The teaching of the Arabic language or the education policy on teaching Arabic is often criticised for its rigid and removed approach in the way language is taught to native speakers of Arabic. It is often difficult for a child to leave the classroom and apply their learned Arabic with those he/she meets (of course there are reasons for this which we have discussed in other previous posts due to other factors, but the fact remains that the language policy needs to change). In the post below the author identities many important issues that affect Arabic language proficiency among native speakers and he predicts that Arabic language will die out soon if Arabic does not go beyond the classroom door and social attitudes do not change. It is pasted below without editing……
Arabic will die out if it is locked up in classrooms
In his inaugural address to parliament last December, the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri kept mispronouncing words and whole phrases in Arabic, smirking the entire time.
Not only did the Georgetown-educated, English-speaking Mr Hariri laugh at his mistakes, but he also cackled when Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament, asked him if he needed someone to help him out.
Being bad at Arabic is almost like being bad at an obscure sport, say croquet: no one particularly cares if you fail to grasp the quaint and overly complex techniques needed for mastery of the subject.
In Lebanon, French is the language of the learned and the sophisticated. The same is true in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and other former French colonies in the Arab world. Failing to speak proper French in those countries is a handicap in professional and social life.
In some circles, it is fashionable to make mistakes in modern standard Arabic and rather chic to be unacquainted with the meaning of a word or expression. In Morocco, the French word francisant, (French-educated) has a positive connotation. If you are francisant, it does not matter if you cannot speak Arabic. The preposterous part is that a so-called Arabist does not get away with the same glory-in-incompetence should their French leave something to be desired.
Fluency in French and English in the Middle East and North Africa has come to imply intelligence, erudition and even affluence, even if that person struggles with Arabic.
Many Arabs feel that speaking modern standard Arabic, the form of the language taught at school, is something of a burdensome, if not embarrassing, endeavour. It is not the local dialect that they use at home and on the street, which they speak with ease.
Proficiency in Arabic, proper grammar, conjugation and a broad use of vocabulary are seen as the sole purview of language geeks. It is bizarre that they are looked down upon, while those Arabs who spent time ploughing through Chaucer and Coleridge, Rabelais and Pascal to become proficient in English and French are respected.
What has happened that once-proud Arabs, who once would kill or be killed for a single verse of poetry, gauge their level of intelligence by how little they know of their mother tongue? Perhaps, it is because true Arabic is no longer their mother tongue.
It is an obvious, if little known fact that modern standard Arabic is no longer anybody’s mother tongue. No one in the world speaks it as a native language. The 350 million people spread across the 22 Arab states learn this language in school in the same way they might learn French or English. They make horrendous mistakes when they write, read or speak it. Even many Arab Muslim senior citizens can barely understand a sentence of a Friday sermon because the preacher delivers his lecture in modern standard Arabic.
All Arabs know Arabic, but a Tunisian speaks Tunisian, a Libyan speaks Libyan, and an Egyptian speaks Egyptian. None of these is “proper” Arabic. Countless Arabs find that their friends from Morocco and Algeria may as well be speaking Greek when they speak in their native dialects.
True, these derivative languages bear a close resemblance to Arabic, but they are not, strictly speaking, Arabic. The extent to which they differ from pure Arabic is far greater than the comparitively minor difference between Kenyan and Scottish English.
A native tongue is – and some linguists may wish to differ – a language that you speak fluently. It is a language that defines who you are. No one faults an American or a Briton for the differences in their use of the English language. It is just how they speak and their distinct dialect defines them.
Arabs should not be asked to speak like the 10th-century poet Abu Tayyib al Mutanabbi. No one should expect English speakers to speak like Milton either. It is futile and fails to serve the ultimate purpose of language: ease of communication.
Languages die when they become stagnant. Latin has almost died out precisely because it was locked up in church bookshelves. Arabic, with its elasticity, rhetorical treasures and axiomatic wealth may suffer the same fate if its use is restricted to the classroom, the mosque, and the halls of government.
Arabic deserves a greater chance of survival than what it is currently being offered. Occasional events celebrating it will not push it into every day life. The language must get back in touch with the most mundane aspects of our lives. It must be allowed to grow and change, given room to breathe and stretch its legs out on the streets. Otherwise it will shrivel and die.
If you’re an Arab, ask yourself: how do you say “zipper” in your supposed mother tongue?
I don’t think there is anything for me to add to the article, except to say that these issues he has brought up will always affect Arabic language if nothing is done to help the situation and improve it. It may seem negative and very pessimistic but anyone who speaks Arabic knows that everything raised in the article is precise and not exaggerated- Arabs no longer feel proud of their own language! But those who do, are few and love it with a passion that pushes them to master it. But if they were to bring this passion to their friends they would be ridiculed and their only option may be to join an old Arabic club- which is mostly boring, archaic and very uninteresting. A language is not an object that can be fixed and mended from the outside, it needs nurturing and fixing from the inside, in this case by its speakers so that it can become a language of everyday use. I mean here not a code-switched, code-mixed, ungrammatical version of Arabic, but a grammatical version- one where a speaker can write without fear and can speak without mistakes. This does not mean I am against ‘ammiyyah (spoken Arabic) that would be denying an important part of Arabic speakers’ linguistic identities, I just think if one claims to speak a language they should work to master it in its important versions. We will always talk about this for a long time to come….. Comments are welcome as always…. thanks for stopping by.
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!
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…
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
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.
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!
This second part of the post is much more provoking and may anger some readers because of the analysis Franck makes as to why the Arabic language is in the situation it finds itself in today. But like any researcher he has to explore all the possible reasons and possible “solutions” to the problem and do so in a constructive manner. The Arabic language has a unique, complex and complicated linguistic situation wherever it exists as a “native language”; and because of this, in the postcolonial globalized era the language loss/shift debate is further complicated. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did and that it gets the minds of sociolinguists or those interested in Arabic to think on a much deeper less defensive level about the way in which we use Arabic today.—–start
Foreign imposition or self affliction?
Playing into the hands of keepers of the Arab nationalist canon—as well as Arabists and lobbyists working on behalf of the Arabic language today—the AP article adopted the cliché that the decline of Arabic—like the failure of Arab nationalism—was the outcome of Western linguistic intrusions and the insidious, colonialist impulses of globalization. “Many Lebanese pride themselves on being fluent in French—a legacy of French colonial rule,” Karam wrote, rendering a mere quarter-century of French mandatory presence in Lebanon (1920-46) into a period of classical-style “French colonial rule” that had allegedly destroyed the foundations of the Arabic language in the country and turned the Lebanese subalterns into imitative Francophones denuded of their putative Arab personality. Alas, this fashionable fad fails to take into account that French colonialism in its Lebanese context differed markedly from France’s colonial experience elsewhere. For one, the founding fathers of modern Lebanon lobbied vigorously for turning their post-Ottoman mountain Sanjak into a French protectorate after World War I. And with regard to the Lebanese allegedly privileging the French language, that too, according to Selim Abou, seems to have hardly been a colonialist throwback and an outcome of early twentieth-century French imperialism. In his 1962 Le binlinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban, Abou wrote that the French language (or early Latin variants of what later became French) entered Mount-Lebanon and the Eastern Mediterranean littoral at the time of the first Crusades (ca. 1099). Centuries later, the establishment of the Maronite College in Rome (1584) and the liberal (pro-Christian) policies of then Mount-Lebanon’s Druze ruler, Fakhreddine II (1572-1635), allowed the Maronites to further strengthen their religious and their religion’s ancillary cultural and linguistic ties to Rome, Europe, and especially France—then, still the “elder daughter” of the Catholic Church. This unleashed a wave of missionary work to Lebanon—and wherever Eastern Christianity dared flaunt its specificity—and eventually led to the founding of schools tending to the educational needs of the Christian—namely Maronite—communities of the region. Although foundational courses in Arabic and Syriac were generally taught at those missionary schools, European languages including French, Italian, and German were also part of the regular curriculum. French, therefore, can be argued to have had an older pedigree in Lebanon than suggested by Karam. And contrary to the classical norms in the expansion and transmission of imperial languages—the spread of Arabic included—which often entailed conquests, massacres, and cultural suppression campaigns, the French language can be said to have been adopted willingly by the Lebanese through “seduction” not “subjection.” It is true that many Lebanese, and Middle Easterners more generally, are today steering clear of Arabic in alarming numbers, but contrary to AP’s claim, this routing of Arabic is not mainly due to Western influence and cultural encroachments—though the West could share some of the blame; rather, it can be attributed, even if only partially, to MSA’s retrogression, difficulty, and most importantly perhaps, to the fact that this form of Arabic is largely a learned, cultic, ceremonial, and literary language, which is never acquired natively, never spoken natively, and which seems locked in an uphill struggle for relevance against sundry spontaneous, dynamic, natively-spoken, vernacular languages. Taha Hussein ascribed the decay and abnegation of the Arabic language primarily to its “inability of expressing the depths of one’s feelings in this new age.” He wrote in 1956 that MSA is difficult and grim, and the pupil who goes to school in order to study Arabic acquires only revulsion for his teacher and for the language, and employs his time in pursuit of any other occupations that would divert and soothe his thoughts away from this arduous effort … Pupils hate nothing more than they hate studying Arabic.
Yet, irreverent as they had been in shunning Arabic linguistic autocracy and fostering a lively debate on MSA and multilingualism, Lebanon and Egypt and their Arabic travails are hardly uncommon in today’s Middle East. From Israel to Qatar and from Abu Dhabi to Kuwait, modern Middle Eastern nations that make use of some form of Arabic have had to come face to face with the challenges hurled at their hermetic MSA and are impelled to respond to the onslaught of impending polyglotism and linguistic humanism borne by the lures of globalization. In a recent article published in Israel’s liberal daily Ha’aretz, acclaimed Druze poet and academic Salman Masalha called on Israel’s Education Ministry to do away with the country’s public school system’s Arabic curricula and demanded its replacement with Hebrew and English course modules. Arabophone Israelis taught Arabic at school, like Arabophones throughout the Middle East, were actually taught a foreign tongue misleadingly termed Arabic, wrote Masalha
The mother tongue [that people] speak at home is totally different from the … Arabic [they learn] at school; [a situation] that perpetuates linguistic superficiality [and] leads to intellectual superficiality … It’s not by chance that not one Arab university is [ranked] among the world’s best 500 universities. This finding has nothing to do with Zionism.
