We can use this pandemic to get people speaking Arabic again

Arabic-speakers are switching to English in greater numbers, but language doesn't have to be a zero-sum game

Arabic Calligraphy in the street in Jeddah. Supplied
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Last month, the UN marked the International Mother Language Day. The purpose of this commemoration is to recognise the value of preserving mother languages around the world, and promoting multiculturalism as well as cross-cultural relations. This year, the UN called upon policymakers, educators, teachers and parents to renew their commitment to multilingual education and to persevere in making education inclusive in order to fast-track the sector's recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Arabic language is a shining jewel in the crown of the Arab region and unites 22 diverse nations across the Middle East and North Africa, and millions of Arabs living in the diaspora. Highly regarded around the globe for its beauty, complexity and representation in literature, prose, calligraphy and art, it has been a source of immense pride for Arabs around the world and leads discussions focused on Arab history and heritage. Arabic is one of the oldest spoken languages in the world and has had a lasting influence on various other languages spoken across myriad cultures. Currently, over 50 languages feature words that have been derived from Arabic.

In recent years, however, owing to globalisation and the rapid advances in technology, the use of Arabic, particularly among young people, has declined. Arab youth are increasingly choosing to communicate in English, especially across online platforms where Arabic content is under-represented. Although Arabic is the fifth-most widely spoken language in the world today with over 300 million speakers, only five per cent of online content is in Arabic, according to Statista, a leading global business data platform.

The growing fluency of the population in English and other languages across the Arab region is a promising sign when we consider the goals pertaining to socio-economic growth in the region. Fluency in more than one language has been known to boost an individual’s academic performance, employability, creativity, overall communication skills and cognitive ability. However, while it is important to hone the skills that allow us to communicate better with people from diverse cultures, we must renew our commitment to our mother language that serves as the bedrock of our identity.

Arabic is an integral part of our heritage. The trends we see today in spoken languages are useful indicators of our future. I strongly believe that Arabic speakers can implement a series of initiatives to preserve our beloved mother language and ensure this heritage is carried into the future.

While Arabic is taught as a compulsory language in schools across the region, perhaps more creative approaches to celebrate it can be employed to allow students to better appreciate its depth and value. For instance, we can introduce lessons on the power of Arabic and its influence on other languages and cultures to young school children. Annual competitions, involving creative writing, performances in Arabic, as well as debates and public speaking can also help stimulate a passion for the language in young and impressionable minds.

Undoubtedly, the private sector has an immense responsibility in uplifting society and preserving heritage. It can leverage the opportunity to renew interest in Arabic across workplaces and also invest in projects that will engage external stakeholders.

Corporations are always looking for creative team-building exercises to boost workforce morale. Arabic language classes can be introduced as part of this exercise to engage employees across proficiency levels and allow them to sharpen their skills in both written and spoken Arabic. Human resource departments can also invest in offering structured courses in Arabic for business with certifications as an additional incentive.

The Ministry of Culture celebrates the Arabic calligraphy at the summit of Mount Tuwaiq. SPA
As long as it has been spoken, Arabic has had a tremendous influence on humanity

Arabic media today spans a broad landscape. Key players in the private sector can partner with media organisations to support up-and-coming filmmakers and content creators in their Arabic language projects. The Arab world comprises a plethora of talented and passionate young people who are capable of offering a refreshing and modern take on Arabic content, while the private sector has the resources to empower them through enabling access to the right platforms.

As an unexpected fallout of the pandemic, we now witness an uptick in online content and the private sector is in prime position to partner with popular influencers to produce Arabic content best suited for social media channels.

The travel and tourism sector has an excellent opportunity to offer a more immersive experience for millions of tourists that visit Arab countries every year. With inbound tourism projected to surge post-pandemic once a majority of the global population has been vaccinated, the time is right to leverage this opportunity.

Perhaps, tourism industry players can make the extra effort to incorporate Arabic language learning into their offering for tourists who are unfamiliar with the language. Interactive experiences at airports, hotels and popular tourist attractions, such as devices or apps that teach basic words and phrases, are a great option. Likewise, guided tours can also enable guests to learn Arabic. Hotels can introduce short lessons over in-room entertainment systems, as well as provide in-person courses for guests keen to further expand their knowledge of Arabic.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - FEBRUARY 26: A prayer in English, Arabic, and Hebrew read at every Shabbat at the Jewish Community Center displayed at Purim celebrations at The Address Hotel on February 26, 2021 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Jewish community in Dubai has grown significantly with the influx of Israeli tourists as well as Jewish people from Europe and North America interested in the new peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. (Photo by Andrea DiCenzo/Getty Images)

We are at an interesting point in time as we advance into the post-pandemic era. There is no better time to demonstrate how much we value our heritage through exploring new ways to strengthen and shape opportunities for a brighter and more prosperous future.

As long as it has been spoken, Arabic has had a tremendous influence on humanity and played a crucial role in uniting people across cultures. With strategic planning and adaptation, Arabic can continue to hold sway in allowing the Arab region to share its rich legacy with friends and allies around the world.

Mohammed Alardhi is the executive chairman of Investcorp and chairman of Sohar International