). Satellite TV has allowed millions of Arabs to be exposed to other Arabics they never knew of before, and before the advent of TV it was only the well-travelled Arabs who would return to their native lands and recount among other things, the discoveries they made about the Arabic of other Arabs. But now that has changed, there are even shows that teach non-dialect speakers how to speak in such and such a dialect. Surprisingly though, that teaching takes place through CA or MSA, for instance, a sentence is presented in MSA and its equivalent in ECA or Levantine Arabic is given. I can see Bassiouney’s point about the “richness” of the dialects, it is what makes Arabic, what Arabic is. It is a language that has a unique, even if a contentious, relationship with its dialects, but that’s how it has been for many centuries.
Did you know that CA as we know it today (and in going with the fact that it is based on Qur’anic Arabic) was once a dialect itself? It was the Qurayshi dialect, that became standardised for the obvious reason that it was now a sacred language, language of the Qur’an (see Mustafa Shah’s 2008 informative essay on this here). So, Arabic philosophically is not against dialects and varieties per se, as long as CA or MSA remains in tact untouched and free of mistakes (referred to as ‘Lahn’ in the grammar books).
I think if Haeri had taken her trip to Damascus instead of Egypt, her experience would have been so different, she would have perhaps said that her CA improved. She might have gone as far as claiming that CA actually does have native speakers! This is because it all depends on ideology, national language policies, agendas and how people eventually form opinions about their languages. Some Arabic speakers are comfortable with the fact that their variety is not written or used for official purposes; whilst others prefer to use their variety, and would welcome a change.
What do other readers think? Is the Arabic diglossic situation like that of Greek? Can we say the dialects are so different from FuSHa (CA/MSA) that they are different languages altogether? Comments are welcome, thank you for reading, and thank you SLC once again.
With the current concern for the loss or weakening of the Arabic language among some scholars, one question pops to mind….which Arabic are they talking about? Egyptian? Yemeni? Oh but is it Sana’ani or Southern Yemeni? And even within the south which dialect, which style? Which words? Or is it Syrian or Saudi Arabic? Which Arabic really is deserving of being saved?
should we ignore dialects just because they are unwritten (at least most of them, but egyptian Arabic and others can be found in print)? Should we only concern ourselves with the Fusha (Classical or Quranic Arabic) or MSA (Modern standard Arabic) which many people in day to day conversation do not use (unless they are teaching, reading the news to viewers etc….). Arabic is a complex language, as I am sure you already know that, but if there are claims it is weakening the obvious thought is, “well let’s strengthen it then”. Yes but which Arabic?
While I sit here with all these hundreds of people passing by me, others sat down near me, others eating and talking, each is using language in one way or other. Through conversation (some even being annoyingly loud!), some texting, or blogging, or writing they are communicating and their only wish is to send a message across effectively, so should the type or style of the language matter? Is not the most important thing that the other person (recipient of the message) understand the words, meanings and inferences of the speaker (or communicator)? I think yes. That is key to language, and how it has evolved in history to what we understand it to be today. People have always to a huge extent affected language use, through contact with other people and their languages or through their own natural development and movement through time, their use of language has become accepted and standardised. Should we apply the same principle and reasoning to the Arabic language, and consider all dialects as worthy of being part of the Arabic language, and therefore worthy of being fought for? I think yes, we are our languages! What do you think? Do you think that dialects weaken Arabic in any way? Something to think about, a matter I think about a lot…..
Just thought I’d share a quick thought that I’ve just had because of sitting somewhere where so many people from all parts of the world are surrounding me….naturally language, its dynamics and role came to mind and more specifically the case of the Arabic language.
This second part of the post is much more provoking and may anger some readers because of the analysis Franck makes as to why the Arabic language is in the situation it finds itself in today. But like any researcher he has to explore all the possible reasons and possible “solutions” to the problem and do so in a constructive manner. The Arabic language has a unique, complex and complicated linguistic situation wherever it exists as a “native language”; and because of this, in the postcolonial globalized era the language loss/shift debate is further complicated. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did and that it gets the minds of sociolinguists or those interested in Arabic to think on a much deeper less defensive level about the way in which we use Arabic today.—–start
Foreign imposition or self affliction?