Masalha’s is not a lone voice. The abstruseness of Arabic and the stunted achievements of those monolingual Arabophones constrained to acquire modern knowledge by way of Modern Standard Arabic have been indicted in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development reports—a series of reports written by Arabs and for the benefit of Arabs—since the year 2002. To wit, the 2003 report noted that the Arabic language is struggling to meet the challenges of modern times[and] is facing [a] severe … and real crisis in theorization, grammar, vocabulary, usage, documentation, creativity, and criticism … The most apparent aspect of this crisis is the growing neglect of the functional aspects of [Arabic] language use. Arabic language skills in everyday life have deteriorated, and Arabic … has in effect ceased to be a spoken language. It is only the language of reading and writing; the formal language of intellectuals and academics, often used to display knowledge in lectures … [It] is not the language of cordial, spontaneous expression, emotions, daily encounters, and ordinary communication. It is not a vehicle for discovering one’s inner self or outer surroundings.
And so, concluded the report, the only Arabophone countries that were able to circumvent this crisis of knowledge were those like Lebanon and Egypt, which had actively promoted a polyglot tradition, deliberately protected the teaching of foreign languages, and instated math and science curricula in languages other than Arabic. Translation is another crucial means of transmitting and acquiring knowledge claimed the U.N. report, and given that “English represents around 85 percent of the total world knowledge balance,” one might guess that “knowledge-hungry countries,” the Arab states included, would take heed of the sway of English, or at the very least, would seek out the English language as a major source of translation. Yet, from all source-languages combined, the Arab world’s 330 million people translated a meager 330 books per year; that is, “one fifth of the number [of books] translated in Greece [home to 12 million Greeks].” Indeed, from the times of the Caliph al-Ma’mun (ca. 800 CE) to the beginnings of the twenty-first century, the “Arab world” had translated a paltry 10,000 books: the equivalent of what Spain translates in a single year.
But clearer heads are prevailing in Arab countries today. Indeed, some Arabs are taking ownership of their linguistic dilemmas; feckless Arab nationalist vainglory is giving way to practical responsible pursuits, and the benefits of valorizing local speech forms and integrating foreign languages into national, intellectual, and pedagogic debates are being contemplated. Arabs “are learning less Islam and more English in the tiny desert sheikhdom of Qatar” read a 2003 Washington Post article, and this overhaul of Qatar’s educational system, with its integration of English as a language of instruction—”a total earthquake” as one observer termed it—was being billed as the Persian Gulf’s gateway toward greater participation in an ever more competitive global marketplace. But many Qataris and Persian Gulf Arabs hint to more pressing and more substantive impulses behind curricular bilingualism: “necessity-driven” catalysts aimed at replacing linguistic and religious jingoism with equality, tolerance, and coexistence; changing mentalities as well as switching languages and textbooks. This revolution is no less subversive in nearby Abu Dhabi where in 2009 the Ministry of Education launched a series of pedagogical reform programs aimed at integrating bilingual education into the national curriculum. Today, “some 38,000 students in 171 schools in Abu Dhabi [are] taught … simultaneously in Arabic and English.” And so, rather than rushing to prop up and protect the fossilized remains of MSA, the debate that should be engaged in today’s Middle East needs to focus more candidly on the utility, functionality, and practicality of a hallowed and ponderous language such as MSA in an age of nimble, clipped, and profane speech forms. The point of reflection should not be whether to protect MSA but whether the language inherited from the Jahiliya Bedouins—to paraphrase Egypt’s Salama Musa (1887-1958)—is still an adequate tool of communication in the age of information highways and space shuttles. Obviously, this is a debate that requires a healthy dose of courage, honesty, moderation, and pragmatism, away from the usual religious emotions and cultural chauvinism that have always stunted and muzzled such discussions.
