Can humour help preserve Arabic among native speakers? Guest post

It’s great to be back after a good break, Ramadhan, lots of writing (and thinking!) and of course the absolutely wonderful mind-boggling Paralympics sadly now over. A warm welcome to new readers and fellow WordPress bloggers, and apologies for late replies to comments and emails.  As promised in July, this is a short and to-the-point guest post by Lina al-Adnani about the sorry situation of Arabic language proficiency amongst its native speakers. The post is based on her current ongoing research about the role humour may play in highlighting that situation to Arabic speakers. She is an artist and creative person doing her MA in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries at Central St. Martins. You can imagine my fascination at the creative link between issues of language shift or language change with the idea of humour. Her passion for the topic and her zeal for the project impressed me so much I asked her  to write a short blog post about her thoughts so far on the project and what she thinks is the reason behind the current situation of Arabic language, and how she thinks humour is one way to highlight these issues. So here it is, below without editing from myself and we have a video, so artistic of you Lina thanks!

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By speaking in English, are we hindering our Arabic development? And where does humor fall in all of this?

I recently googled the word Arabic and got some… results… they weren’t interesting, but they weren’t uninteresting either. The first results page (and lets face it, that is usually the only page we look at) was of websites for the learning and teaching of Arabic language, but I thought to myself that Arabic is so much more than just a language.  I wish there were other results that showed another aspect of this language we all know that languages are more than just words, they each stand for an ideology, one that connects to that specific culture and norms. One can argue that this language (Arabic) along with the culture it is connected to is on its way to disintegration. Why is that? Well I guess I can only refer to my own circumstances, experiences, and observations from my own country (Jordan) if I am to tell you why I feel this way. Arabic, in some circles in Amman is becoming an uninteresting and low level language, resulting in creating the hybrid known as Arabizi; it is not enough to only speak Arabic, we must integrate English to it so that it can live up to our “standards”. Speaking Arabizi reflects a certain air of sophistication, education and even marks of upper-class upbringing, this is how it has become.

I am an Arab, but my Arabic is horrible, so is my knowledge of Arabic history, culture, and politics. No, I did not grow up in London, Canada, or America… I grew up in Amman, Jordan- yes an Arabic speaking country. In my life I have read in all a total of only 5 maybe 6 books in Arabic! I can’t remember how many in English because they have obviously been numerous. I had not really thought deeply about this fact until a few months ago when I started to review who I was and what I wanted to focus on in the following months for my MA dissertation.  I then realized that I don’t really know who I am, and that I don’t really have a sense of belonging to Amman, nor to any place for that matter and I believed this was due to my poor Arabic. I wanted to investigate why that was… I then stumbled upon this vide which was unique in that the comedian criticized the usage of English over Arabic but through humor- I thought that was fascinating…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YCA7O37362U

The video is intended to highlight the obsession young Arabs have in Amman with speaking English even where it is not required. The comedian picks out words like, “by the way”, “ewwww”, “attitude”, “hi”, “how are you”, “vulgar”, “I am not impressed” etc…. to show how young people speak and how by using these words in English they are neglecting their Arabic equivalents. In one part of the video, he acts like an addict needing another dose to calm himself down, and this relief in his sense comes when the speaker inserts an English word in the conversation even if it is out of context or mispronounced (which he refers to an “bad accent”).

The video and many others like it act a tools in helping me investigate why we are so adamant on speaking English when we have a perfectly fine language of our own; secondly how can humor, or the entertainment industries promote and encourage us to speak in Arabic? I think a video like the one above is one example of humor making us think about the way we use or under-use the Arabic language.

After much thought I think I have reached a conclusion (which might change in the next few months who knows?), that by speaking in English, we may be hindering our Arabic development and rather than actually creating our own modernity, we are trying to emulate the modernity of others, because we aren’t using our language. When we start to use our own language to it’s full capacity we will then be able to create a modernity that suits us and our ways and still keep us up to date with the rest of the world. What do you think?

After thought: Fatma asked me after sending her a few drafts, what I thought was left of the Arabic language? My answer is: I think that there is a lot left of Arabic, but not a lot is utilized. It isn’t that there are no words in Arabic, neither is it about Arabic being a weaker language… it’s merely a perception that is arguably false and misunderstood. The unfortunate truth is that there are large numbers of Arabs who are ignorant… and not just in the case of being clueless, but also in not knowing the facts. That may be what it comes down to, lack of education in Arabic countries that creates this false negative perception that Arabic is not a language of modernity and development- this I feel is an ideology that needs to change NOW before it’s too late. Thank you

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Thank you once again Lina for not only putting forward these ideas but also being generous with the readers by sharing deep personal thoughts about yourself as an Arabic speaker and your relationship with Arabic language- it brings to life the issues many speakers can identify with. Sorry to those of you who do not speak Arabic I know the video was all in Arabic, unfortunately there were no subtitled versions- but I hope from the descriptions the aim of the video was understood. I think the humour idea is great and sometimes one does not have to always be serious about the current situation of Arabic it gets boring and some people will ignore it. But humour is great because it makes people laugh not just at what the comedian is saying, but at themselves too….so maybe speakers will become aware of their communicative habits and analyse their language choices during conversation. Please feel free to comment on the post as always, thanks for reading.

Naming rights: Why star names will always be in Arabic

I have finally found some time to write-up this post that I have been thinking about for a while now since being shown a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium discussing something I had never given much thought to. Something that he calls “naming rights” the idea of who has the right to name something, in their language and more importantly to name it first? Why do they have that right? And how does language fit into all of that? It is a loaded idea both politically and linguistically but it is something that illustrates the ubiquitous and ever-important nature that language carries more than just simple communicative messages (like the ball is green for example). By simply naming something in one language and not in another and by virtue of people using that same name to refer to it regardless of their language is an indicator of how human civilisation works and is built and again more importantly how language is an indicator of the power of knowledge and discovery. As DeGrasse says, “if you get there first you get to name it first” and others have to accommodate themselves, he gives two simple examples: first, the internet and that it was the Americans who exploited its use first and so they get to have the  default web address of .com but all other countries are forced to use other endings such as,  .co.uk/ .ae/ .fr/ .au/ and so on. Secondly, he  says that because the British were the first to make the postage stamp we until today are the only country who do not have to say where the stamp originates from, whereas all others must indicate country of origin. That’s naming rights, it’s about getting there first and doing it well so that it stands the test of time, and no one can take that away from its original creators.

DeGrasse mentions in the clip that almost 2/3 of all star names are in fact in Arabic! The numbers we use today (in English and most languages) are referred to as “Arabic numerals” and there is whole host of English words that originated from Arabicto not only English but many other world languages! How? and Why? That is the question. DeGrasse points out important reasons of why not only Arab scholars but more importantly why Arabic language was once a language of inquiry, reasoning, genius and innovation and also offers his explanation of why it no longer is.

At the beginning of the video he correctly reminds the audience that there are many cultures in the world that excelled and superseded other nations in one subject or another, but that there comes a time when they reach a peak and then sometimes it drops off and other times they manage to hang on. But what he is interested in is what allows for that to take place? Of course I will not transcribe the whole video but I think the reasons are important to dwell over. He points out that between 800AD and 1100 AD Baghdad was the centre of knowledge and learning because it opened its doors up to all people, Christians, Jews, doubters (atheists/agnostics) and everybody was allowed to excel regardless of their background and this according to him is what made that time so unique, fertile and we still feel the effects of that success today. For example the discovery of the zero, algebra, algorithm, establishment of advanced hospitals (where some were diseases specific something unprecedented at the time) and many other contributions (see http://www.1001inventions.com/ or videos on that here).

