I have mentioned previously, more than once that the relationship between standard (FuSHa) and non-standard (spoken) Arabic has for a long time, been one of tension and nervousness. The main reason being that many Arabic speakers view Classical /Standard Arabic (FuSHa) as flawless, perfect and as the language through which God chose to address mankind (Arabic is the liturgical language of Islam used in the Qur’an and hadeeth). Therefore, for many of these speakers learning, let alone teaching spoken Arabic in a systematic manner should not be done because it violates the sanctity of FuSHa. Some speakers also feel that if efforts are made to promote spoken Arabic, then FuSHa will not be understood by future Arabic speakers, this feeling is shared by many despite the fact that nobody actually casually speaks in FuSHa.
For the last couple of years I have been fascinated by the increase in spoken Arabic language classes here in London, and during a number of recent trips I found that this is also true in Arabic speaking majority countries. I began wondering why this was the case. Why was there a renewed interest in spoken Arabic at a time when many educationists, Arabic language teachers and some Arabic speakers are warning against the waning and eventual death of the Arabic language? So I started reading about this phenomenon wherever I could (mostly from Arabic magazines/blogs), speaking to Arabic language teachers and I began writing about why it is done, how it is done and for whose benefit it is done. One of the avenues I took recently was to interview (via Skype & email correspondences) those who teach spoken Arabic systematically in a classroom setting with books and language education material. I wanted to find out why they teach spoken Arabic, what they think about the official learning of spoken Arabic, what their thoughts about the future of the Arabic language are, and how (if at all) their teaching of spoken Arabic impedes the development and learning of FuSHa in any way. I incorporate here the opinions and views of 3 spoken Arabic language teachers (Emarati Arabic, Levantine Arabic and Egyptian Arabic), I thank them again for agreeing to be interviewed, for being so open and honest, and I will keep two of these teachers anonymised as per their request.
To begin, I asked the Spoken Arabic (SA) teachers why they taught SA instead of FuSHa. The first teacher Hanan AlFardan who is the managing director of the AlRamsa Institute in Dubai, UAE (http://www.alramsa.ae/), and who is also a teacher at the centre said,
“I teach Emarati dialect because no one speaks Modern Classic Arabic, FuSHa. All the students that I met want to learn spoken Arabic rather than reading and writing. The purpose of teaching Emarati Arabic is to help non-Arabic speakers engage with Emarati and Arabic communities. Communication and engagement between Emaratis and non-Emarati communities is my mission”.
And a worthy mission it is indeed, because many expatriates living in the Arab speaking world do not ever get the chance to learn Arabic and communicate freely with the native Arabs of the country or indeed their other Arab colleagues in Arabic.
Asmaa (psuedonym) teaches Egyptian Arabic in London, I asked her the same question, and she answered, “I teach Egyptian (Cairene dialect) to non-Arabic speakers who want to settle in Egypt or to British- born Egyptian children, who have a non-Egyptian mother or father and they wish to learn the dialect. This could be because they want to communicate with their relatives back in Egypt or to feel more “Egyptian”. Many come to me not knowing how to read Arabic and the first thing I do is teach them the Arabic alphabet and we take it from there. As for the non-Arabic speakers, well, I teach them using English Roman letters and not the alphabet [because] it takes too long”.
This may come as a shock to many Arabic speakers, that non-native Arabic speakers are taught Arabic using the Roman alphabet! Such a decision may be because these teachers are doing the best they can with the time they have and their teaching methods are dictated by the individual reasons each of their students have for learning SA (work, family, identity).
Ruba (psuedonym) agreed with Asmaa and she teaches non-native Arabic speakers Damascene Arabic using Roman letters if they are adults or only need the dialect to communicate quickly and effectively. She says that she teaches people Damascene Arabic because, “I love my dialect, I feel that it has meanings in it that I cannot find even in FuSHa, I do it also because people want to learn it for work purposes, for study purposes, or for personal interest or to feel “Syrian” again!”. She also gets students who are Syrians but are born in Britain or have never learned to speak their dialect, and now as adults they wish to learn Damascene Arabic for identity purposes. Hanan also has native-Emarati student saying, “Most of my students are non-Arabic speakers. However, I have some Emarati students who want to learn the Emarati dialect. Some of them [were] born outside the UAE, and spent years abroad and they’ve now come back. Unfortunately, if you don’t have access to spoken Arabic at home, there is no other proper way to learn it. Most of the books available are in FuSHa or basic Gulf Arabic”. Which obviously does not help those who need to learn the SA and have no formal education in FuSHa.
The issue of scarce materials to learn SA was brought up by the teachers many times, and that is why Hanan is making her own text books to be used at the AlRamsa institute, because the books available now are not made for classroom teaching. They were made for language learners going on holiday to these Arabic countries, or as accounts of the words people in those countries use. Ruba and Asmaa have to improvise mostly, using already published materials, but again they have to make their own resources, but both inform me that, they are in the process of publishing simple text books to aid learners of SA.
I also asked the teachers, in relation to question 1, that, some people may say that you are corrupting Arabic by teaching SA, what do you say to that? Hanan said, “Yes, I hear some people saying that. However, no Arab speaks FuSHa at the end of the day…I understand that FuSHa is important and I fully support teaching students in schools and universities in FuSHa but we need to offer the option of learning dialects for people who are interested in learning the dialect.”
Asmaa says “I am not corrupting Arabic in any way, I am simply teaching my SA to those who wish to learn. I think for a long time many non-Arabic speakers felt that learning to converse with Arabs in their everyday language would be near-impossible, and that they would have to learn FuSHa first. But in the last 10 years many of those eager to understand the Arab through his dialect have realised that they can learn just the spoken without the Standard Arabic. And I think as an Arabic teacher, I too have realised that yes, I can do this I can teach my SA, and it will not affect FuSHa in any way”.
Ruba agreed once again with both Hanan and Asmaa and added that “If we as Arabic speakers are serious about the future and the current state of the Arabic language, then we should do something about it through our education systems and media. And we must make space for spoken Arabic if we really care about FuSHa, we act as if we are ashamed that we have this other spoken form of Arabic. There is nothing to be ashamed of, it is a part of who we are, the quicker we acknowledge that, the quicker we can sort out the mess we are in right now!” Strong words from Ruba here, and it may be the way many experienced Arabic teachers view the whole situation, that language is a natural consequence and that in the case of Arabic we must find a way to reconcile the many components of the language, and not overcomplicate its nature and allow that to get in the way of Arabic developing as a modern language.
Finally, I asked each of the teachers, how they viewed the future of Arabic in their (home) countries and whether Arabic would be a major language, or if English will take over? Hanan said, “I think English will be [the] dominating [language]. However, because Arabic language is so linked with Emarati identity and Islam, Arabic language will always be a priority for Arabs, [the] Emarati community and [the] government.”
Asmaa said, “For centuries, other languages have existed in Egypt alongside Arabic, and through all the years Arabic has always prevailed. I think that English will be a major language in Egypt as it will be in any other country in the world. But, I do not see it overtaking Arabic in a big way, and I think that there is a new sizeable group of young well-educated people (ironically from English-based universities), who make a point to use Arabic consciously, to read in Arabic and to speak to their children in Arabic. They feel that English will always be there and one can always learn it, but Arabic must take priority”.
Ruba gave a similar answer to Asmaa’s, ” I do not see English being the major language in Syria, I think there is a silent thing or rule or I don’t know something innate in Syrians, that as long as they live, as long as they have to communicate they will do so in Arabic, spoken and have a strong relation to FuSHa. We embrace other languages and learn them as long as they benefit us, but in the end Arabic will always be the majority language in Syria no matter what”. There is of course a difference between the situation of Arabic in the Gulf countries and Arabic in other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria (a topic for another say), but according to these Arabic teachers, it seems Arabic is here to stay even if English is a major language.
The interviews have provided a window into the world of teaching Spoken Arabic to non-Arabic speakers, or native speakers who have not, for one reason or another, had the chance to learn their dialects through their families. I realised that sometimes teachers use non-Arabic script to teach their students Arabic, as a way to speed up learning for those who want to learn the dialect just for communication purposes. All the teachers I interviewed explained that their teaching of Spoken Arabic does not affect FuSHa in any way, and one teacher said that in order for Arabic to thrive, its native speakers must change their view on the status of Spoken Arabic. I thoroughly enjoyed the interviews, and I would like to thanks the teachers once more for taking their time to be interviewed. I look forward to comments on this story from readers as always, and finally, a big welcome to new subscribers to the blog, I hope you find Arabizi interesting.