Linguistic Schizophrenia and Deceit
Sherif Shubashy’s book Down with Sibawayh If Arabic Is to Live on! seems to have brought these qualities into the debate. An eighth-century Persian grammarian and father of Arabic philology, Sibawayh is at the root of the modern Arabs’ failures according to Shubashy. Down with Sibawayh, which provoked a whirlwind of controversy in Egypt and other Arab countries following its release in 2004, sought to shake the traditional Arabic linguistic establishment and the Arabic language itself out of their millenarian slumbers and proposed to unshackle MSA from stiff and superannuated norms that had, over the centuries, transformed it into a shrunken and fossilized mummy: a ceremonial, religious, and literary language that was never used as a speech form, and whose hallowed status “has rendered it a heavy chain curbing the Arabs’ intellect, blocking their creative energies … and relegating them to cultural bondage.” In a metaphor reminiscent of Musa’s description of the Arabic language, Shubashy compared MSA users to “ambling cameleers from the past, contesting highways with racecar drivers hurtling towards modernity and progress.” In his view, the Arabs’ failure to modernize was a corollary of their very language’s inability (or unwillingness) to regenerate and innovate and conform to the exigencies of modern life. But perhaps the most devastating blow that Shubashy dealt the Arabic language was his description of the lahja and fusha (or dialect vs. MSA) dichotomy as “linguistic schizophrenia.” For although Arabs spoke their individual countries’ specific, vernacular languages while at home, at work, on the streets, or in the marketplace, the educated among them were constrained to don a radically different linguistic personality and make use of an utterly different speech form when reading books and newspapers, watching television, listening to the radio, or drafting formal, official reports. That speech form, which was never spontaneously spoken, Shubashy insisted, was Modern Standard Arabic: a language which, not unlike Latin in relation to Europe’s Romance languages, was distinct from the native, spoken vernaculars of the Middle East and was used exclusively by those who had adequate formal schooling in it. He even went so far as to note that “upward of 50 percent of so-called Arabophones can’t even be considered Arabs if only MSA is taken for the legitimate Arabic language, the sole true criterion of Arabness.”  Conversely, it was a grave error to presume the vernacular speech forms of the Middle East to be Arabic, even if most Middle Easterners and foreigners were conditioned, and often intimidated, into viewing them as such. The so-called dialects of Arabic were not Arabic at all, he wrote, despite the fact that
like many other Arabs, I have bathed in this linguistic schizophrenia since my very early childhood. I have for very long thought that the difference between MSA and the dialects was infinitely minimal; and that whoever knew one language—especially MSA—would intuitively know, or at the very least, understand the other. However, my own experience, and especially the evidence of foreigners studying MSA, convinced me of the deep chasm that separated MSA from dialects. Foreigners who are versed in MSA, having spent many years studying that language, are taken aback when I speak to them in the Egyptian dialect; they don’t understand a single word I say in that language.
This “pathology” noted Shubashy, went almost unnoticed in past centuries when illiteracy was the norm, and literacy was still the preserve of small, restricted guilds—mainly the ulema and religious grammarians devoted to the study of Arabic and Islam, who considered their own linguistic schizophrenia a model of piety and a sacred privilege to be vaunted, not concealed. Today, however, with the spread of literacy in the Arab world, and with the numbers of users of MSA swelling and hovering in the vicinity of 50 percent, linguistic schizophrenia is becoming more widespread and acute, crippling the Arab mind and stunting its capacities. Why was it that Spaniards, Frenchmen, Americans, and many more of the world’s transparent and linguistically nimble societies, needed to use only a single, native language for both their acquisition of knowledge and grocery shopping whereas Arabs were prevented from reading and writing in the same language that they use for their daily mundane needs?. As a consequence of the firestorm unleashed by his book, Shubashy, an Egyptian journalist and news anchor and, at one time, the Paris bureau-chief of the Egyptian al-Ahram news group, was forced to resign his post as Egypt’s deputy minister of culture in 2006. The book caused so much controversy to a point that the author and his work were subjected to a grueling cross-examination in the Egyptian parliament where, reportedly, scuffles erupted between supporters and opponents of Shubashy’s thesis. In the end, the book was denounced as an affront to Arabs and was ultimately banned. Shubashy himself was accused of defaming the Arabic language in rhetoric mimicking a “colonialist discourse.” A deputy in the Egyptian parliament—representing Alexandria, Shubashy’s native city—accused the author of “employing the discourse and argumentation of a colonialist occupier, seeking to replace the Arab identity with [the occupier’s] own identity and culture.” Ahmad Fuad Pasha, advisor to the president of Cairo University, argued that the book “was added proof that, indeed, the Zionist-imperialist conspiracy is a glaring reality,” aimed at dismantling Arab unity. Muhammad Ahmad Achour wrote in Egypt’s Islamic Standard that
Shubashy has taken his turn aiming another arrow at the heart of the Arabic language. Yet, the powers that seek to destroy our language have in fact another goal in mind: The ultimate aim of their conspiracy is none other than the Holy Qur’an itself, and to cause Muslims to eventually lose their identity and become submerged into the ocean of globalization.
Even former Egyptian president Husni Mubarak felt compelled to take a potshot at Shubashy in a speech delivered on Laylat al-Qadr, November 9, 2004, the anniversary of the night that Sunni Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad received his first Qur’anic revelation. Mubarak warned,I must caution the Islamic religious scholars against the calls that some are sounding for the modernization of the Islamic religion, so as to ostensibly make it evolve, under the pretext of attuning it to the dominant world order of “modernization” and “reform.” This trend has led recently to certain initiatives calling for the modification of Arabic vocabulary and grammar; the modification of God’s chosen language no less; the holy language in which he revealed his message to the Prophet.