Why am I talking about this on Arabizi? Simple really because many Arab scholars of today are not sure how to get Arabic language to be one of advancement, education, knowledge or simply to be one of practical use by its speakers. Which is something I discuss a lot here on Arabizi, is it diglossia, it is the English language, is it the dialects, or is it poor education that has put the Arabic language in this situation? In that 300 year period in Baghdad they questioned everything with a curious mind and welcomed everyone –perhaps that is the solution? Use both English and Arabic in education (which some Gulf universities are implementing right now which is exciting) that way Arabic can be used academically and use English because it is undoubtedly the language of knowledge today, allow people regardless of their background to have access to all the appropriate facilities and maybe, just maybe we might see something changing in the current path that the Arabic language is taking. It will never be like Baghdad because we live in different times and different political and social environments but Arabic still has the ability to be a language of real inquiry and research in its own right. Naming rights are only for those languages whose speakers have excelled and benefitted humans in knowledge that’s it…you offer something your language is not only used but preserved…… what do you think? I will not spoil it by telling you what caused this so-called “golden-age” to end you’ll have to watch the video for that I’m afraid…but it was disastrous, completely uncalled for and detrimental to the Arabic and Islamic societies the world over and I dare say it has impeded and disabled these societies from looking at the pursuit of knowledge (for the benefit of human beings and even religious knowledge [which has its own crazy issues]) the way they once did in great Baghdad…….enjoy

If you have any comments to add please do so, it is controversial and some people may not like what he is saying but being open- minded is the first step to solving so-called problems right?  I’ll be posting next in September (guest post on humour and Arabic I have a treat in store for you)….Ramadhan (month of fasting) is round the corner please feel free to read my Ramadhan and Arabizi post here in the archives since its relevant right now…..thanks for reading.

That New York Times article, what I really meant & other updates

Many of you know that I participated in a New York Times article discussing the language of instruction in higher education in the Gulf with special interest on Qatar (which has now been copied, pasted, and quoted in many other forums, newspapers and blogs). To get to the point, some readers found it offensive that I blamed the Thai/Philippine accent on the demise or weakness of Arabic among Gulf speakers- I did not. I did not blame any accent and really to make a relationship between the two is nonsensical, immature and unheard of in linguistics. What readers must appreciate is, that the journalist will interview the participant for 15-20 minutes and then he’ll pick and choose which quotes look good where. He has to build his story, each writer has a focus and intention behind the questions they ask and how they want their readers to understand their story of interest. The other thing is that the journalist is not a linguist and so cannot be blamed for linguistic/language learning misconceptions misread in the article, the onus is on us linguists to deliver the correct information. I did explain this on Twitter but felt compelled to do so here in case the same was felt by other readers, this is not an apology – just a clarification. Why did I say that some children in the Gulf speak with a Thai of Philippine accent? Simply to illustrate to the writer the multicultural multilingual environment many children in the gulf grow up in. With domestic maids from the Far East many children’s initial exposure to English is through these maids and so if their parents speak no English (or very bad English) they can only learn from the maids hence the acquisition of the accent.  Thereafter, throughout their lives the linguistic landscape of young people growing up in the Gulf gets ever more complex and in the end everyone worries about the status of Arabic language and it’s future (not to mention the poor English standards as well) etc….something I’ve talked about before on this blog and at length in a book chapter I wrote last year (“Ahyaanan I text in English ‘ashaan it’s ashal: Language Crisis or Linguistic Development? The Case of How Gulf Arabs Perceive the Future of their Language, Culture, and Identity” a bit of a mouthful).  As always I am open to comments/ discussion on this if anyone wishes, just leave a comment on the blog and I’ll be happy to reply.

On a different note, Twitter is now available in Arabic!!! Which means that people who prefer to use the Arabic version can without any worries (simply choose Arabic under languages). There are adequate substitutes for retweet, favourite, direct message and we are still working to translate words so they make sense in Arabic properly (not half-baked translations). If you are on Twitter and wish to follow the progress of this development or wish to participate follow @taghreedat for more info. There are also efforts by the founders of Taghreedat to make the first collaborative online Arabic dictionary so far it’s going well and I’ll update you as more information comes through.

My next post will be on naming rights as an outcome of strong and cultured civilization and what language has to do with it all, it will be based on a video lecture which I will put up….I promise you it will be an interesting video to watch. That may well be the last post (I might also get a guest post on Arabic and humour :))  for a while and I’ll hopefully resume posting after September depending on my thesis writing/revision commitments at the time. Without intending to nag anyone, please avoid plagiarising from this blog, as I hate receiving emails from teachers and tutors about that, at the moment I have been advised to move the site to another platform…please stop copying simply refer to my sources or quote the blog URL (which I usually give permission for, after an email from the student).  Thank you for comments, emails, questions and welcome to new readers from Tunisia, Nicaragua and Poland!

Arab Linguistic Imperialism and the Decline of Arabic: Does anyone speak Arabic? Part 1

In trying to understand the sociolinguistic situation of Arabic all avenues and opinions must be considered, I have pasted below an article/paper by Franck Salameh a professor at Boston College, with interest in Arabic, nationalism and in particular Lebanese politics and history.  He is concerned with presenting a clear picture of what Arabic language means to Arabic speakers and considers issues not from a panic-stricken premise but from a thoughtful stance informed by facts, history, experience and research. He connects language with important social variables like Arabism, identity, and what it means to speak Arabic, which is ideal if one is trying to understand a linguistic situation of language said to be in decline.  He questions and provokes the reader in general, and the Arab linguist in particular his ideas are important in any debate on the future of Arabic language. I have broken the article into two separate posts, I enjoyed reading it and thought to share it with everyone even though I did not agree with everything he wrote (the map above shows the countries in which Arabic is the official language).

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Does Anyone Speak Arabic?

Middle East Quarterly
 Fall 2011

In August 2010, Associated Press staffer Zeina Karam wrote an article, picked up by The Washington Post and other news outlets, that tackled a cultural, and arguably political, issue that had been making headlines for quite some time in the Middle East: the question of multilingualism and the decline of the Arabic language in polyglot, multiethnic Middle Eastern societies.[1] Lebanon was Karam’s case study: an Eastern Mediterranean nation that had for the past century been the testing grounds for iconoclastic ideas and libertine tendencies muzzled and curbed elsewhere in the Arab world.[2] However, by inquiring into what is ailing the Arabic language—the nimbus and supreme symbol of “Arabness”—the author aimed straight at the heart of Arab nationalism and the strict, linguistic orthodoxy that it mandated, putting in question its most basic tenet: Who is an Arab?

Arabic and Arabism

For most of the twentieth century, Arabs, Arab nationalists, and their Western devotees tended to substitute Arab for Middle Eastern history, as if the narratives, storylines, and paradigms of other groups mattered little or were the byproduct of alien sources far removed from the authentic, well-ordered, harmonious universe of the “Arab world.”[3] As such, they held most Middle Easterners to be Arab even if only remotely associated with the Arabs and even if alien to the experiences, language, or cultural proclivities of Arabs. In the words of Sati al-Husri (1880-1967), a Syrian writer and the spiritual father of linguistic Arab nationalism: Every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Every individual associated with an Arabic-speaker or with an Arabic-speaking people is an Arab. If he does not recognize [his Arabness] … we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand … But under no circumstances should we say: “As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.” He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes, whether ignorant, indifferent, recalcitrant, or disloyal; he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feelings, and perhaps even without conscience.[4] This ominous admonition to embrace a domineering Arabism is one constructed on an assumed linguistic unity of the Arab peoples; a unity that a priori presumes the Arabic language itself to be a unified, coherent verbal medium, used by all members of Husri’s proposed nation. Yet Arabic is not a single, uniform language. It is, on the one hand, a codified, written standard that is never spoken natively and that is accessible only to those who have had rigorous training in it. On the other hand, Arabic is also a multitude of speech forms, contemptuously referred to as “dialects,” differing from each other and from the standard language itself to the same extent that French is different from other Romance languages and from Latin. Still, Husri’s dictum, “You’re an Arab if I say so!” became an article of faith for Arab nationalists. It also condensed the chilling finality with which its author and his acolytes foisted their blanket Arab label on the mosaic of peoples, ethnicities, and languages that had defined the Middle East for millennia prior to the advent of twentieth-century Arab nationalism.[5] But if Husri had been intimidating in his advocacy for a forced Arabization, his disciple Michel Aflaq (1910-89), founder of the Baath Party, promoted outright violence and cruelty against those users of the Arabic language who refused to conform to his prescribed, overarching, Arab identity. Arab nationalists must be ruthless with those members of the nation who have gone astray from Arabism, wrote Aflaq, “…they must be imbued with a hatred unto death, toward any individuals who embody an idea contrary to Arab nationalism. Arab nationalists must never dismiss opponents of Arabism as mere individuals … An idea that is opposed to ours does not emerge out of nothing! It is the incarnation of individuals who must be exterminated, so that their idea might in turn be also exterminated. Indeed, the presence in our midst of a living opponent of the Arab national idea vivifies it and stirs the blood within us. And any action we might take [against those who have rejected Arabism] that does not arouse in us living emotions, that does not make us feel the orgasmic shudders of love, that does not spark in us quivers of hate, and that does not send the blood coursing in our veins and make our pulse beat faster is, ultimately, a sterile action.”[6] Therein lay the foundational tenets of Arab nationalism and the Arabist narrative of Middle Eastern history as preached by Husri, Aflaq, and their cohorts: hostility, rejection, negation, and brazen calls for the annihilation of the non-Arab “other.” Yet despite the dominance of such disturbing Arabist and Arab nationalist readings, the Middle East in both its modern and ancient incarnations remains a patchwork of varied cultures, ethnicities, and languages that cannot be tailored into a pure and neat Arab essence without distorting and misinforming. Other models of Middle Eastern identities exist, and a spirited Middle Eastern, intellectual tradition that challenges the monistic orthodoxies of Arab nationalism endures and deserves recognition and validation.

The Arabic Language Debate

Take for instance one of the AP article’s interviewees who lamented the waning of the Arabic language in Lebanese society and the rise in the numbers of Francophone and Anglophone Lebanese, suggesting “the absence of a common language between individuals of the same country mean[s] losing [one’s] common identity”—as if places like Switzerland and India, each with respectively four and twenty-three official, national—often mutually incomprehensible—speech forms, were lesser countries or suffered more acute identity crises than ostensibly cohesive, monolingual societies. In fact, the opposite is often true: Monolingualism is no more a precondition or motivation for cultural and ethnic cohesiveness than multilingualism constitutes grounds for national incoherence and loss of a common identity. Irishmen, Scotsmen, Welsh, and Jamaicans are all native English-speakers but not Englishmen. The AP could have acknowledged that glaring reality, which has been a hallmark of the polyglot multiethnic Middle East for millennia. This, of course, is beside the fact that for many Lebanese—albeit mainly Christians—multilingualism and the appeal of Western languages is simply a way of heeding history and adhering to the country’s hybrid ethnic and linguistic heritage. Cultural anthropologist Selim Abou argued that notwithstanding Lebanon’s millenarian history and the various and often contradictory interpretations of that history, the country’s endogenous and congenital multilingualism—and by extension that of the entire Levantine littoral —remains indisputable. He wrote: From the very early dawn of history up to the conquests of Alexander the Great, and from the times of Alexander until the dawning of the first Arab Empire, and finally, from the coming of the Arabs up until modern times, the territory we now call Lebanon—and this is based on the current state of archaeological and historical discoveries—has always practiced some form of bilingualism and polyglossia; one of the finest incarnations of intercultural dialogue and coexistence.[7] So much, then, for linguistic chauvinism and language protectionism. The Arabic language will survive the onslaught of multilingualism but only if its users will it to survive by speaking it rather than by hallowing it and by refraining from creating conservation societies that build hedges around it to shield it from desuetude. Even avid practitioners of multilingualism in Lebanon, who were never necessarily talented or devoted Arabophones, have traditionally been supportive of the idea of preserving Arabic in the roster of Lebanese languages—albeit not guarding and fixing it by way of mummification, cultural dirigisme, or rigid linguistic planning. Though opposed in principle to Arab nationalism’s calls for the insulation of linguistically libertine Lebanon “in the solitude of a troubled and spiteful nationalism … [and] linguistic totalitarianism,” Lebanese thinker Michel Chiha (1891-1954) still maintained that: “Arabic is a wonderful language … the language of millions of men. We wouldn’t be who we are today if we, the Lebanese of the twentieth century, were to forgo the prospect of becoming [Arabic’s] most accomplished masters to the same extent that we had been its masters some one hundred years ago … But how can one not heed the reality that a country such as ours would be literally decapitated if prevented from being bilingual (or even trilingual if possible)? … [We must] retain this lesson if we are intent on protecting ourselves from self-inflicted deafness, which would in turn lead us into mutism.?”[8] Another fallacy reiterated in the AP article was the claim that “Arabic is believed to be spoken as a first language by more than 280 million people.”[9] Even if relying solely on the field of Arabic linguistics—which seldom bothers with the trivialities of precise cognomens denoting varieties of language, preferring instead the overarching and reductive lahja (dialect/accent) and fusha (Modern Standard Arabic, MSA) dichotomy to, say, the French classifications of langue, langage, parler, dialecte, langue vérnaculaire, créole, argot, patois, etc.—Zeina Karam’s arithmetic still remains in the sphere of folklore and fairy tale, not concrete, objective fact. Indeed, no serious linguist can claim the existence of a real community of “280 million people” who speak Arabic at any level of native proficiency, let alone a community that can speak Arabic “as a first language.”

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Part two will follow next week, I think many of the points raised are quite controversial and I din’t agree with everything he writes. But such provocations are needed if any real debate of Arabic will take place and if any real solution to the current situation of Arabic can be agreed on.  Some of the people he quotes were analysing the situation of Arabic over a decade ago, and some of their insights are applicable today and some are not, so Arabic sociolinguists need to step up and continue where those scholars left off. Technology, travel, politics and media play major roles in how languages survive, thrive or begin a decline, and Arabic is no different-real authentic research is needed and soon.

I did promise that I would be interviewing a second author for the Pioneers Of Arabic series, unfortunately it seems the author is very busy and has not been able to follow through with the interview which is unfortunate. Therefore in the meantime I am on the search for a new author and as soon as I find one I will post the interview here, thanks for recent comments and welcome to new readers in Malaysia- salamat detung :)!!


Footnotes
:

Franck Salameh is assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Boston College and author of Language, Memory, and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lexington Books, 2010). He thanks research assistant Iulia Padeanu for her valuable contributions to this essay.

[1] Zeina Karam, “Lebanon Tries to Retain Arabic in Polyglot Culture,” The Washington Post, Aug. 16, 2010. For more on Arabic language decline, see Mahmoud al-Batal, “Identity and Language Tension in Lebanon: The Arabic of Local News at LBCI,” in Aleya Rouchdy, ed., Language Contact and Language Conflict in Arabic: Variations on a Sociolinguistic Theme (London: Curzon Arabic Linguistics Series, 2002);Al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis, Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Aug. 1, 2000, Aug. 28, 2001; Zeina Hashem Beck, “Is the Arabic Language ‘Perfect’ or ‘Backwards’?” The Daily Star (Beirut), Jan. 7, 2005; Hashem Saleh, “Tajrubat al-Ittihad al-‘Urubby… hal Tanjah ‘Arabiyan?” Asharq al-Awsat (London), June 21, 2005.

[2] Fouad Ajami, “The Autumn of the Autocrats,” Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2005.

[3] Elie Kedourie, “Not So Grand Illusions,” The New York Review of Books, Nov. 23, 1967.

[4] Abu Khaldun Sati Al-Husri, Abhath Mukhtara fi-l-Qawmiyya al-‘Arabiya (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiya, 1985), p. 80.

[5] Franck Salameh, Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), pp. 9-10.

[6] Michel Aflaq, Fi Sabil al-Ba’ath (Beirut: Dar at-Tali’a, 1959), pp. 40-1.

[7] Selim Abou, Le bilinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962), pp. 157-8.

[8] Michel Chiha, Visage et Présence du Liban (Beirut: Editions du Trident, 1984), p. 49-52, 164.

[9] Karam, “Lebanon Tries to Retain Arabic.”

Source: http://www.meforum.org/3066/does-anyonespeak-arabic

“The Arabic Language: DNA of a Nation” yet the challenges are many

Herbs & Spices in Souk market in Amman

In this post, I continue with some of the themes from Al Marzouqi’s translation (which generated much interest and emails both positive and some negative, I think some Arabic speakers prefer to blame “outside forces” for the situation of Arabic…but that’s a topic for another post) on the challenges facing Arabic. I paste below an excerpt from a report by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute) titled: “The Arabic language: DNA of a nation”, which was part of their first annual conference on the theme “language and identity”.

The author discusses some of the most challenging issues facing the Arabic language in Arabic speaking countries today. The major issue here is the existence of the very many spoken dialects (which are unwritten) against that of the standard written Arabic  (MSA) or Classical Arabic (however people classify it) and the expectation that children need to learn, master and be competent in both. It is a challenge and such a rich language dynamic should not endanger the language, rather it should make it unique, but the problem is that lack of a systematic system is what endangers the speakers to losing their language. In addition to this the language medium of education in Arab countries is English or French (Syria is the exception, Iraq was too once…I think that’s why most people will agree that the Arabic of the Syrians just outdoes everyone else’s) which for many language ecologists further hinders speakers from learning their mother tongue well. There are efforts to overcome these issues, for example Zayed university in the UAE and Qatar University in Qatar are working to introduce in certain subjects Arabic as the language of instruction. Perhaps in a decade or so we will be able to see the effectiveness of the programs at the respective universities through the Arabic proficiency of their graduates in other spheres of life like the workplace. Diglossia (triglossia or the existence of many dialects used for many different reason mainly official vs. non-official) does not have to be a problem it just has to be managed- that for now seems to be a challenge. The article is below without editing….

—————-29th March 2012

Non-native students of Arabic are often taken aback by just how much the standard, written form of Arabic differs from the various vernaculars; being frustrated in their attempts to learn the written form of the language, it’s usually quite difficult for them to appreciate how involved and emotional is the relationship between the written Arabic Language (“Modern Standard”) and Arabic speakers from Morocco to Bahrain. Sentimentality aside, however, there is a growing sense of urgency amongst Arab scholars about the need to bring standards of written Arabic in line with contemporary needs; this palpable feeling came out in force during the three days of the ACRPS annual conference on the social sciences and humanities.

Lacking any kind of effective centralized political or cultural authority, it seems a wonder that there is anything even approaching a common Arabic language to begin with. So the pressing economic, social and technological demands for constant standardization of the language and its styles take up a major part of the public discourse within Arab countries. The multiplicity of cursive writing forms and the vocalizations (or lack thereof) in many Arabic language manuscripts have an aesthetic value which raises them to an art form, but often prove impractical in digitized texts. Long before digital record-keeping was imagined, a proto-Arabic language emerged in the area to the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Making matters more complicated, a large part of the higher education in almost all Arab countries (Syria being a notable exception) is conducted in a “colonial language”, with English being the medium of instruction throughout most of the Middle East, and French taking prominence in the Arab Maghreb; a further obstacle to the formation of a cohesive Arab culture of the academy.

One of the speakers at the ACRPS meeting was the eminent Lebanese scholar and historian of the Arabic language, Ramzi Baalbaki. Baalbaki explained to his audience in Doha his position about the common origins of what are referred to as “Northern Arabian” (widely held to be the one reflected in present-day written language) and “Southern Arabian”, which was otherwise viewed to be closer to Amharic. According to Baalbaki, the importance of his theory of a common origin for the two forms is that it highlights the way in which trade routes tied together dispersed communities along the eastern coast of Arabia, centered, according to Baalbaki, around the village of Al Faw where the oldest Arabic inscriptions (dating back to the Fourth Century BC) have been found. In other words, the Arabic language became the “DNA of a nation”, becoming a repository of its common cultural lineage.

While an awareness of the central importance of the Arabic language to the future of a common Arab identity is widespread, use of Arabic is under constant attack in everyday life. The Palestinian hydrologist Abdulrahman Tamimi, whose intervention was focused mainly on political and economic themes in Palestine, took the time to explain how the education of the children of the economic elites in foreign-medium schools was leading to the social marginalization of the other sectors of society. Tying it to questions of the privatization of public utilities, Tamimi concluded that “what we need is not more economic re-structuring, but a reinvigoration of our national consciousness”.

Another speaker at the ACRPS event was Idriss Maqboul whose paper was provocatively titled “Educational Institutions:  Waging war on the Arabic language and identity”. According to Maqboul, profit-driven educational institutions which dominate the landscape within Arab countries and are also incredibly culturally influential, have promoted the use of foreign languages and even foreign syntactic styles at the expense of the Arabic language.

Many dialects, one language

Within the Arab Homeland, much of the scholarly output concerned with issues of language and identity is produced in three countries of the Arab Maghreb: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. This is-arguably-the result of the way in which the French colonial powers were ruthless in imposing a Francophone regime on those Arab countries which they occupied. In post-independence Algeria, which had technically been a one of the Department of France and not a colony, the newly freed country had found itself with a bureaucracy, military cadres and academics and educationalists who were far more comfortable in French than in Arabic. Alongside this was another French legacy of the promotion of minority languages and local nationalisms at the expense of single, homogenous national identities: Ironically, it was France, which had used blood and iron to impose a unified national consciousness on what had been a diverse community of dialects and localisms, had chosen to exacerbate localisms within the Arab countries which it dominated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion on the Arabic language within the ACRPS conference was led by scholars from Maghreb countries.

One of these was the Moroccan scholar Abdulkader Al Fassi Al Faheri, whose paper was titled “Politics and economics of linguistic identity and language of instruction: Case studies for the preservation of unity within diversity”. Al Fassi’s research depicts the situation of Morocco as one where the “national languages” of both Arabic and Amazigh (or “Berber”) are in conflict against the language of the former occupier, France. Al Fassi Al Faheri echoed some of the concerns of Abdulrahman Tamimi, stating in his paper that, since the drafting of the new constitution (in 2011):

“there are [efforts under way to] invest French …officially…as the language of the ruling elites, of powerful economic, political and cultural groups, and, conversely, to keep Arabic in its present position of being the language of the toilers, which would be simply to recognize the de-facto situation as it stands.”

In the view of Al Fassi Al Faheri, and countless others from, in particular, the Arab Maghreb, the problem began with the failure of the governments of Arab states to enact and enforce legislation which would protect the official status of the Arabic language*. Of course, one obvious observation would be to note that this in itself is a reflection of French influence on the way to solve these problems; France, with its Academe Nationale and its strict rules on translating foreign words which come into use within its territory, had done so much to undo the Arabic language in the territories it occupied Africa’s northern shore. Yet all of these issues begged a double question: What role was there for grassroots initiatives? What happened of previous efforts to promote the Arabic language within the educational institutions of other Arab countries?