Playing into the hands of keepers of the Arab nationalist canon—as well as Arabists and lobbyists working on behalf of the Arabic language today—the AP article adopted the cliché that the decline of Arabic—like the failure of Arab nationalism—was the outcome of Western linguistic intrusions and the insidious, colonialist impulses of globalization. “Many Lebanese pride themselves on being fluent in French—a legacy of French colonial rule,” Karam wrote, rendering a mere quarter-century of French mandatory presence in Lebanon (1920-46) into a period of classical-style “French colonial rule” that had allegedly destroyed the foundations of the Arabic language in the country and turned the Lebanese subalterns into imitative Francophones denuded of their putative Arab personality. Alas, this fashionable fad fails to take into account that French colonialism in its Lebanese context differed markedly from France’s colonial experience elsewhere. For one, the founding fathers of modern Lebanon lobbied vigorously for turning their post-Ottoman mountain Sanjak into a French protectorate after World War I. And with regard to the Lebanese allegedly privileging the French language, that too, according to Selim Abou, seems to have hardly been a colonialist throwback and an outcome of early twentieth-century French imperialism. In his 1962 Le binlinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban, Abou wrote that the French language (or early Latin variants of what later became French) entered Mount-Lebanon and the Eastern Mediterranean littoral at the time of the first Crusades (ca. 1099). Centuries later, the establishment of the Maronite College in Rome (1584) and the liberal (pro-Christian) policies of then Mount-Lebanon’s Druze ruler, Fakhreddine II (1572-1635), allowed the Maronites to further strengthen their religious and their religion’s ancillary cultural and linguistic ties to Rome, Europe, and especially France—then, still the “elder daughter” of the Catholic Church. This unleashed a wave of missionary work to Lebanon—and wherever Eastern Christianity dared flaunt its specificity—and eventually led to the founding of schools tending to the educational needs of the Christian—namely Maronite—communities of the region. Although foundational courses in Arabic and Syriac were generally taught at those missionary schools, European languages including French, Italian, and German were also part of the regular curriculum. French, therefore, can be argued to have had an older pedigree in Lebanon than suggested by Karam. And contrary to the classical norms in the expansion and transmission of imperial languages—the spread of Arabic included—which often entailed conquests, massacres, and cultural suppression campaigns, the French language can be said to have been adopted willingly by the Lebanese through “seduction” not “subjection.” It is true that many Lebanese, and Middle Easterners more generally, are today steering clear of Arabic in alarming numbers, but contrary to AP’s claim, this routing of Arabic is not mainly due to Western influence and cultural encroachments—though the West could share some of the blame; rather, it can be attributed, even if only partially, to MSA’s retrogression, difficulty, and most importantly perhaps, to the fact that this form of Arabic is largely a learned, cultic, ceremonial, and literary language, which is never acquired natively, never spoken natively, and which seems locked in an uphill struggle for relevance against sundry spontaneous, dynamic, natively-spoken, vernacular languages. Taha Hussein ascribed the decay and abnegation of the Arabic language primarily to its “inability of expressing the depths of one’s feelings in this new age.” He wrote in 1956 that MSA is difficult and grim, and the pupil who goes to school in order to study Arabic acquires only revulsion for his teacher and for the language, and employs his time in pursuit of any other occupations that would divert and soothe his thoughts away from this arduous effort … Pupils hate nothing more than they hate studying Arabic.
Yet, irreverent as they had been in shunning Arabic linguistic autocracy and fostering a lively debate on MSA and multilingualism, Lebanon and Egypt and their Arabic travails are hardly uncommon in today’s Middle East. From Israel to Qatar and from Abu Dhabi to Kuwait, modern Middle Eastern nations that make use of some form of Arabic have had to come face to face with the challenges hurled at their hermetic MSA and are impelled to respond to the onslaught of impending polyglotism and linguistic humanism borne by the lures of globalization. In a recent article published in Israel’s liberal daily Ha’aretz, acclaimed Druze poet and academic Salman Masalha called on Israel’s Education Ministry to do away with the country’s public school system’s Arabic curricula and demanded its replacement with Hebrew and English course modules. Arabophone Israelis taught Arabic at school, like Arabophones throughout the Middle East, were actually taught a foreign tongue misleadingly termed Arabic, wrote Masalha
The mother tongue [that people] speak at home is totally different from the … Arabic [they learn] at school; [a situation] that perpetuates linguistic superficiality [and] leads to intellectual superficiality … It’s not by chance that not one Arab university is [ranked] among the world’s best 500 universities. This finding has nothing to do with Zionism.
Masalha’s is not a lone voice. The abstruseness of Arabic and the stunted achievements of those monolingual Arabophones constrained to acquire modern knowledge by way of Modern Standard Arabic have been indicted in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development reports—a series of reports written by Arabs and for the benefit of Arabs—since the year 2002. To wit, the 2003 report noted that the Arabic language is struggling to meet the challenges of modern times[and] is facing [a] severe … and real crisis in theorization, grammar, vocabulary, usage, documentation, creativity, and criticism … The most apparent aspect of this crisis is the growing neglect of the functional aspects of [Arabic] language use. Arabic language skills in everyday life have deteriorated, and Arabic … has in effect ceased to be a spoken language. It is only the language of reading and writing; the formal language of intellectuals and academics, often used to display knowledge in lectures … [It] is not the language of cordial, spontaneous expression, emotions, daily encounters, and ordinary communication. It is not a vehicle for discovering one’s inner self or outer surroundings.
And so, concluded the report, the only Arabophone countries that were able to circumvent this crisis of knowledge were those like Lebanon and Egypt, which had actively promoted a polyglot tradition, deliberately protected the teaching of foreign languages, and instated math and science curricula in languages other than Arabic. Translation is another crucial means of transmitting and acquiring knowledge claimed the U.N. report, and given that “English represents around 85 percent of the total world knowledge balance,” one might guess that “knowledge-hungry countries,” the Arab states included, would take heed of the sway of English, or at the very least, would seek out the English language as a major source of translation. Yet, from all source-languages combined, the Arab world’s 330 million people translated a meager 330 books per year; that is, “one fifth of the number [of books] translated in Greece [home to 12 million Greeks].” Indeed, from the times of the Caliph al-Ma’mun (ca. 800 CE) to the beginnings of the twenty-first century, the “Arab world” had translated a paltry 10,000 books: the equivalent of what Spain translates in a single year.
