We have to bust the myths that shroud the Arabic language

To get Arabic into the mainstream will require some major changes but it will open millions of doors, argues Maryam Ismail

It is time to break down the myths that shroud the Arabic language. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National.
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Sorry to be blunt, but we have been talking about the problems the Arabic language faces for far too long and we haven’t made any headway.

To get Arabic into the mainstream will require some major changes. First of all, it has to be drilled into people’s heads that Arabic is a valuable skill that opens millions of doors.

Perhaps an Arabic anthology for schools should be introduced. Grammar is important, but so is literature. However, only Arab writers should be chosen for such a publication and we shouldn’t use stories that have been translated from English. But there are also some worrying trends at play here.

In the popular cartoon series Freej, Um Saeed refuses to give up her home to make a new tower, but her other friends sell and her home is torn down. “My home is my culture,” she recites in a sad, heartfelt poem.

Then Um Allawi advises her: “Um Saeed, there is no benefit in looking back, we are in a different time and a different place.” This same sentiment is destroying Arabic as a language all around the region – not just in cartoons, but in real life too. We may be in a different place and a different time, but Arabic is still relevant.

As such, Arabic, first as a language of nations and then as a language of faith, cannot be allowed to go down the same route as Latin – a language that is alive on paper but dead in practice.

Unfortunately, myths surrounding Arabic – it is too hard to learn, for instance – prevent people from even trying to pick up the language. These myths need to be debunked.

There are plenty of opportunities to hear, speak and learn modern standard Arabic and the Emirati dialect.

When I first came to this country, a radio was my first purchase. I listened to the news and chat shows. By doing so, I improved my own and my children’s Arabic immensely.

Ten years ago, on Quran Al Kareem radio in Abu Dhabi, there were stories about the history of Islam, Quran reading competitions, tajweed lessons (the rules of reading the Quran properly) and trivia shows aimed at children.

My children loved these broadcasts. They would call in to participate, answering questions live on air. The next day at school, their friends would say: “I heard you on the radio.” This not only gave them a way to listen to Arabic, but it also gave them a goal.

Lately, most activities for children focus on arts and creative pursuits. However, for the most part, children are not required to speak. They often sit, get their materials, do the projects and go.

But if there were places where children had to learn to speak, read and write Arabic better – quizzes or writing competitions focusing on Arabic themes such as the recitation or writing of poetry, or perhaps debate clubs or youth conferences of various subjects – there would be an opportunity to improve one’s Arabic.

This must include non-Arabs as well. Especially because, if they can improve their level of Arabic, the bar would be raised for all of us. Then, perhaps, we could do away with pidgin Arabic, which has become so common that I hear Arabs speaking it among themselves. This is a tragedy.

There could also be learning centres that provide free basic Arabic with volunteer native speakers – places such as Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah and the Shelter in Dubai, where people could just come and learn.

The funny thing is when it comes to kids, they speak all dialects as they play with their friends and adjust their language accordingly. Perhaps we can take some lessons from them.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE