Arab culture and language in danger: Qatar and the UAE

Yet another posting on this interesting issue, Arabic as a language seems to be neglected in both the UAE and Qatar. I quote a recent article, which is short and yet to the point. The author makes it clear that Arabic is in real danger because there is no encouragement for the speakers to use it in all spheres of their lives, even the education system cannot ensure Arabic (or English for that matter) is learned and taught correctly.


Arabic’s Uncertain Future Has Troubling Cultural Implications

by Sarah Amandolare

Arabic is being replaced by English in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, prompting concerns about the preservation of national identity and culture.

Fallout of the Shift to English

According to Tom Hundley in a piece for Global Post, Arabic has fallen behind English and Hindu to become only “the third most-spoken language in the United Arab Emirates.” Although this is “hardly surprising” since most of the population consists of foreign workers, the loss of Arabic would also mean a loss of “their sense of national identity,” writes Hundley.

There are “more than 300 million native speakers” of Arabic around the world, so the language will likely “survive as one of the world’s major languages.” However, in specific places, including UAE and Qatar, Arabic has become “endangered,” experts tell Hundley. In some cities, such as Dubai, children have adopted “a kind of pidgin Arabic” from their caretakers, often nannies from Pakistan or the Philippines.

Higher Education in the Gulf region is also rapidly shifting to English as universities from the U.S., Britain and Australia set up campuses. However, sources tell Hundley that the issue begins in primary school, where students are being taught a combination of English and Arabic, but failing to perfect either one.

Demand for Arabic speakers

While Arabic has become less desirable in some parts of the Middle East, the U.S. is sorely in need of Arabic speakers to fill foreign service positions. The need for U.S. Foreign Service officers in the Middle East “has skyrocketed” since 9/11, explained Josh Kurlantzick in a 2007 piece for The New Republic. With that, the U.S. government faces the added pressure of training “a new generation of Arabic, Farsi and Chinese speakers,” he writes.

Background: Languages in danger

In April 2009, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger showed more than 200 languages had become extinct. The United States is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, but it also has one of the largest numbers of endangered languages. India, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico are all countries with similar linguistic situations as the United States— many spoken tongues, but also many endangered or extinct languages. Of the some 6000 languages spoken worldwide, it is thought that nearly half of them are endangered.

In a 2007 TED talk focused on cultures at the far edges of the world, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis explained that nearly half of the languages spoken on Earth are no longer taught to children, making these languages essentially obsolete. Davis cited a statistic that a language dies off almost every two weeks, and went on to describe how languages shape the way we think, and can represent a complete history of a people.


It is quite ironic really that those outside the Middle Eastern countries are working hard to learn Arabic language, and yet those who have Arabic as a first language are losing it, for many reasons (as we have discussed in previous postings). So on the one hand we have those who will lose the language and the culture and all that relates to Arabic, and we will have those who selectively learn the language (without the cultural implications of course) for their own purposes.  As I have said before, this region is one to watch over the coming decade, if Arabic as a language survives at all levels of society (not just governmental or in classrooms) then Arabic has a future. Otherwise it may be that one day when reading about these countries in an atlas or Encarta, we might read an entry like: COUNTRY (UAE or Qatar) languages spoken, English, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic…. (in order of number of speakers). Did I exaggerate? Some linguists might argue that a decade is too long, since for some language conservationists look at languages on a day-to-day or week to week basis. Whatever the truth of the matter (I have presented in this blog many discussions about this topic and many have research evidence) there needs to be a quick investigation into the issue and it must be resolved for the sake of the people in the region. Many Arabs perhaps feel that their language can never die, but I say that a language lives as long as its speakers have faith that through it they can express themselves and through it they can feel like any other people speaking their language and feel a sense of belonging. Without faith in a language, the language dies and so do the values, histories, and stories of that language.


See also:   (Unesco’s world languages in danger)

Original article in the Global Post:


Sheikh Sultan Al Qasmy: “Plant love of the mother tongue in the hearts of Arabic speakers” Part 1

Speaking last month (Feb 21st 2010) at the Society for the Protection of Arabic Language based in Sharjah, UAE Sultan Al Qasmy the ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, called for new important and necessary steps to restore Arabic as the rightful language of the natives.

Celebrating the UNESCO Mother Language Day 2010( Al Qasmy gave a speech about the central  importance of Arabic language to those who consider it their mother tongue. However, in the same breath he went on to express his sadness and disappointment in the deterioration of the language among its speakers. This is especially because, in his opinion, it is the most important marker of a speaker’s identity. Additionally he added that it is only through the Arabic language that culture and customs can be preserved and their symbolic meanings understood by speakers today and ultimately those in the future.  He also emphasised that Arabic language if learned and used correctly could act as a bridge-builder between all speakers of Arabic despite their dialects. Often Arabs from different countries are sometimes forced to speak a foreign language (such as English or French) in order to communicate because their dialects are unintelligible to one another (a topic for another post!).

He further emphasised that: “…the increasing interest our Arab society has for foreign languages because of the need to communicate with the world for reasons of education, culture and humanitarian benefits should not mean that we feel less pride or disregard our Arabic language”. He went on to describe what he has noticed among the young, that they use Arabic incorrectly and make basic mistakes whilst speaking. And there is also their consistent use of English in everyday conversation not out of a communicative need but out of style and habit.  This final observation echoes the statements that Sheikha Mouza, first lady of Qatar made this month (see previous post of Sheikha Mouza here on Arabizi) about the danger Arabic language faces because of its over-mixing with English.  As you can see I am quoting two high-profile figures in the Middle East airing concern about the current state of Arabic. These are the people on the ground and due to their positions we can say that they meet many people across the Arab world and so are better suited to make such candid statements and comments. What is the solution to all this? There are people at grass-root levels also complaining about the state of Arabic language and its future (see any blog discussing this) and now there are individuals at the top echoing the same fear. If everybody feels this way surely there can be no doubt that Arabic is under threat and action needs to be taken.

This is the second time this month I am posting something on the worry over the current use of Arabic and anxiety over its future.  This cannot be considered as an unfounded fear or panic without evidence, it seems that everyone who makes this claim has evidence. So what is happening to Arabic and why? It has so many speakers and yet all this fear- what is the reality?

Sultan Al Qasmy continues passionately: “Arabic language is the only way we can express our happiness, sorrows, sadness, and victories; it is a part that cannot be separated from our beings and we cannot leave it or allow it to weaken for by that we allow ourselves to be weakened”.  To show his seriousness and to qualify this statement he went on to say that there is now a heavy and important responsibility on those in leadership positions, positions of responsibility; and most notably those in the education and teaching sector and anybody who felt strongly about Arabic language and grammar. Proposing a possible  solution Al Qasmy went on to suggest that one effective way would be for teachers and educators to find new ways of making Arabic fun and attractive to children in a bid to plant the love of Arabic in the hearts of children and young people. He said teachers and educators should move away from traditional, often boring, methods of instruction and use modern more attractive teaching formats; and move away from making the subject one in which students expect to fail and cannot connect it to their everyday life.

I will translate the rest of the speech in the next post.  Taken and translated from the original Arabic to English from:



Sheikha Mouza: ‘The Arabic language is in danger because of “trendy English phrases” ‘ 23rd March 2010 reports on Sheikha Mouza’s trip to a Jeddah women’s college. She addressed the women about the importance of education for them as Gulf citizens and her firm belief that women deserve the same educational opportunity as their male counterparts. Qatar’s first lady is very popular among young Gulf women especially those in education or university students because she understands what it means to live in that part of the world and to be a woman. 

For any researcher this is excellent data, a type of reality of how Arabic is used on the ground, and a testimony by a speaker themselves not an outside researcher! 

 She spoke about education and its importance and in the same breath warned against the weakening of Arabic because of English phrases. It is very common for a televison/satellite channel presenter to begin speaking Arabic (Modern Standard or slang)  and then insert many English phrases in place of Arabic ones, even though the Arabic lexicon has words that can express the same meanings.  A lot of codeswitching takes place and some people do not see the use of it. For example they might say (excuse the non use of IPA characters still working on getting them on this blog:

Tayyib ya jama’ah naakhudh BREAK wa narja’  BYE

okay everyone let’s take a break and then come back bye

Both these English words are available in Arabic but the switching still took place. There are many other examples but I do not have them at hand.

The most frequent codeswitching I have seen is on shows that discuss fashion and beauty or movies.  All the information will be given in Arabic and then there are continuous insertions of English words, such as; lip gloss, style, hair, dryer, perm, colour, eyeshadow and many others etc..  Is Arabic that weak that it does not have these words available for its speakers? 

It is interseting that the first lady chose to speak about education and language threat at the same time! Do the two relate to eachother? If so how? Most of the higher education in the Gulf is in English and increasingly so is the medium of instruction in most secondary schools- so why the sudden warning? Is Arabic really under threat? This is what I asked in one of my initial postings. Do we blame English?  Part of the answer may lay in the symbolic meaning of English as a language in the Gulf. It may stand for sophistication,  a certain prestige or more precisely a status marker meaning that perhaps the speaker is educated. But seriously is English forced upon these speakers?

Is English to blame or are the speakers the reason? The so-called danger English poses to Arabic is a topic of great debate in the Middle East. Many different opinions and many different suggestions of how to overcome these fears are becoming increasingly popular. The situation is very complex and those in charge of the language planning and policy perhaps need to look closely at language use in Education and other spheres of interaction. If many people, both unknown and those of a high profile such as Sheikha Mouza say Arabic is in danger may be they have a point.  But the solution?