But clearer heads are prevailing in Arab countries today. Indeed, some Arabs are taking ownership of their linguistic dilemmas; feckless Arab nationalist vainglory is giving way to practical responsible pursuits, and the benefits of valorizing local speech forms and integrating foreign languages into national, intellectual, and pedagogic debates are being contemplated. Arabs “are learning less Islam and more English in the tiny desert sheikhdom of Qatar” read a 2003 Washington Post article, and this overhaul of Qatar’s educational system, with its integration of English as a language of instruction—”a total earthquake” as one observer termed it—was being billed as the Persian Gulf’s gateway toward greater participation in an ever more competitive global marketplace. But many Qataris and Persian Gulf Arabs hint to more pressing and more substantive impulses behind curricular bilingualism: “necessity-driven” catalysts aimed at replacing linguistic and religious jingoism with equality, tolerance, and coexistence; changing mentalities as well as switching languages and textbooks. This revolution is no less subversive in nearby Abu Dhabi where in 2009 the Ministry of Education launched a series of pedagogical reform programs aimed at integrating bilingual education into the national curriculum. Today, “some 38,000 students in 171 schools in Abu Dhabi [are] taught … simultaneously in Arabic and English.” And so, rather than rushing to prop up and protect the fossilized remains of MSA, the debate that should be engaged in today’s Middle East needs to focus more candidly on the utility, functionality, and practicality of a hallowed and ponderous language such as MSA in an age of nimble, clipped, and profane speech forms. The point of reflection should not be whether to protect MSA but whether the language inherited from the Jahiliya Bedouins—to paraphrase Egypt’s Salama Musa (1887-1958)—is still an adequate tool of communication in the age of information highways and space shuttles. Obviously, this is a debate that requires a healthy dose of courage, honesty, moderation, and pragmatism, away from the usual religious emotions and cultural chauvinism that have always stunted and muzzled such discussions.
Linguistic Schizophrenia and Deceit
Sherif Shubashy’s book Down with Sibawayh If Arabic Is to Live on! seems to have brought these qualities into the debate. An eighth-century Persian grammarian and father of Arabic philology, Sibawayh is at the root of the modern Arabs’ failures according to Shubashy. Down with Sibawayh, which provoked a whirlwind of controversy in Egypt and other Arab countries following its release in 2004, sought to shake the traditional Arabic linguistic establishment and the Arabic language itself out of their millenarian slumbers and proposed to unshackle MSA from stiff and superannuated norms that had, over the centuries, transformed it into a shrunken and fossilized mummy: a ceremonial, religious, and literary language that was never used as a speech form, and whose hallowed status “has rendered it a heavy chain curbing the Arabs’ intellect, blocking their creative energies … and relegating them to cultural bondage.” In a metaphor reminiscent of Musa’s description of the Arabic language, Shubashy compared MSA users to “ambling cameleers from the past, contesting highways with racecar drivers hurtling towards modernity and progress.” In his view, the Arabs’ failure to modernize was a corollary of their very language’s inability (or unwillingness) to regenerate and innovate and conform to the exigencies of modern life. But perhaps the most devastating blow that Shubashy dealt the Arabic language was his description of the lahja and fusha (or dialect vs. MSA) dichotomy as “linguistic schizophrenia.” For although Arabs spoke their individual countries’ specific, vernacular languages while at home, at work, on the streets, or in the marketplace, the educated among them were constrained to don a radically different linguistic personality and make use of an utterly different speech form when reading books and newspapers, watching television, listening to the radio, or drafting formal, official reports. That speech form, which was never spontaneously spoken, Shubashy insisted, was Modern Standard Arabic: a language which, not unlike Latin in relation to Europe’s Romance languages, was distinct from the native, spoken vernaculars of the Middle East and was used exclusively by those who had adequate formal schooling in it. He even went so far as to note that “upward of 50 percent of so-called Arabophones can’t even be considered Arabs if only MSA is taken for the legitimate Arabic language, the sole true criterion of Arabness.”  Conversely, it was a grave error to presume the vernacular speech forms of the Middle East to be Arabic, even if most Middle Easterners and foreigners were conditioned, and often intimidated, into viewing them as such. The so-called dialects of Arabic were not Arabic at all, he wrote, despite the fact that
like many other Arabs, I have bathed in this linguistic schizophrenia since my very early childhood. I have for very long thought that the difference between MSA and the dialects was infinitely minimal; and that whoever knew one language—especially MSA—would intuitively know, or at the very least, understand the other. However, my own experience, and especially the evidence of foreigners studying MSA, convinced me of the deep chasm that separated MSA from dialects. Foreigners who are versed in MSA, having spent many years studying that language, are taken aback when I speak to them in the Egyptian dialect; they don’t understand a single word I say in that language.
This “pathology” noted Shubashy, went almost unnoticed in past centuries when illiteracy was the norm, and literacy was still the preserve of small, restricted guilds—mainly the ulema and religious grammarians devoted to the study of Arabic and Islam, who considered their own linguistic schizophrenia a model of piety and a sacred privilege to be vaunted, not concealed. Today, however, with the spread of literacy in the Arab world, and with the numbers of users of MSA swelling and hovering in the vicinity of 50 percent, linguistic schizophrenia is becoming more widespread and acute, crippling the Arab mind and stunting its capacities. Why was it that Spaniards, Frenchmen, Americans, and many more of the world’s transparent and linguistically nimble societies, needed to use only a single, native language for both their acquisition of knowledge and grocery shopping whereas Arabs were prevented from reading and writing in the same language that they use for their daily mundane needs?. As a consequence of the firestorm unleashed by his book, Shubashy, an Egyptian journalist and news anchor and, at one time, the Paris bureau-chief of the Egyptian al-Ahram news group, was forced to resign his post as Egypt’s deputy minister of culture in 2006. The book caused so much controversy to a point that the author and his work were subjected to a grueling cross-examination in the Egyptian parliament where, reportedly, scuffles erupted between supporters and opponents of Shubashy’s thesis. In the end, the book was denounced as an affront to Arabs and was ultimately banned. Shubashy himself was accused of defaming the Arabic language in rhetoric mimicking a “colonialist discourse.” A deputy in the Egyptian parliament—representing Alexandria, Shubashy’s native city—accused the author of “employing the discourse and argumentation of a colonialist occupier, seeking to replace the Arab identity with [the occupier’s] own identity and culture.” Ahmad Fuad Pasha, advisor to the president of Cairo University, argued that the book “was added proof that, indeed, the Zionist-imperialist conspiracy is a glaring reality,” aimed at dismantling Arab unity. Muhammad Ahmad Achour wrote in Egypt’s Islamic Standard that
Shubashy has taken his turn aiming another arrow at the heart of the Arabic language. Yet, the powers that seek to destroy our language have in fact another goal in mind: The ultimate aim of their conspiracy is none other than the Holy Qur’an itself, and to cause Muslims to eventually lose their identity and become submerged into the ocean of globalization.
