English is gaining ground in the Arab world – at Arabic's expense

Steps are being taken to preserve our language, but it is an uphill battle

A woman tours Calligraphy museum at  Sharjah Centre for the Art of Arabic Calligraphy and Ornamentation in December 2021. AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

You hear it everywhere. In malls and hospitals. In kindergartens and universities. And now increasingly in majlises and other Emirati gatherings. English has become the unofficial official language of the UAE. Its prevalence and even ubiquity is undeniable. For some people this strengthening of a foreign language is a sign of progress, for others it is a sign that we have not adequately adapted the Arabic language into the 21st century. Can we not globalise and modernise without losing our language?

In the run-up to the UN’s formation after the Second World War, Arabic was adopted as one of the five official languages of the global body. Today, however, Arabic is neglected by many of its own speakers. Ask some Arabic speakers in the UAE to attempt to converse for a few minutes in their mother tongue and no doubt after a sentence or two many will switch into English. The usual excuse I receive when I mention this is that there are certain "technical words" for which there is no equivalent in Arabic.

"How do you say computer in Arabic?" I am told. (Easy, it's hasoob aali, by the way.) The truth is that for many of our youth Arabic has lost its appeal. Some young people may even be ashamed to speak Arabic in front of others lest they seem less educated than their peers.

I blame my generation and myself. A few weeks ago, I hosted a dinner for a famous Arab musician and we agreed among ourselves that we would only converse in Arabic. It worked. However, it was the exception that proved one rule: that in gatherings, English – with a sprinkling of Arabic words and phrases – is the language many of us exclusively speak today.

The neglect towards Arabic is widespread

A couple of decades ago, it was the case that children who were products of mixed marriages weren't able to speak in Arabic. Today, many households made up of an Emirati mother and father speak English among themselves and their children. "It's easier you see, for the kids, to know one language" is what I often hear.

Arabs have been aware of the rise of influence from the West since the days of colonialism. It impacted our own language and many of us learnt foreign languages out of necessity. The "Arab Awakening" of the late 19th century began in the Levant, among the Christian community in Syria and Lebanon specifically, before spreading to other parts of the Arab world, as Adeed Dawisha writes in Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century.

Furthermore, as Pakistani scholar MA Aziz notes: "The publication of an Arabic dictionary in 1867 and of an Arabic encyclopaedia in 1870, the founding of newspapers in Arabic and the general growth of contemporary Arabic literature marked a new awakening among the Arabs.”

This "awakening" resulted in the 1919 founding of the Arabic Language Academy of Damascus, whose goals include the preservation and enhancement of Arabic partly through the founding of new terms. Over the decades, the Arabic Language Academy of Damascus introduced new words and adaptations of existing words to fit the modern era. For instance, the Arabic word “ehtimam” was introduced to denote interest in something while the word “shakhsiya” was introduced to denote personality. Such words were not in use before then and have since become standard in Arabic.

Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, has called for a concerted effort to preserve Arabic. Sharjah Government Media Bureau

The rate of success in adaptation of new words varies. The word “hatef” (phone) is more used than “al shabaka” (the internet) although Arabic speakers still default to their English language equivalents. Some blame the Arabic Language Academy of Damascus for taking too long to translate words or for suggesting more than one term as they have for the internet. This lack of attention to the terms suggested by the academy is also the result of the political situation in the Arab world, in which Damascus, along with other traditional Arab centres of culture, no longer holds the influence it once had over the region. Moreover, and perhaps reflecting the state of the Arab world, there are today various versions of the academy in Jordan, Iraq, Sudan, Morocco, Libya, Algeria and the UAE.

This neglect towards Arabic is widespread. It can be seen across the GCC, the Levant and even in Egypt, traditionally the bastion of the language. With each passing year, the crisis of Arabic is only growing. A 2009 study spanning 214 students from across the Arab world conducted by Fatiha Hanani for the American University of Sharjah titled "Impact of English on Young Arabs' Use in the UAE" found that "Arabic was gradually being replaced" by English and that students have "a clear negative attitude towards speaking and learning Arabic”.

It is not only the youth but also politicians, public intellectuals and other prominent figures who increasingly converse in English. This matter needs to be looked at urgently. An added emphasis must be put on education, public speaking, publishing and broadcasting in Arabic. Steps from the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre including their Arabic Lexicon takes advantage of the digital sphere which means that it is accessible to a wider audience. Perhaps this can be expanded to a terminology crowd-sourcing initiative. The recent call by Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, to preserve Arabic, calling it "a stockpile of our history, our knowledge and our culture", is a timely reminder that we need to act urgently and forcefully, starting with our own selves.

Published: July 13, 2022, 4:00 AM