This then, the recognition and normalization of dialects, could have been a fitting conclusion and a worthy solution to the dilemma that Shubashy set out to resolve. Unfortunately, he chose to pledge fealty to MSA and classical Arabic—ultimately calling for their normalization and simplification rather than their outright replacement. In that sense, Shubashy showed himself to be in tune with the orthodoxies preached by Husri who, as early as 1955, had already been calling for the creation of a “middle Arabic language” and a crossbreed fusing MSA and vernacular speech forms—as a way of bridging the Arabs’ linguistic incoherence and bringing unity to their fledgling nationhood:
MSA is the preserve of a small, select number of educated people, few of whom bother using it as a speech form. Conversely, what we refer to as “dialectal Arabic” is in truth a bevy of languages differing markedly from one country to the other, with vast differences often within the same country, if not within the same city and neighborhood … Needless to say, this pathology contradicts the exigencies of a sound, wholesome national life! [And given] that true nations deserving of the appellation require a single common and unifying national language … [the best solution I can foresee to our national linguistic quandary] would be to inoculate the dialectal languages with elements of MSA … so as to forge a new “middle MSA” and diffuse it to the totality of Arabs … This is our best hope, and for the time being, the best palliative until such a day when more lasting and comprehensive advances can be made towards instating the final, perfected, integral MSA.
This is at best a disappointing and desultory solution, not only due to its chimerical ambitions but also because, rather than simplifying an already cluttered and complicated linguistic situation, it suggested the engineering of an additional language for the “Arab nation” to adopt as a provisional national idiom. To expand on Shubashy’s initial diagnosis, this is tantamount to remedying schizophrenia by inducing a multi-personality disorder—as if Arabs were in want of yet another artificial language to complement their already aphasiac MSA. Granted, national unification movements and the interference in, or creation of, a national language are part of the process of nation building and often do bear fruit. However, success in the building of a national language is largely dependent upon the size of the community and the proposed physical space of the nation in question. In other words, size does matter. Small language unification movements—as in the cases of, say, Norway, Israel, and France—can and often do succeed. But big language unification movements on the other hand—as in the cases of pan-Turkism, pan-Slavism, pan-Germanism, and yes, pan-Arabism—have thus far been met with not only failure but also devastating wars, genocides, and mass population movements. Moreover, traditionally, the small language unification movements that did succeed in producing national languages benefitted from overwhelming, popular support among members of the proposed nation. More importantly, they sought to normalize not prestige, hermetic, (written) literary languages, but rather lower, degraded speech forms that were often already spoken natively by the national community in question (e.g., Creole in Haiti, Old Norse in Norway, and modern, as opposed to biblical Hebrew in Israel) Shubashy’s call of “down with Sibawayh!” meant purely and simply “down with the classical language” and its MSA progeny. Overthrowing Sibawayh meant also deposing the greatest Arabic grammarian, the one credited with the codification, standardization, normalization, and spread of the classical Arabic language—and later its MSA descendent. Yet, calling for the dethroning of one who was arguably the founding father of modern Arabic grammar, and in the same breath demanding the preservation, inoculation, and invigoration of his creation, is contradictory and confusing. It is like “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” to use Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity. Or could it be that perhaps an initially bold Shubashy was rendered timid by a ruthless and intimidating MSA establishment? After all, there are few Arabs doing dispassionate, critical work on MSA today, who do not ultimately end up being cowed into silence, or worse yet, slandered, discredited, and accused of Zionist perfidy and “Arabophobia.” Salama Musa,  Taha Hussein, and Adonis  are the most obvious and recent examples of such character assassinations. Ultimately, however, it is society and communities of users—not advocacy groups, linguistic guilds, and preservation societies—that decide the fate of languages. As far as the status and fate of the Arabic language are concerned, the jury still seems to be out.
Wow! Ouch! Some important issues raised, I suspect that some of the points he mentioned in this second part could produce a dozen PhD thesis’ that’s no exaggeration. The issue is that complex, it’s that multi-layered, it’s not about panicking or playing down the importance of Arabic….it’s about finding a real solution for how Arabic can be a productive language for its speakers and a language which can be used to account for new and modern discoveries. It does not mean we have to agree with everything he writes, but these are issues/points to think about. I think most Arabic speakers want Arabic to be their language of knowledge where they do not have to translate or learn a new language to understand and appreciate knowledge alongside English and other major languages. Currently it’s taken a back-seat in many spheres of world knowledge and many speakers do not feel empowered using Arabic. In my next post I will discuss naming rights and how language is an indicator of civilisation and knowledge.
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).
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. 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.?” 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.” 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.”
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 :)!!
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.
 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.
 Fouad Ajami, “The Autumn of the Autocrats,” Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2005.
 Elie Kedourie, “Not So Grand Illusions,” The New York Review of Books, Nov. 23, 1967.
 Abu Khaldun Sati Al-Husri, Abhath Mukhtara fi-l-Qawmiyya al-‘Arabiya (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiya, 1985), p. 80.
 Franck Salameh, Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), pp. 9-10.
 Michel Aflaq, Fi Sabil al-Ba’ath (Beirut: Dar at-Tali’a, 1959), pp. 40-1.