Even former Egyptian president Husni Mubarak felt compelled to take a potshot at Shubashy in a speech delivered on Laylat al-Qadr, November 9, 2004, the anniversary of the night that Sunni Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad received his first Qur’anic revelation. Mubarak warned,I must caution the Islamic religious scholars against the calls that some are sounding for the modernization of the Islamic religion, so as to ostensibly make it evolve, under the pretext of attuning it to the dominant world order of “modernization” and “reform.” This trend has led recently to certain initiatives calling for the modification of Arabic vocabulary and grammar; the modification of God’s chosen language no less; the holy language in which he revealed his message to the Prophet.
This then, the recognition and normalization of dialects, could have been a fitting conclusion and a worthy solution to the dilemma that Shubashy set out to resolve. Unfortunately, he chose to pledge fealty to MSA and classical Arabic—ultimately calling for their normalization and simplification rather than their outright replacement. In that sense, Shubashy showed himself to be in tune with the orthodoxies preached by Husri who, as early as 1955, had already been calling for the creation of a “middle Arabic language” and a crossbreed fusing MSA and vernacular speech forms—as a way of bridging the Arabs’ linguistic incoherence and bringing unity to their fledgling nationhood:
MSA is the preserve of a small, select number of educated people, few of whom bother using it as a speech form. Conversely, what we refer to as “dialectal Arabic” is in truth a bevy of languages differing markedly from one country to the other, with vast differences often within the same country, if not within the same city and neighborhood … Needless to say, this pathology contradicts the exigencies of a sound, wholesome national life! [And given] that true nations deserving of the appellation require a single common and unifying national language … [the best solution I can foresee to our national linguistic quandary] would be to inoculate the dialectal languages with elements of MSA … so as to forge a new “middle MSA” and diffuse it to the totality of Arabs … This is our best hope, and for the time being, the best palliative until such a day when more lasting and comprehensive advances can be made towards instating the final, perfected, integral MSA.
This is at best a disappointing and desultory solution, not only due to its chimerical ambitions but also because, rather than simplifying an already cluttered and complicated linguistic situation, it suggested the engineering of an additional language for the “Arab nation” to adopt as a provisional national idiom. To expand on Shubashy’s initial diagnosis, this is tantamount to remedying schizophrenia by inducing a multi-personality disorder—as if Arabs were in want of yet another artificial language to complement their already aphasiac MSA. Granted, national unification movements and the interference in, or creation of, a national language are part of the process of nation building and often do bear fruit. However, success in the building of a national language is largely dependent upon the size of the community and the proposed physical space of the nation in question. In other words, size does matter. Small language unification movements—as in the cases of, say, Norway, Israel, and France—can and often do succeed. But big language unification movements on the other hand—as in the cases of pan-Turkism, pan-Slavism, pan-Germanism, and yes, pan-Arabism—have thus far been met with not only failure but also devastating wars, genocides, and mass population movements. Moreover, traditionally, the small language unification movements that did succeed in producing national languages benefitted from overwhelming, popular support among members of the proposed nation. More importantly, they sought to normalize not prestige, hermetic, (written) literary languages, but rather lower, degraded speech forms that were often already spoken natively by the national community in question (e.g., Creole in Haiti, Old Norse in Norway, and modern, as opposed to biblical Hebrew in Israel) Shubashy’s call of “down with Sibawayh!” meant purely and simply “down with the classical language” and its MSA progeny. Overthrowing Sibawayh meant also deposing the greatest Arabic grammarian, the one credited with the codification, standardization, normalization, and spread of the classical Arabic language—and later its MSA descendent. Yet, calling for the dethroning of one who was arguably the founding father of modern Arabic grammar, and in the same breath demanding the preservation, inoculation, and invigoration of his creation, is contradictory and confusing. It is like “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” to use Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity. Or could it be that perhaps an initially bold Shubashy was rendered timid by a ruthless and intimidating MSA establishment? After all, there are few Arabs doing dispassionate, critical work on MSA today, who do not ultimately end up being cowed into silence, or worse yet, slandered, discredited, and accused of Zionist perfidy and “Arabophobia.” Salama Musa,  Taha Hussein, and Adonis  are the most obvious and recent examples of such character assassinations. Ultimately, however, it is society and communities of users—not advocacy groups, linguistic guilds, and preservation societies—that decide the fate of languages. As far as the status and fate of the Arabic language are concerned, the jury still seems to be out.
Wow! Ouch! Some important issues raised, I suspect that some of the points he mentioned in this second part could produce a dozen PhD thesis’ that’s no exaggeration. The issue is that complex, it’s that multi-layered, it’s not about panicking or playing down the importance of Arabic….it’s about finding a real solution for how Arabic can be a productive language for its speakers and a language which can be used to account for new and modern discoveries. It does not mean we have to agree with everything he writes, but these are issues/points to think about. I think most Arabic speakers want Arabic to be their language of knowledge where they do not have to translate or learn a new language to understand and appreciate knowledge alongside English and other major languages. Currently it’s taken a back-seat in many spheres of world knowledge and many speakers do not feel empowered using Arabic. In my next post I will discuss naming rights and how language is an indicator of civilisation and knowledge.