For the polyglot country of Sudan has some very compelling reasons to promote the teaching of Arabic as the de-facto national language of education and bureaucracy. As detailed in the presentation of Kamel Al Khider from Sudan, who spoke at the ACRPS Annual Conference, Sudan’s efforts to integrate the Arabic language into public life came pre-date the country’s independence, and were first enunciated at a 1938 conference of Sudanese graduates, which demanded the end of the Egyptian-British Condominium which had ruled the country since the mid-nineteenth century.

It is also worth mentioning here a fact often overlooked by many when looking at the history of Sudan: It had never been conquered as part of the wave of Arab-Islamic conquests which fanned out from the Arabian Peninsula which fanned out from the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-seventh century. Instead, the Sudanese had adopted the Arabic language and come to identify as Arabs through a process of cultural osmosis. Despite this, Sudan became one of the first independent Arab states to Arabize its secondary school curricula, in 1965 as set out by Al Khider.

While efforts to Arabize the terminology and language of modern education and scholarship were to be found in a number of different countries and were motivated primarily by emotive considerations-at least on the individual level-self-criticism of these efforts and rational examination of the implementation has been a feature of Arabization efforts since the very beginning; Al Khider also cited in his paper the records of the deliberations between members of a committee set up to examine the hardships associated with creating Arabic language curricula for a variety of academic disciplines, including, most poignantly, the difficulty of preparing a competent cadre of teaching staff capable of teaching in Arabic.

Participants in the Conference convened in Doha from as far afield as Morocco, as far north as Syria and as far south as Sudan and Yemen, for three days of involved academic discussions about issues of language and identity, alongside the other topics. None reported having problems having difficulty understanding each other.

—-* For an example of such a discussion, see Mahmod Athawdi and “The Tunisian Revolution: whither the sovereignty of the Arabic language?” which was translated into English and published on the ACRPS website in July of 2011.—–end

Short but well explained and it does serve as an introduction to the subject as a whole for interested researchers. I thought it would make a good part for my post this time round….I hope you enjoyed reading it and comments are always welcome (the constructive kind). I am still waiting for my second author on the Pioneers of Arabic posts like the one I did for Noura Al Nouman…so please bear with me I have not forgotten.

Source: http://english.dohainstitute.org/Home/Details?entityID=f4c16d5a-893e-4b10-bce4-fda7bb6493c7&resourceId=eea8c65e-6193-445a-9928-4b14a438c859

“Arabic language has not been developed since the fall of the Ottomans”! A translation

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.
Translation: Part 2 (Arabiologia)– 
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!”.
————end
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.

Writing & the revitalisation of Arabic through sci-fi: why the future of Arabic is bright? Part 2

The Qur'an was one of the first major works of...

In this second and final part of the interview, I focus the commentary on the situation of Arabic language and its use today and what it will be like in the future. Thank you for the emails and comments sent in about the post, I am glad some of you enjoyed the change in the blog. Below are the interview notes, and after that some commentary.

—–

6.Being that this is a new genre in Arabic literature, what struggles if any did you face during the writing stage? I had no point of reference when it came to writing fiction in Arabic. When I talk about Arab YA not finding it easy to read Arabic fiction, I am actually also including myself. I don’t feel comfortable reading Arabic fiction, it’s almost always about what goes on in the head of a character. The language, the style, so self-engaged and verbose. Sure, there are youths who like it; but more and more youths who are put off by it. It just doesn’t go anywhere, and in this age where movies and video games are so fast paced, who wants to spend time in the head of an insignificant character who is struggling with something inside of him and the story ends inside his head? It’s not even written for YA, it’s for adults.

My biggest challenge was how to start it – no Arabic creative writing workshop was available and certainly nothing for this genre. What were the Arabic words for the huge volume of terminology invented and well established by Anglo-American SF heavily used in books and movies? And the clincher was: if action words were the main tools of moving the plot forward, and I didn’t read much Arabic where there were a lot of action words, how do I do that in Arabic? Days were spent on taking pictures of things and sending them to friends to ask: what do you call this in MSA? One example was: “Hey, you know when you get scared, and your hand instantly goes to your throat? What’s that area called in Arabic?” After long debate, the verdict was: “na7r”. Another example: “How do you write “she clicked her tongue” in Arabic?” – that was more difficult. I ended up with: “a9darat 9owtan bifamiha yaddulu 3ala al2istiya2.” Yes, really! Such hurdles cost me days and weeks of writing.

7. The one question I really want to ask you is, did you make up new words? If so how?

Such opportunities kept cropping up from time to time. Ajwan (the main character) is an “Empath”. She has the awkward ability of being able to feel exactly what other people are feeling as if it is actually happening to her. I asked Ashraf Al Fagih, a Saudi author (Sci- Fi short stories) how he would translate it. He suggested “istish3ar” – that is not exactly an invention; but it is a new use of the Arabic word. I’ve struggled with traveling by space gates and worm holes, not to mention communication devices and other tools. Thankfully, there is a bit of that in subtitles of movies; but not nearly enough. In book 2 of “Ajwan”, I did get to finally “invent” a word. One character in the opening scene was using an anti-gravity bike (darajah meghnatisiyeh is what I could think of).. then I thought what an idiotic name.. so I mixed it up and came up with “meghrajah” (that is not to say it is ideal; but it’s a start). I am in chapter 2, so I am sure a new challenge will soon present itself.

8.Some people might say that your book promotes non-Arabic (traditionalist) ideas, is that a fair statement? (Given that this is a new genre, I presume you had no examples from Arabic books for young people).

Well, Ajwan is from another planet, and she breathes water too. Her name is Arab; but she isn’t. She comes from a peaceful, very conservative society; but is soon thrust into the reality of a huge universe which doesn’t live by the rules and traditions of her society. She has to live in the real world – something which our youth are finding out about now that our world has become a small village. They are taught a lot of ideals; but within a few years they discover that the rest of the world – the movers and shakers, don’t live by those ideals and this shocks them. It either turns them into extremists who want to impose these ideals on everyone else, or they become like everyone else and go with the flow. In both cases, they realize how naïve they were and perhaps even accuse their parents of being hypocrites. The reason why YA in the rest of the world love dystopian fiction is because it is real. It’s not the Little Mermaid or Snow White. They understand the world much more than we give them credit for, and trying to shelter them from all of it is not going to work beyond a certain age. It is the parents’ job to instill traditions in their children, so that when they grow up and read non-traditional material, they are already grounded and know what’s right and wrong and can enjoy the fiction, without other factors getting in the way.

 9.How do you ensure your book appeals to young Arabs? In reference to culture and language, but also in keeping up with trends in the English books they read?

This is a very important point for all authors of Arab YA fiction. Our youth live in a world where the Internet has given them access to just about anything we can think of, and beyond. They no longer wait at home for mommy and daddy to bring them books – they download them on their iPads. Language may have been a source of pride and identity for us; but to them it is a tool. Kids perceive tools as useful things which get them what they want. If the tool is broken or not up to date, they move on to another tool. They have no reverence towards old things the way we did. My expensive laptop is no longer working, buy me a new one, and then no one even knows where the old one was stowed away. Arabic and English are languages they use to get something else. Whatever gets them the most becomes their favorite “thing”. Once it no longer serves its uses, it is discarded like an old laptop. We have to constantly see what is grabbing their attention, and use that to provide them with the content we want them to see or read. If Arabic is becoming inaccessible, then we need to see how to make it more interesting. We can’t waste time crying over the loss of Arabic, our kids have moved on. We need to create content which competes with what is out there, so YA would deign to look at. I am trying to do that by writing in a genre which is almost non-existent in Arabic. That may grab their attention. It is in an easy form of Arabic – according to my 16-year-old daughters who told me: “this is not the Arabic they use in school. That one I don’t get at all!”

10.How do you see the future of Arabic in the UAE and the Gulf in general?