 Selim Abou, Le bilinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962), pp. 157-8.
 Michel Chiha, Visage et Présence du Liban (Beirut: Editions du Trident, 1984), p. 49-52, 164.
It is of no surprise or astonishment that South Sudan has taken the decision to phase out Arabic from the daily lives of its speakers after breaking away from North Sudan. For the new state perhaps Arabic represents a bitter and painful past and so in fulfilling and accomplishing their true freedom it has decided to articulate its nation’s hopes and aspirations in a new tongue. A sign of a better tomorrow and perhaps they are giving themselves”legitimacy” (in the Bourdieuan sense) through English as in Arabic they have always felt subordinated to the Northern Sudanese- who knows? Language is more than a code, more than a tool for communication which is which is what I always say here on Aabizi, and I think the Southern Sudanese case has a lesson for Arabic speakers to take.
Whilst it is true that others are astonished perhaps even upset at this decision, I look at it as exercising of a people’s linguistic rights, if they feel that their future is in English so let it be. They are not teaching in Arabic and continuing to use Arabic and then complaining about their wish to master English and use it for their state. They are phasing out (notice the word ‘phase out’) Arabic and gradually introducing English, it is planned, well-thought out (at least it seems that way from the article I pasted below) and there is an aim, an outcome. they know for their older students it might be too late to use the new books in school but they have a way they will support them to master English.
But in the Arabic case most of the time speakers, educators, commentators and researchers (like myself) complain at the demise or possible loss of Arabic and yet the schools continue to use English as a medium of instruction. There is no plan (at least not to my knowledge or it is not as open as this S.Sudan case) to come up with a possible idea, system or policy to support both Arabic and English in schools, universities and colleges. It is true new initiatives are being implemented, and these are to be applauded however text-book like they may sound, but there is not that independent, autonomous, self-motivated zeal to implement the changes and avoid losing Arabic to its speakers whilst still ensuring a high level of education. I think those wishing to reinforce the importance and use of Arabic in its native lands need to look and watch closely the Sudanese case as it evolves over the next few years, I am sure there is much to be learned about speaker rights, linguistic autonomy and development (not just linguistic).
Sudan: Govt Says ‘Bye Bye’ to Arabic
BY ARNE DOORNEBAL, 14 MAY 2012
Juba — When South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July last year it didn’t only say goodbye to its former rulers in Khartoum, but it also stopped using Arabic as its first language. But phasing out Arabic to make way for English proves to be a lengthy process.
“Good morning sir!” Sixty primary school children shout as teacher Santos Okot (31) walks into his classroom. He tells them to take their seats. “Thank you sir!”
The school year has just started at the St. Joseph Catholic School, in the city centre of Juba. South Sudanese schools operate between late April and the end of December. The rest of the year – the dry months – they are closed for holiday. “At home these children speak Arabic. They hear it in the streets and in the market. So it is not easy to teach them English,” says Okot.
English has become the teacher’s first language. “During the war in South Sudan I stayed in Uganda and I also studied there,” he says. In the Anglophone country he learned how to master the language. “I also speak Arabic but I cannot read or write it.” Tens of thousands of South Sudanese were educated in refugee camps in Uganda during the 22-year Sudanese conflict.
Although South Sudan only became independent last year, the introduction of an English curriculum started already seven years ago. In January 2005 Southern rebels and the Sudanese government ended the long war with a peace agreement. South Sudan was granted autonomy and one of the agreements in the peace deal was that English would become the prime language of the South.
“In 2006 all pupils in Primary One received new, English textbooks,” says John Wani, headmaster of the St. Joseph School. “By the next school year, in 2007, they started using the new books for Primary Two. This means that by next year all primary school pupils will be using the new curriculum.” 2012 is the last year in which some students in South Sudan are working with the old, Arabic, books.
Teaching the teachers
Adopting the English language will probably be not all that easy for many South Sudanese, due to the low level of education in the world’s newest country. Only 27 percent of the adults in South Sudan know how to read and write; for women this percentage stands at 18.
“Learning a language is very difficult for adults,” says Wani. “But it is important to connect with East Africa. [In countries like Kenya and Tanzania English is an official language]. Six out of our 27 teachers don’t speak any English. They are on training but they go slow. Maybe I should send them to Uganda or Kenya to speed things up.”
Teacher Santos Okot says South Sudanese are eager to learn. “In the weekends people come to me and ask if I can teach them. I give them private English lessons outside school hours. Sometimes they pay me for it.”
You might be thinking, “this is English surely to implement Arabic will be a reverse idea since current developments and advances take place in English”?! I agree, they do and English is the language of advancement and development. But the issue here is linguistic rights, and the ability to balance your language with the most developed one, it is about mastering Arabic and not being ashamed to do so, and still being able to communicate with the world. It is giving Arabic speakers their right to master Arabic their language, through publicly excellent centres with the state backing and then working to use English for advancement. Not only will a nation be more intelligent (as we’ve now come to know that bilingual/multilingual speakers are more intelligent than monolinguals) because they have mastered two languages formally (it’s not enough to know it, you have to study the language(s)) but they will be able to exercise their right to use which language when and where. Giving speakers that right makes them feel legitimate, empowered and that they can contribute something to the world, this can be seen in many of the works and research on language preservation and maintenance. But as usual these are my thoughts who knows the whole truth in the matter? This is a good case to follow and if I can I’ll keep you guys updated on it.