What a title?! I am sure it is making some people upset and others, skeptical and still others inquisitive. I promised at the end of Noura Al Noman’s interview in the last post that I would post a translation of an article I read last month, and so here it is. The translation is based on an article which appeared in the Sunday section of the online newspaper Emaratalyoum. I felt that many of the points raised were important in understanding or at least identifying some possible reasons why the Arabic language is somewhat stagnated amongst its native speakers. Another reason I wanted to translate the article is because of its authenticity in the sense that it is written by a native speaker living in a country where Arabic is the language of everyday use…it gives a different dimension to something written by someone a thousand miles away.
The quirky, witty, ironic, provocative, bold, often-smirky, well-written and self-assured style of the Arabic was so attractive I felt compelled to translate it into English and share it with readers on this site. I must thank in advance the original author Mohammed Al Mazrouqi for giving me permission to translate it into English, I also found out that he is writing a book on the situation of the Arabic language which is very exciting for any sociolinguist. The translation is broad as opposed to narrow and the title I use above is not the original, rather it is a statement taken from the second part of the article. Below I translate part 2 but summarize part 1,
In summary of part 1: Al Mazrouqi addresses the aspect of Arabization and the Arabic academies or rather the failure of such bodies in being coherent in their efforts to bring Arabic vocabulary “up-to-date”. He takes us through what has now become a joke among Arabic speakers, the story of how the academy worked so hard to arabize the English word “sandwich” into Arabic. Their substitute was comical, but to make matters worse it became known that they did not in fact invent the word (or concept) it had already been introduced by a poet earlier on! So what were they doing one wonders? Such jokes and ridicule render these academies useless and non-functioning, I personally think that a body like this needs to be descriptive rather than prescriptive because language is a natural occurrence not dictated. The writer makes an interesting often-ignored point, that in fact the Quran contains many foreign words (non-Arabic from Hebrew, Hindi, Persian), mainly nouns, which were not arabized in order to qualify being a part of this sacred text, but rather used as part of the text until this day (his choice of the Quran is understandable since it is considered a representation of the (most) perfect form of Arabic, the logic is therefore simple, if the most revered Arabic text did not arabize, why do less important texts need to?). These words subsequently became Arabic words, something many Arabs are unaware of, it is only when studying Arabic grammar (or Lisan al Arab) or Tajweed (sciences of reciting the Quran, the student is required to know all non-Arabic words in the Quran before an exam…seriously) that one becomes aware of this fact. The point? The point (as far as I understood it) is that if the word is widespread it can be used (simply by taking the English/any other language’s word and using Arabic letters to transliterate it) without causing confusion, so why Arabize it when the original (in its non-Arabic form) can superbly describe/account for the intended meaning? His point makes me think that the whole “sandwich” escapade was a waste of time, and most of us use “san-da-wich” to mean “sandwich” anyway…wasted time on an unimportant aspect of reviving Arabic? Perhaps or maybe not who knows? But one thing is definite these academies are not making much of an impact on the way the Arabic language is evolving today right now in the age of computers, social networking and the domination of the English language the world over. There has to be some type of reconciliation between the “desired language” and the “real (used) language”, the work they are doing is commendable but it needs to be effective. See here from Mourad Diouri’s site a list of Arabic academies.
Despite the fact that [usually] I am not someone who likes to unburden people of their sorrows and sadness, this time however I will be that person [and make someone happy] in order to annoy the pessimists [because] each time a discussion about the predicament the Arabic language faces is brought up, I find myself compelled to say that [and that is how I begin this article], “be reassured masters of our language, the beautiful Arabic language is not in danger!”
A language scholar may stand up and point his stick or finger at me accusing me of being an enemy of the Arabic language, I would [simply] smile and reiterate to him that, “I do not think that the Arabic language is in danger or under threat of becoming extinct because there are so many channels through which it is maintained, suffice to say it is the official [standard] language of the fastest growing religion in the world (i.e. Islam).
All that it boils down to is the fact that in its native countries it [Arabic] faces ferocious competition from the much simpler English language; and this issue is not exclusive to Arabic alone. For example, French is facing similar challenges, not only on a global level [i.e. in French speaking countries around the world] but locally within France itself.
We can go on endlessly criticising the English language and praising our own, but that will not change in the slightest, the fact that – Arabic is regressing before the English language! Unlike the English language, Arabic has not undergone at least since the fall of the Ottoman empire any serious scientific (systematic) or academic attempts at rejuvenating or developing it so that it is equipped to deal with modern developments.
The [somewhat] backwardness of the Arabic language books used in schools are a testament to this. I would not be exaggerating if I said that the second worst and most complicated subject for students in school is Arabic language class (with the assumption that there will always be another subject to take first place).
It is true that a share of the blame for the students’ weakness in Arabic [language proficiency] lies on the current environment and on the students themselves, but a larger portion of the blame lies on these education curricula that wish [as if] to mummify [force down] the Arabic language onto iron templates [students] similar to [the process] used to bind the feet of small girls (in China) so as to stop their feet from growing larger in size. In the same way that a Chinese woman came to lose her balance as she grew up [her body grew in height and weight], whilst her feet remained the same small size that they were when they were forced into the template [iron shoes]. This too is exactly what happens with regards to the Arabic language and its grammar [a creative comparison by the author to equate the inappropriateness of forcing too many complex and often useless rules on young children which later become useless and ill-fitting when it comes to using language effectively].
Arabic syntax presents something of a challenge due to its complex and difficult rules, and is something that cannot be fathomed except by those specialised in it. For instance, the Iraqi writer, Khalid Al Qashteeni, who spent most of his 70 years striving to perfect the Arabic language says that despite all of that he can still never complete an essay without making a mistake somewhere.
For that reason we cannot rely [completely] on school curricula, if we believe that they were designed with the purpose of ensuring that students become [highly] competent in writing and speaking Arabic [this is because] in truth they have failed miserably due to their incongruent artificial over-complicating of the [simple] essence and nature of the Arabic language.