I think there is a consensus now that we’ve come to a point where enough is enough. Although the adults are all blaming the kids for their awful Arabic, they are also making the right noises which will force the Ministry of Education to look differently at the way it creates Arabic syllabus. Moreover, publishers are taking note and have started looking at YA as a huge segment completely different from children. I am also seeing more and more people finally realizing that at some point in the past Arabic was denied the right to evolve like other languages, and that linking it to sacred text (Qur’an) has harmed it considerably. So basically, it is a great time to be an author for Arabic YA fiction.

11. A personal question, how did you keep up your Arabic (I mean it’s no small feat to write a novel entirely in Arabic) and learn English proficiently at the same time? What can others learn from you?

Confession, my Arabic is not so great. It is enough to write for YA. Arab authors who have read Ajwan have commented on my simple style. However, I do owe it all to translation studies. If it were not for the fact that I studied under Dr. Basil Hatim at AUS in the early 2000s, I would not have been drawn back to Arabic, its beauty and its importance. It is never too late to start reading in Arabic – you automatically start acquiring new vocabulary and style. You can approach it like others have approached English. It’s a language, it has literature and that’s how you learn it. How else did I learn English?

12. My blog Arabizi© is about the situation of Arabic and how speakers use it, what would you say to those who say Arabic is dying amongst Arabic speakers today?

I am not sure why they say it is dying. There are 22 countries which produce Arabic books (and a stream of Arabic media every single day). Exactly how does one succeed in killing such a language, or dismissing that much content?! The important thing is that we do not sit on our laurels (?) and say here is Arabic, come and get it. The youth segment in the Arab world is huge and their attention span is miniscule; we need to continuously engage them with the right kind of stimuli so they love Arabic, protect it, contribute to its evolution, and pass it on to the next generation of shorter-attention span. Thank God that particular generation won’t be my problem!——–end

Interesting points raised here in the answers and this second part of the interview was my favourite because as Noura says I made “her think” about the process from a different perspective- a linguistic one. The issue of writing any type of literature is always governed by the audience for whom the text is being prepared for, and so issues of culture always come up. It would seem so far that Noura has dealt with these issues well and managed to produce a piece of writing that is novel yet in keeping with the readers’ cultural preferences.  Noura has in fact in the last week signed her contract with the publishers….congratulations Noura..now the world awaits!

The most interesting thing for me here is this creation/merging/coining of new words to express a new experience that the Arabic literature does not really contain. This is not  blaming the literature itself, for we all know that at different stages of the evolution of Arabic language and literature new words were made, even borrowed from other languages. But these new words represent whole new concepts that were until very recently absent in Arabic literature, typical sci-fi concepts and fantastic descriptions of other planets require a different type of vocabulary perhaps? It seems Noura is creating words because she is not satisfied with the current available expressions, this is both creative and exciting. If this picks up and these words are used by other authors in the future to write about sci-fi in Arabic, then it would be a great achievement and a huge step towards the revival of Arabic language (in the Gibran sense a process often referred to as neologism).

The second bit of the interview that caught my attention was the analysis of the situation of Arabic and the question of its death or demise. Noura maintains that the Arabic language is not being lost, not with the amount of material out there, or with the fact that 22 countries use it as their official (apparently) language. She does however acknowledge that something must be done to get the youth interested in the language (not in the communication sense but in the preservation sense) and that the education system and publishers are working hard to ensure Arabic becomes more practical for the youth to use. Good points raised and yet the same conclusion, something needs to be done if Arabic language is to enjoy an equal status with English (see previous post on bilingualism the UAE) because books of Arabic will always be there, we have books today in Arabic spanning 13 centuries but we can only access them with the right knowledge of Arabic. What will the Arab world look like in 50 years time if all the young people chose to read in English only? Knowledge of Arabic language will be the exception not the rule, and worse still in a hundred years it might be like what Latin is to English today. Yes…yes… yes I am quoting the worst case scenario, but you do not need to burn books to make people forget or lose their language (the Mongols did that in Damascus and Baghdad but that did not change anything because) as long as people know the importance of their language they will start over and even improve the way they use it. In specific reference to the UAE, I am sure the founding father and late leader Shaykh Zayed Al Nahyan would frown at the prospect that Arabic language is slowly being lost in his country when he was a champion of the Arabic. He encouraged people to learn their history and language and he would famously say that without those two (knowledge of a people’s language and history) a nation has no prosperous or meaningful future. He was no linguist but knew the value and symbolism of a person’s language, especially in today’s globalised world.

I agree with Noura that one of the reasons that Arabic language and/or literature has stagnated for a long time is this boxed in view that because Arabic is also the language of the Qur’an we are restricted in how we use it. What’s important is that the Qur’anic text itself is sacred, and the language is sacred, but it is also a language of a people. It therefore needs to be practical and easy to use, it should also be used in its highest forms in literature (which it was esp. in the 12/13th century and with superb results, new genres were created, new forms were made then it all stopped and many authors have just been in awe of the old, which is not all bad in a situation where the language is evolving well). Arabic must be ready to take on new concepts and new ideas in a new world with new problems and new challenges, the core will always remain the same but the language must be renewed in order for its speakers to have faith in using it to express their feelings, fears, aspirations, anger and hope.

Review of Ajwan: This is a very short section and highly speculative since I have only read two excerpts…I hope I will do the short sections some justice of course I will only comment on the language (since that was the whole idea of the interview).

The language I would say is easy not as complicated/complex as say Mahfouz (this is taking into consideration young people), the sentences flow easily and the whole picture comes together really well. The once thing I loved the most in the excerpts is the eye to detail Noura has, the description of small ants, sticks, posture of characters, of what something/someone looks like, the environment, the air, how Ajwan rests her head on a tree, how she takes a deep breath… you feel like you are there with her! There is also a description of the feelings of the characters, how they deal with certain events and the reader empathises with them. Action packed sections are fast paced though ironically descriptive and you move with the story and characters, and I think at times you are also surprised like they are at the outcome of certain events so perhaps that’s what brings the text to life?  Although Noura says she is not good at Arabic, I read it all understood it and got hooked on the book…so that to me was good. That’s all I can say for now…I hope the publishing goes well and I am sure many people are waiting for the book. Thanks to Noura once again and thanks for reading….my next post I hope will be a translation of an Arabic article discussing the current situation of Arabic and then I will post interview two with another author.

Writing & the revitalisation of Arabic through Sci-fi: why the future of Arabic is bright? Part 1

 Arabic language is going through many changes, like all other languages do all the time, but the case of Arabic is a unique one.  It is a diglossic language (see Ferguson 1959 and this) whereby it has one main language broken roughly into two main categories and each with its function. The FuSHa (Classical Arabic) is used for religious, and official uses (though some linguists see Arabic as a tri-glossic even quadra-glossic language! But that’s another story for another post). Then there is the ‘Ammiyah or ‘maHkee’ (informal/ spoken) which has perhaps over 30 dialects (even more if you count tribal dialects, and city vs. countryside, speakers of different socio-economic backgrounds) which spread over 22 countries whose official (supposed) language is Arabic. For some Arabic language researchers like myself, there is a feeling that Arabic language is stagnating (and has done so for a long while) and that those who claim it to be their native language will perhaps one day in the near future lose it (my work here with other authors documenting the fears speakers of Arabic language have over the loss of their language). I know I have been criticized in lengthy emails about my opinion, but based on my limited research carried out on native speakers, I found the Arabic proficiency levels to be even lower than I had imagined. What was even more shocking was that speakers of other languages (Hindi, Urdu, Uzbek, Turkish, Malaysian) were learning Arabic at more proficient levels (comparison based on age and education level, and these non-Arabic kids were learning in addition to their native language and Arabic, English) and were able to read and write with an ability that amazed me (there are schools in India that teach using Arabic as a medium of instruction, FuSHa Arabic!) no seriously…. really.