Thanks for all the comments for recent posts, sorry if I am slow in answering emails, welcome to new readers and fellow WordPress bloggers :)…and finally comments, ideas and thoughts are particularly welcome on this post.
What a title?! I am sure it is making some people upset and others, skeptical and still others inquisitive. I promised at the end of Noura Al Noman’s interview in the last post that I would post a translation of an article I read last month, and so here it is. The translation is based on an article which appeared in the Sunday section of the online newspaper Emaratalyoum. I felt that many of the points raised were important in understanding or at least identifying some possible reasons why the Arabic language is somewhat stagnated amongst its native speakers. Another reason I wanted to translate the article is because of its authenticity in the sense that it is written by a native speaker living in a country where Arabic is the language of everyday use…it gives a different dimension to something written by someone a thousand miles away.
The quirky, witty, ironic, provocative, bold, often-smirky, well-written and self-assured style of the Arabic was so attractive I felt compelled to translate it into English and share it with readers on this site. I must thank in advance the original author Mohammed Al Mazrouqi for giving me permission to translate it into English, I also found out that he is writing a book on the situation of the Arabic language which is very exciting for any sociolinguist. The translation is broad as opposed to narrow and the title I use above is not the original, rather it is a statement taken from the second part of the article. Below I translate part 2 but summarize part 1,
In summary of part 1: Al Mazrouqi addresses the aspect of Arabization and the Arabic academies or rather the failure of such bodies in being coherent in their efforts to bring Arabic vocabulary “up-to-date”. He takes us through what has now become a joke among Arabic speakers, the story of how the academy worked so hard to arabize the English word “sandwich” into Arabic. Their substitute was comical, but to make matters worse it became known that they did not in fact invent the word (or concept) it had already been introduced by a poet earlier on! So what were they doing one wonders? Such jokes and ridicule render these academies useless and non-functioning, I personally think that a body like this needs to be descriptive rather than prescriptive because language is a natural occurrence not dictated. The writer makes an interesting often-ignored point, that in fact the Quran contains many foreign words (non-Arabic from Hebrew, Hindi, Persian), mainly nouns, which were not arabized in order to qualify being a part of this sacred text, but rather used as part of the text until this day (his choice of the Quran is understandable since it is considered a representation of the (most) perfect form of Arabic, the logic is therefore simple, if the most revered Arabic text did not arabize, why do less important texts need to?). These words subsequently became Arabic words, something many Arabs are unaware of, it is only when studying Arabic grammar (or Lisan al Arab) or Tajweed (sciences of reciting the Quran, the student is required to know all non-Arabic words in the Quran before an exam…seriously) that one becomes aware of this fact. The point? The point (as far as I understood it) is that if the word is widespread it can be used (simply by taking the English/any other language’s word and using Arabic letters to transliterate it) without causing confusion, so why Arabize it when the original (in its non-Arabic form) can superbly describe/account for the intended meaning? His point makes me think that the whole “sandwich” escapade was a waste of time, and most of us use “san-da-wich” to mean “sandwich” anyway…wasted time on an unimportant aspect of reviving Arabic? Perhaps or maybe not who knows? But one thing is definite these academies are not making much of an impact on the way the Arabic language is evolving today right now in the age of computers, social networking and the domination of the English language the world over. There has to be some type of reconciliation between the “desired language” and the “real (used) language”, the work they are doing is commendable but it needs to be effective. See here from Mourad Diouri’s site a list of Arabic academies.
Despite the fact that [usually] I am not someone who likes to unburden people of their sorrows and sadness, this time however I will be that person [and make someone happy] in order to annoy the pessimists [because] each time a discussion about the predicament the Arabic language faces is brought up, I find myself compelled to say that [and that is how I begin this article], “be reassured masters of our language, the beautiful Arabic language is not in danger!”
A language scholar may stand up and point his stick or finger at me accusing me of being an enemy of the Arabic language, I would [simply] smile and reiterate to him that, “I do not think that the Arabic language is in danger or under threat of becoming extinct because there are so many channels through which it is maintained, suffice to say it is the official [standard] language of the fastest growing religion in the world (i.e. Islam).
All that it boils down to is the fact that in its native countries it [Arabic] faces ferocious competition from the much simpler English language; and this issue is not exclusive to Arabic alone. For example, French is facing similar challenges, not only on a global level [i.e. in French speaking countries around the world] but locally within France itself.
We can go on endlessly criticising the English language and praising our own, but that will not change in the slightest, the fact that – Arabic is regressing before the English language! Unlike the English language, Arabic has not undergone at least since the fall of the Ottoman empire any serious scientific (systematic) or academic attempts at rejuvenating or developing it so that it is equipped to deal with modern developments.