What we are calling for is, [first] the simplification of the Arabic language in the school curricula by taking out many of the difficult syntactic and grammatical rules; and its subject [components] that have become purely academic. Second, to ignore those who lament over the Arabic language at every opportunity afforded to them [in his original expression he likens their lamenting to a tent pitched for giving condolences where mourners gather to share their grief over the dead!]. Finally, and for the third time “the Arabic language is NOT in danger!”.
The passion with which the argument and point of view is presented with can be seen through this highly exciting and somewhat sophisticated style the author employs in his writing and order of paragraphs. The use of metaphors, wild comparisons (that often offends certain people) and open criticism of the things he sees as obstacles to the Arabic language’s further development, are stated with a candid and confident style…you see why I had to translate it (if you can read the Arabic you’ll see what I mean)?
The issues he raises here (based on his opinions and experience) are ones we have discussed here on Arabizi in the past the academies, the education curriculum, and the current environment of the dominance of English language.
I feel like his focus on the curriculum is right, it is not the English language, the internet, or some outside conspiracy that is the reason behind the regression of Arabic and the over-taking of English language- it is the Arabic language education policies. It the often archaic, non-practical way the children are taught, his depiction is almost painful, illegal, useless like the squeezing of Chinese girls’ feet into iron shoes! This I know will offend many language teachers because they work so hard to teach young children the ‘correct Arabic language’ in the face of better English language teaching and resources. So they too find it so tough, and I think there needs to be some revision in how they teach, and like Al Mazrouqi suggests above, what they teach the unnecessary content needs to be taken out and the more practical and pragmatic aspects need to be taught well. I would say too that the language planners need to look closely at the literature on language teaching and acquisition and the research on effective second language teaching, to improve their teaching.
The claim that the Arabic language has not been modernised since at least the fall of the Ottoman empire is a huge one, and one that would make many upset. But perhaps it’s true, and the reason the Arabic language is in its current state? I highlighted it, and used it in my title because for me that was a learning, something I have never really considered before. However outrageous it may be, however unfounded we may feel it is, it calls for serious investigation into the matter, and perhaps within that finding, may lie the answer of how to get out of the current mess? Who knows?
Al Mazrouqi maintains that the Arabic language is not in danger because it is the official language of Islam and there are many millions of Muslims who would claim it because of its religious connection to the Quran. When I first read this I was not convinced and disagreed that such a claim can be used to argue the non-demise of the Arabic language, given the current situation. And his reasoning would have been one that language preservation experts would have challenged and perhaps ridiculed. However, after having read it a few times now I think I agree with it in a different way, and I have arrived at a certain conclusion. If we agree that, the Arabic language may not be in decline the only other logical conclusion is that- the Arabs are sure on their way to losing Arabic as a language of everyday use. With that they will lose the essence and original meaning of important words and significant linguistic themes specific to Arabic language. The Arabs are the key to understanding texts, old poems, stories and historical documents, if they lose their ability to competently speak Arabic and understand it, then Arabic will be to its speakers what Latin is to English speakers! Language thrives and remains ‘in use’ for its speakers when it is spoken well and used in all arenas of life, in addition to being developed and used with confidence by its speakers.
Comments, suggestions and additions are welcome as always….wishing you all a productive week, London this week will be immersed in books and reading as I am sure many of us book lovers will be at the book fair over the next three days. I am working on the interview with the second author just in case you think I forgot, and as soon as that is ready I will put it up- thanks for reading. Just to point out, the picture above is of the Arabic academy in Old Damascus….I thought it was suitable.
Qatar, the beautiful hot Gulf country, is small and it might be quite possible to travel the whole country in one day, but it has not allowed its size to affect its place in the modern world. Everywhere you read the name Qatar is present, sports, education, politics, and one wonders is there a way stop this creative country moving forward? I think not. If Qatar continues to move the way it is today, it will become a huge, effective and influential global leader- no exaggeration. Neither am I praising Qatar for my own ends- I am simply stating a fact. Most recently whilst I visited Doha during the wonderful month of Ramadan, I learned that the Qatar Foundation had agreed to support an idea to increase the content of Arabic language on Twitter. The post is long overdue but as usual, I will use the age-old excuse of being busy due to other writing commitments.
This post is about the vision and idea of a student by the name of Fatima Al Khater, who wanted to see more Arabic content on twitter, and had consequently suggested that the 31st of May of each year be a day in which everybody tweets in Arabic only. She says that she never realised that her idea would grow into something so big and that the Qatar Foundation would help her realise her vision, and that it would become an everyday thing. But this is exactly what happened through the Qatar Foundation’s coordination and the help of the Qatar Debates and their director Dr. Hayat Marafee. A debate was hosted, in August, at the Weill Cornell Medical College (Doha) with the title: “This house believes that the advantages of Arabic content on the internet outweigh the disadvantages”. Qatar debates is an established centre that trains young people in Qatar and the Middle East in the art of debating. An important skill I think especially when people do not share the same views, they have to learn how to put their views across and still respect the other side. The debate, of course, had two sides, those who put forward the advantages and those who put forward the disadvantages, and the debaters were high school and university students. It was interesting, stimulating and in the end the advantages of having more Arabic content online was the side that received most support from the huge audience that attended. Attendees came from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Bahrain and the UAE, and each went back as an ambassador for tweeting in Arabic.
Qatar foundation is known for its immense care and attention it gives young people in Qatar and in the Arab world in general because it sees them as future leaders and people who will make a difference; the current growing interest and success in this project is evidence of the foundation’s good intentions. Dr. Hayat al Marafi the executive director of Qatar Debate, said that supporting this idea was based on their willingness to support anything that contributed towards the preservation and promotion of Arabic language. She also mentioned that they as a trust have published the first book on ‘the art of debating’ in Arabic language and they hoped to soon hold an inter-university debate between 12 Arab countries.