I started reading around and thinking about the whole issue and I came across many different suggestions, but an excerpt written by Gibran Khalil Gibran, which I posted in the last post here on Arabizi caught my eye. In this excerpt, without repeating what I said before, he suggested that the only way Arabic is to be revived is through the creativity of its writers and poets- because they are masters of the language. I went on a search for exciting authors writing in Arabic about modern issues/ new genres and using language in new creative ways, in a bid to investigate he idea that creativity is the way forward (my research is still ongoing so no firm conclusions yet). I do not dismiss writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Hisham Matar, Ilyas Khoury (for more info on Arabic literature follow this blog) and others, and I have spent countless hours enjoying their writing and being transported into their different worlds. They do it for people who already love reading and can read well in Arabic, and for people like myself who love the challenge of translating or musing through the dictionary and being fascinated by lovely new words.  But I was looking for writing aimed at young people, a book(s) that might potentially have a similar genre in English, because then the author (s) would be pressed to write at such a creative level if they were to compete with their English-language counterparts; and get young people reading. Importantly, reading in Arabic and enjoying the story enough to feel pleased that they can read new concepts in their own language. I imagined these authors crafting new words, getting frustrated at not finding the adequate expressions in Arabic, and then creating new expressions and words (of course within the rules of Arabic, I was not looking for the equivalent of internet to be transliterated as ‘intar-nit’). I wanted creativity, innovation and a deep understanding of the Arabic language, to the point that the writer could spend days/months coming up with these novel expressions! I did eventually find some potential authors and subsequently wrote to them asking for interviews and they kindly obliged.I chose to focus on writers of young adults/children because they are the next generation of readers and of course speakers of Arabic. So the next four posts (broken into part 1 and 2 respectively) will discuss these issues in interview-commentary format of two authors- answering roughly the same questions. This is the theme for the Pioneers of Arabic language today©…. if you know any others please email me and I’ll do my best to interview them.

The first author is an Emarati, Noura Al Noman, who gained her BA English Literature from the UAEU (university of United Arab Emirates), the only university available for higher education at the time. She went on to work at a government school until 1991; and later for the Ministry of Information, a job she enjoyed saying, “ being paid to read books all day has got to be the best job in the world!” From 1996 onwards, she ran what she calls “…my one-woman “legal translation” business, after having acquired a license from the Ministry of Justice – I would not be exaggerating if I said I was the only female Emirati at the time to have such a business”. Her love for words and languages did not stop there, and she went on to obtain a Masters in translation in 2004, from AUS (American University in Sharjah). It’s clear to see the passion here and that what she in fact was doing would be in preparation for her to publish books in Arabic, some years later- even though at the time she did not realize it. You can see her blog here for more information.

She is the author of a two volume sci-fi book called “Ajwan”, which is a first for a modern author (as far as I know) aimed specifically at young adults (YA). It is often said that the first person in the history of Arabic literature to write science fiction was the great Syrian Ibn An-Nafees, in his book titled: ‘Ar-risaalah al kamiliyyah fil sierra an nabawiyyah’, which is also said to be the first theological novel. Some stories in the One thousand and one nights are also said to be sci-fi in genre, with jinns, flying carpets, exploring different worlds etc… There are other authors who have ventured into this paranormal genre such as Rym Ghazal who recently authored “Maskoon” a paranormal novel (which I have not read, but did write about on this blog) and earlier the Egyptian Nihad Shareef often called the father of Arabic sci-fi (you can read his books here in Arabic: http://www.neelwafurat.com/itempage.aspx?id=egb111551-5166710&search=books). But I think what’s different about ‘Ajwan’ is that it’s written in a post-Harry Potter modern-technologically-advanced-complicated world…. it’s clear to see the challenge of writing a book that will attract that impressionable age group.

Right I better start with the interview before you all get frustrated, in this first part I will put up five of the ten questions I asked her and add my commentary. Please feel free to email, comment on the post and both Noura and myself will be glad to reply.

—- Start (I have not edited any of Noura’s answers)

1. Why did you choose to write?

I’ve always been writing or translating, ever since I was in university.  A few years ago I started writing movie reviews for a local magazine, and people told me I had a very easy straightforward style of writing in Arabic – I think it was their way of saying that it was simplistic! But Al Qutta Qetna was written completely by accident as it took me 10 minutes to write about a subject I loved – cats and friendships. When that worked out, I recalled an incident which happened at our home, and also wrote “Al Qunfuth Kiwi”.  I discovered a long time ago that I can only write about things which I know and I am passionate about. I just didn’t know I can get published for it.

2. Are the youth in the Emirates struggling with their knowledge of Arabic language?  (If so, why? If not, how?)

Yes, and I am not sure exactly when this started. It is important to note here that not all the youth of the UAE can be lumped into one segment. UAE citizens are less than one million in a population of almost 8 million.  That one million is made up of a huge percentage of under 18 year olds – as far as the last statistics show. There are at least two segments: those who have received education in only government schools (read: bad education in all subjects in Arabic, and low-level English), and those who are educated at private schools (moderate to good education, where English is used for all subjects, while Arabic is the govt syllabus – pretty bad, taught by Arabs who have had little to no training in education.) The govt syllabus gets revamped almost every year, and there is no national educational strategy. If an “enemy” of the Arabic language were given the chance to destroy it, he would not have had the same success as our educational system.

There is no real research done on the subject; but if you look at media/social media coverage on the issue, you’d surmise that the youth have lost touch with Arabic (al fuSHa). It is simply the language of school text books and they consider grammar as complicated as quantum physics. The youth only use our dialect, and what is now known as Arabizi (for those who know a fair amount of English). Adults blame the youth and the educational system, while the youth are busy doing more interesting things and cannot be bothered to even discuss the subject. They don’t read Arabic outside of the classroom, and those who are interested in reading only read English novels.

3. Why did you choose to write sci-fi, as opposed to adventure or crime?

I’ve loved SF & fantasy since I was a teen, and have been heavily influenced by the genre(s) before I moved on to read other things (horror, thrillers, crime, etc). SF is almost non-existent in the Arab world; and yet you can see how popular it is when a movie is released in the theaters. I’ve heard that an author should write about what he knows and is passionate about if he is to convince the reader, and I know SF. In it, you get to construct new worlds and make the rules governing them, which can be anything your imagination can come up with – unlike crime or other genres where the real world may limit you.

Plus, it is great to write SF where you have little to no competition. Everything written in the genre after that will be compared to what I write today. Kind of cool, I thin

4.  Your book is in Arabic- which type? Emarati, modern standard or classical (FuSHa)? Why that type of Arabic?

Writing in the Emirati dialect would have been very difficult as my aim was to promote Arabic reading for YA, and there are a lot of people who warn against the pitfall of “aamiyya”. I wrote in the Arabic I know, which I guess could be categorized as MSA as opposed to the flowery, often compact text of FuSHa. It didn’t take a lot of effort on my part to write an easy text, as this is the only Arabic I know, to tell you the truth. I have attached to this email an excerpt to see what I mean.

5.  Why did you make the conscious choice to write in Arabic? You could have written a culturally friendly Arabic-themed novel in English.