The [somewhat] backwardness of the Arabic language books used in schools are a testament to this. I would not be exaggerating if I said that the second worst and most complicated subject for students in school is Arabic language class (with the assumption that there will always be another subject to take first place).
It is true that a share of the blame for the students’ weakness in Arabic [language proficiency] lies on the current environment and on the students themselves, but a larger portion of the blame lies on these education curricula that wish [as if] to mummify [force down] the Arabic language onto iron templates [students] similar to [the process] used to bind the feet of small girls (in China) so as to stop their feet from growing larger in size. In the same way that a Chinese woman came to lose her balance as she grew up [her body grew in height and weight], whilst her feet remained the same small size that they were when they were forced into the template [iron shoes]. This too is exactly what happens with regards to the Arabic language and its grammar [a creative comparison by the author to equate the inappropriateness of forcing too many complex and often useless rules on young children which later become useless and ill-fitting when it comes to using language effectively].
Arabic syntax presents something of a challenge due to its complex and difficult rules, and is something that cannot be fathomed except by those specialised in it. For instance, the Iraqi writer, Khalid Al Qashteeni, who spent most of his 70 years striving to perfect the Arabic language says that despite all of that he can still never complete an essay without making a mistake somewhere.
For that reason we cannot rely [completely] on school curricula, if we believe that they were designed with the purpose of ensuring that students become [highly] competent in writing and speaking Arabic [this is because] in truth they have failed miserably due to their incongruent artificial over-complicating of the [simple] essence and nature of the Arabic language.
What we are calling for is, [first] the simplification of the Arabic language in the school curricula by taking out many of the difficult syntactic and grammatical rules; and its subject [components] that have become purely academic. Second, to ignore those who lament over the Arabic language at every opportunity afforded to them [in his original expression he likens their lamenting to a tent pitched for giving condolences where mourners gather to share their grief over the dead!]. Finally, and for the third time “the Arabic language is NOT in danger!”.
The passion with which the argument and point of view is presented with can be seen through this highly exciting and somewhat sophisticated style the author employs in his writing and order of paragraphs. The use of metaphors, wild comparisons (that often offends certain people) and open criticism of the things he sees as obstacles to the Arabic language’s further development, are stated with a candid and confident style…you see why I had to translate it (if you can read the Arabic you’ll see what I mean)?
The issues he raises here (based on his opinions and experience) are ones we have discussed here on Arabizi in the past the academies, the education curriculum, and the current environment of the dominance of English language.
I feel like his focus on the curriculum is right, it is not the English language, the internet, or some outside conspiracy that is the reason behind the regression of Arabic and the over-taking of English language- it is the Arabic language education policies. It the often archaic, non-practical way the children are taught, his depiction is almost painful, illegal, useless like the squeezing of Chinese girls’ feet into iron shoes! This I know will offend many language teachers because they work so hard to teach young children the ‘correct Arabic language’ in the face of better English language teaching and resources. So they too find it so tough, and I think there needs to be some revision in how they teach, and like Al Mazrouqi suggests above, what they teach the unnecessary content needs to be taken out and the more practical and pragmatic aspects need to be taught well. I would say too that the language planners need to look closely at the literature on language teaching and acquisition and the research on effective second language teaching, to improve their teaching.
The claim that the Arabic language has not been modernised since at least the fall of the Ottoman empire is a huge one, and one that would make many upset. But perhaps it’s true, and the reason the Arabic language is in its current state? I highlighted it, and used it in my title because for me that was a learning, something I have never really considered before. However outrageous it may be, however unfounded we may feel it is, it calls for serious investigation into the matter, and perhaps within that finding, may lie the answer of how to get out of the current mess? Who knows?
Al Mazrouqi maintains that the Arabic language is not in danger because it is the official language of Islam and there are many millions of Muslims who would claim it because of its religious connection to the Quran. When I first read this I was not convinced and disagreed that such a claim can be used to argue the non-demise of the Arabic language, given the current situation. And his reasoning would have been one that language preservation experts would have challenged and perhaps ridiculed. However, after having read it a few times now I think I agree with it in a different way, and I have arrived at a certain conclusion. If we agree that, the Arabic language may not be in decline the only other logical conclusion is that- the Arabs are sure on their way to losing Arabic as a language of everyday use. With that they will lose the essence and original meaning of important words and significant linguistic themes specific to Arabic language. The Arabs are the key to understanding texts, old poems, stories and historical documents, if they lose their ability to competently speak Arabic and understand it, then Arabic will be to its speakers what Latin is to English speakers! Language thrives and remains ‘in use’ for its speakers when it is spoken well and used in all arenas of life, in addition to being developed and used with confidence by its speakers.
Comments, suggestions and additions are welcome as always….wishing you all a productive week, London this week will be immersed in books and reading as I am sure many of us book lovers will be at the book fair over the next three days. I am working on the interview with the second author just in case you think I forgot, and as soon as that is ready I will put it up- thanks for reading. Just to point out, the picture above is of the Arabic academy in Old Damascus….I thought it was suitable.