The call or main aim of this debate was to raise awareness about the idea of increasing Arabic content online first through Twitter and then through other sites. Fatima al Khater said in her speech at the debate, that she wanted all young people, in all spheres of life and sectors to be conscious of how they used Arabic language. In addition to that she asked for them to publicise the plans to others so that most, if not all, Arabic Twitter users can tweet in Arabic language- and correctly too. I know we have discussed on this blog many times the fact that Arabic language is sometimes not used well, and at other times its importance is overlooked, as I pointed out in the last post. Such an initiative is a reaction; to some of those feelings speakers of Arabic language have about how they have neglected their language.
The increase in Arabic content will be done through ‘Arabic Twitter ambassadors’ those who will act as role models in tweeting in Arabic, instead of English. This way each ambassador’s followers will be encouraged to tweet in Arabic even if they thought they could not. Some of these ambassadors have over 4-5,000 followers…the numbers of people reached will be many. Despite the huge number of Arabic Twitter users there is still not a huge linguistic representation of Arabic language on Twitter. Apart from the odd proverbs, verses from the Quran and some broken Arabic one is hard pressed to find tweets back and forth on everyday matters in Arabic only. Since returning from Doha last month, I have seen a change in the way that a lot of people use Twitter, there is a huge support for this initiative and efforts are being made by users to tweet in Arabic.
Nearly every concept on Twitter has been replaced with an Arabic equivalent (I know some translators or believers in non-equivalence are unhappy with this statement. I know sometimes words can never have translations or equivalents; like the English concept of privacy does not exist in Russian— but I make my point here in a general way) and transliteration is not used. Concepts and words like, follow, followfriday(#FF), followers, tweet (s), hash tag, retweet, mention, and trending topic are all now used in Arabic by those who choose to. Even further is the move from using J the colon, dash and closed bracket to create a smile, to using the third letter in the Arabic alphabet (taa ت) to symbolise a smile – that is creative! All these changes and substitutes are a result of the ambassador’s creativity.
Every day an ambassador posts up a short essay/article about Arabic language (they tweet the URL so we can go and read it in full), some are small notes on how to use Arabic correctly, and others are facts about Arabic language and Twitter and so on.
The complaint is always that ‘well we can’t use Arabic on the internet because it does not accommodate for us, therefore we can only use English’—not anymore! Something else that is exciting is the type of Arabic that will be used given the 140 characters limit, and how with that restriction Arabic language rules are still to be respected. It will also contribute to the wider interest and research in Arabic language and the world of social networking.
Many Arabic twitter users are so excited with this, it is new and it will be a while before we can say “yes Twitter has been Arabized” but so far it seems to be doing well. For one thing, it is an idea that has come to life, and has provided a tool for those who feel strongly about Arabic language presence online. Now it is a matter of choice, if you want to use it you can. It is also a matter of content, the mere presence of Arabic letters is not enough, does the content enhance proficiency in Arabic language? Does it promote correct usage of the language? When the answers to these questions are yes, then we can say, “Twitter has been Arabized”, but until then it is a process in the making.
If you have a Twitter account go in and see @Taghreedat , the master tweeter in the Arabizing of Twitter. The hash tag used is #letstweetinarabic…I have not publicized personal Twitter accounts of any of the ambassadors due to privacy laws…but if you read Arabic you can easily find them through the master account I named above… I would love to hear your thoughts on this small post as always.
It’s great to be back after a break, Ramadan is over, wishing everybody Eid mubarak (Happy Eid), a new academic year- so it’s back to the usual. There are exciting things for me this year and for Arabizi too I hope. A warm welcome to the new readers, I hope that Arabizi will be a good resource for you and not rubbish in your inbox. And also thanks to all those who wrote emails and comments on the blog these are very much appreciated….. now to the post….
When I wrote the previous short post about Emarati Arabic being taught to expats in the UAE, it never occurred to me how a non-native speaker might feel about that. Nor did I ever know that as a result of one of the shortest posts I have ever written, that I would learn so much about the perceptions, feelings and frustrations of Arabic language learners. But that is exactly what happen in the form of a clear and constructive comment from Robert Lane Greene, journalist at the Economist and best-selling author of ‘You are what you speak- Grammar Grounches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity’. A keen language learner and enthusiast of Arabic language himself (the number of languages he knows would put any linguist to shame), saw the beneficial side of the teaching of Emarati to non-Arabic speakers. The points he raised made me think not only about the challenges non-speakers face, but it also allowed me to see what I deemed as negative in a new way. What his comment made me do was realise that given the diglossic situation of Arabic with its complicated grammar (not a negative thing) and many dialects, that perhaps an effort such as the teaching of Emarati Arabic was to be appreciated. And maybe should be looked at as a step towards strengthening Arabic learning on part of the non-native speaker as it would give them access to ‘real- spoken’ Arabic as opposed to textbook examples of ‘how’ things should be said. Following that comment and subsequent conversations he kindly agreed to honour Arabizi and write a guest post for us :-).
It is candid, detailed to the point and describes Arabic from a non-native learner’s point of view which is rarely read about. Most learners complain at the complicated nature of the grammar, the rules and the impossibility to converse in Arabic. Most students will relate to the struggles and challenges he mentions and I am sure even the funny parts. I also hope that Arabic teachers can take note of how non-native speakers feel about the learning of Arabic language and hopefully work towards making it easier for the students. Yes, I know it is only one person’s experience but, it is a consistent, sincere and continuous one therefore lessons need to learned from it.
I have added it below without editing from myself- thank you Lane, a real treat for us at Arabizi. Comments are most welcome and I am sure Lane will not mind answering or adding to any points readers will make.