Because of my love for books, I had acquired a fair-sized library (more or less since I was a teenager – I have lost a couple of hundred to moving or loaning to friends). My six children grew up looking at my library and then taking some of them to read. After every book, they would come back and ask me to recommend more. Needless to say, this was thrilling for me, because none of my adult friends ever read my books (with the exception of one), and I never had a chance to discuss my favorites with anyone. But I didn’t like the deficit in Arabic books for YA, and my husband and I looked around but didn’t find anything which could ever compete with what I had on my book shelves. My husband had often encouraged me to write a “novel” and I have always laughed at the thought. But in 2009, I began writing, knowing that my Arabic would never be good enough; but at the same time keeping in mind what kind of Arabic is out there which no YA would like to read. There are a million English SF books out there; but how many in Arabic?  What a great opportunity to be a “trail blazer”. Alright, I’ll admit it too – my self-esteem could never take the comparison ———-end

It was great to get an insight into the situation of Arabic in the UAE, from someone who had gone through the education system, taught in its schools, worked in the government, and is a translator. We can see the reiteration of the observation that formal Arabic is hard for young people to grasp, but what Noura has done is written in that formal Arabic, but with new concepts. So perhaps through such attempts we can say that the future of Arabic is bright? Making this language accessible to its younger speakers and if more authors venture into new genres and aim their writing at young people perhaps there will be a renewed interest in Arabic language… who knows? I’ll post part 2 in the next two weeks, that will give you time to read (and respond if you wish to) this first part. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview and was awestruck at some of the things I learned not just about Noura but also about the situation of Arabic language in the UAE specifically. Stay tuned for part two……and a review of an excerpt I read from Ajwan!

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See also: http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/books/science-fiction-for-young-adults-expands-in-the-uae

http://www.innerbrat.org/Andyf/Articles/Diglossia/digl_96.htm

Ferguson, C (1959) (1959). “Diglossia”. Word 15: 325–340.

Top 10 Reasons to Learn Arabic!

English: The 'dad' arabic letter : Emblem of a...

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In recent months many people have asked I write something on the reasons why Arabic should be learned. Ashley Burke, at the Arab Academy (which teaches Arabic) has kindly written a short post on the top reasons to learn Arabic… I hope it is helpful, there are really good points he makes I have pasted it below…thanks Ashley.

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Learning a foreign language is much more than just studying it. There are many other things you will gain along the way. A language that will beneficial for you to learn is Arabic and there are many different ways you can learn this prosperous language. You can take an online Arabic course, study abroad; take an Arabic course in college or team up with an Arabic speaking buddy. Here are 10 reasons why you should learn this underrated language:

  1. Arabic is the 5th most spoken language of the world. You will be able to communicate with people from more than 20 different native- Arabic speaking counties. Arabs feel honored when you try to learn their language.
  2. You can make money by learning the Arabic language. The economy in the Middle East is growing and Arab business culture is all about personal relationships. Knowing Arabic will get you ahead in a thriving economy and give you a better understanding of how to invest in the sharia banking system.
  3. You will gain a bigger perspective on the world we live in. You will learn how we are all connected and better understand the culture, background and traditions of Arabic- speaking countries.
  4. Learning Arabic will help you better understand Islam. Arabic is a tool that will help you learn about the Quran and Muslim culture.
  5. You’ll impress the people around you. Knowing any foreign language is impressive and a language like Arabic is extra exotic and interesting.
  6. You will become indispensable if you learn Arabic. You will set yourself apart in the business world by learning Arabic and become invaluable to your company because there will be no need for a translator anymore.
  7. Learning Arabic will improve your memory. Learning a foreign language will keep your brain and memory sharp because it’s very challenging.
  8. You will have fun. You will learn a different type of humor and how people communicate in addition to new food, music and ways of life.
  9. You will open opportunities to travel. By learning even a little bit of Arabic will give you the ability to travel to the Middle East and North Africa.
  10. You will achieve a hard goal. No one said it would be easy, they just said it would be worth it. Learning Arabic will be extremely rewarding and your confidence will sky rocket.

Author Bio: Arab Academy is a leading online provider of Arabic courses and learning. In addition to online courses Arab Academy offers study abroad options and offers courses at their Egypt location Deraya University.

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Disclaimer:  You can learn Arabic from other providers it does not have to be this one, Arab academy is an example of hundreds of Arabic language teaching institutes.

Arabic must be the focus in pursuit of ‘true’ bilingualism in the UAE: Why a serious language policy is needed

العربية: لوحة التوقّف في دولة الإمارات العربية...

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Thank you for all recent comments and emails, I am glad Arabizi is playing a role in getting people to think about Arabic in new ways. Below I have pasted an article from the National, written by Dr. Ahmad al Issa and it superbly summarises the situation of Arabic in the Emirates. He raises excellent points about the danger Arabic is in, in the Arab world generally but more specifically in the UAE. WIth his experience and knowledge of how languages are taught around the world this article is a must-read for those wanting to understand the frustrations of linguists and educators when it comes to their fears over the demise of Arabic language. I don’t need to make many points it’s all nicely put below….your comments on this topic specifically are very welcome…enjoy the read…

—————–start

Recent articles in The National have discussed and debated the role of English in the UAE, and highlighted concerns with the place of Arabic in this diverse nation. Government officials say they hope to implement bilingual education earlier to help students improve their English language proficiency, and ease their transitions into universities where English is typically the language of instruction.

The idea of bilingual education is sound in principle. However, any language policy promoting bilingualism must be well thought out. It is important that language policies introducing bilingual education be done with an intensely balanced emphasis on both languages. True bilingualism can be achieved, but the method of instruction, and the attention and status each language receives in the classroom, matters. Simply introducing a new language earlier in a child’s education is not necessarily the best way to attain a multilingual population.

No one disagrees that English is today’s lingua franca; it is a global language that most people require in order to get ahead. Yet for children and students to gain a strong balance between their languages they must first have a very firm grasp of their mother tongue at an early age.

With Arabic in the UAE, this is not always the case.

Research has shown that students who are taught core subjects, like maths and sciences, in their native language understand the material better and become stronger communicators. Take the example of Finland, which has the highest literacy rate in Europe but whose children do not start learning English until they are seven or eight years old. English in Finland is taught as a foreign language, not a second language.

In the UAE there is the further notion that native speakers of English are best suited to teach the language. But there are many well-trained English language teachers here who are native speakers of Arabic and fluent in English. Unfortunately, they are often overlooked in favour of native speakers of English. This is an out-dated notion that has been discarded by most scholars.

When it is said that parents want their children to learn English, one has to ask how the parents were consulted. Do parents really have any option? The combination of the language policies of the country, the fact that English is the medium of instruction in higher education, and the fact that they see English as a pathway to success, all lead parents to seek out the best for their children.

One must also question if parents are aware of possible detrimental effects of English at such an early age. If students are over-exposed to English and its colourful books and exciting methodologies, their interest in Arabic can be diminished. Certainly, people will continue to speak Arabic, but fluent classical or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) will become a language of the past.

The book Global English and Arabic: Issues of Language, Culture and Identity marks the latest warning regarding the status of Arabic. Researchers from the Arab world and beyond report growing apprehension over the role of Arabic in the Arab world generally, and in the Gulf and UAE specifically.

To be sure, there will always be those who stand firm in their belief that classical Arabic will never be reduced or lost in the Arab world due to its central role in Islam and being the language of the Quran. However, no matter how hard they attempt to make their case it does not stand up to serious scrutiny. If we view language as a standard bearer of identity, then the gradual loss of Arabic in the UAE is a serious problem in need of immediate attention.

There is hope that the roots of Arab linguistic history can be salvaged. But language policy needs to be well thought out; linguists and specialists from the UAE and surrounding Arab nations need to be involved in crafting smarter ways of incorporating Arabic instruction into our classrooms . This is not a job for foreign consultants alone. Our pupils need to know as many languages as they can or desire, but it should not be at the expense of their mother tongue.

Much as identity characterises people, native languages are of great importance in defining people. For the Emirati identity to remain strong, Arabic proficiency must be maintained.

Ahmad Al-Issa is an associate professor of English and linguistics at the American University of Sharjah—end

Action needs to be taken, other countries have done so without infringing on their mother tongues and are still able to provide their students with high quality education at international standards. English is vital and needed in today’s world, but native languages surely have a place too right?

Source: http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/arabic-must-be-the-focus-in-pursuit-of-true-bilingualism