Six years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate on learning Arabic. Since it’s still the second Google result for “learning Arabic”, people occasionally write me and ask me if I’ve made it past the problems I described there (with some attempt at humor, but no exaggeration). I’m happy to report that yes, I have made a lot of progress over the years, alhamdulillah. I can read a newspaper with minor dictionary help, I can chat with cab drivers in Brooklyn who are usually amazed by the white American guy who speaks with them in decent colloquial, and I can follow, with some difficulty, a full-speed al-Jazeera broadcast on a familiar topic. It’s been a long road, but fascinating.
When I started the journey, the hardest part was for me was the forbidding grammar of Modern Standard Arabic: ten verbal paradigms, reverse-gender agreement of numbers, the feminine singular for plural inanimate subjects, the litany of mind-bending quirks familiar to the student of the language. These are the things I focused on in that piece for Slate.
Since then, though, the single most frustrating thing about making progress is the polyglossia of the Arab world. Yes, we refer to diglossia most of the time, but that implies two varieties, high and low. For a journalist like me, who has followed the fascinating news from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to the Gulf in the past year, the problem isn’t just learning just one “high” for reading and another “low” for speaking, but picking one of several colloquial Arabics, maybe picking a sub-colloquial among them, finding good teaching materials, and sticking with it.
My first Arabic teacher was a very nice Moroccan, and a very bad teacher. He began by teaching us the letters, having a hard time explaining the emphatic consonants to his puzzled students (to him the difference between daad and daal was just obvious). But worse, he began teaching us to speak in Moroccon colloquial, while never telling us that that was what he was doing. I learned ish taakul, “what are you eating?” or “what will you have to eat?”, with no idea that this was Moroccan dialect. What can I say? The class was free. You get what you pay for. I quit.
My next class was at New York University’s continuing education school, with Karam, a Palestinian. He was also a very nice guy, and the quality of the class was much higher. But once again, diglossia was a problem. Karam was a big believer in colloquial, and so taught it alongside MSA from the start. We had a big book (a bad one, in my opinion: Ahlan wa Sahlan from Yale University Press) for MSA, and Karam’s home-made handouts for the Palestinian colloquial. He would teach us something in MSA, and then give the colloquial straight away. It was too much. I simply shut my ears at the colloquial parts, trying to remember only one version of everything. MSA was hard enough on its own.
With my third teacher, things improved. Ahmed was an Egyptian, but taught no-nonsense MSA. He was pot-bellied, loud and funny, and it was hard not to enjoy just being in his classroom. The only Egyptian we got was in the form of songs, which he would occasionally teach, and positively insist we sing along. Looking back, I think it was a good pedagogical technique; it was painful for everyone, but so it was funny, and everyone relaxed as we got back into the MSA. And I still remember one song: Salma, ya salama, ruhna w giina b-salaama. I never learned any Egyptian colloquial beyond that, though I remember Ahmed’s typically Egyptian stress pattern: al-qaa-HI-ra, not al-QAA-hi-ra.
After Ahmed, I was on my own, with no time for classes. I kept the much better books he used in his class, the Al-Kitaab series, and worked my way through them on my own. As I started putting fairly fine finishing touches on my knowledge of MSA, I began to want to learn a colloquial properly. I had met two Egyptians at a bar in South Africa who didn’t speak English, and the only thing I had been able to resort to was MSA, very weird for all of us. I wanted to start speaking the way Arabs speak for real.
But which dialect? My biggest interest was in the Levantine countries, I decided. So simple: I’ll learn “Levantine colloquial.” I was loth to have to pick one, but that’s what I chose, with silent apologies to the Iraqis, Saudis and Algerians. Only to discover, as I gathered materials, there were coursebooks on Syrian Arabic, on Lebanese Arabic, on Palestinian Arabic… and these were far more different from each other than I wanted them to be! And this was Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem Arabic. Imagine my annoyance on learning that if I traveled to a small village in the Levant, much less talked to a Bedouin, I’d probably encounter yet another Arabic I couldn’t understand.
I flitted aimlessly between my three books. There really is such a thing as a Levantine continuum, and I understand that Syrians and Palestinians understand each other well. But there were all these choices I had to make, and didn’t want to: –kum or –kon for the 2ndperson plural attached pronoun? Final taa-marbuta becomes –e, or no? (Hiyya or hiyye?) In my own book, I write with joy about the messy real world of language. In learning Arabic, I wanted there to be one right variety, or by God, at least only two clear-cut varieties I had to learn. But the universe didn’t offer me a simple solution. Today I speak a sort of mishmash Levantine, probably mostly Palestinian. (I re-hired Karam as a private tutor for a few hours of practice.)
All of this has made me wonder about how Arabs feel about all this. I have encountered opinions from
– denial (“this isn’t an issue—everyone speaks one language, really”), to
– scorn of the dialects (“the Bedouins are the only ones who speak real Arabic”—the belief that Bedouins basically speak Classical Arabic, but most children have to go to school to learn “real Arabic”), to
– embrace of the dialects (“we speak the nicest Arabic in [my home country], which is incidentally closest to fusha”).
Opinions seem as varied as the linguistic map itself.
Pragmatically, it would be fabulous if the much-mooted “Middle Arabic”—combining the most common dialect features with a simplified MSA grammar—would appear as a kind of koine. But there is no one to bring it into existence. So the result is many different “Middle Arabics” improvised by speakers from different regions trying to talk to each other, or by educated speakers on television trying to sound serious (classical) and real (dialect) at the same time by mixing elements of the two ad-hoc.
The situation is difficult enough for Arabs; it is harder still for the learner. But nobody promised it would be easy. I’m glad I’ve learned as much as I have, but I know that I’ll be adding piecemeal to that knowledge of Arabic—Arabics, really—for the rest of my life.