Enticing expats to learn Arabic is key to charter's success

Teaching Arabic to others will help bring about a renaissance of the language.

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Emiratis and linguists say the Arabic Language Charter launched last week will succeed only if Emiratis encourage expatriates to learn the language.

The charter, launched by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, aims to make the UAE a "centre of excellence" for Arabic language through a language centre at Zayed University, a faculty of translation at the Mohammed bin Rashid Media Council and a committee to "revive Arabic as the language of science and technology".

Many believe the key to an Arabic-language renaissance will begin in the nation's neighbourhoods.

"We have to be proud of our language and start to teach it to others," said Rehab Al Kilani, of Sharjah, a student of Arabic literature at Zayed University.

"It will start from ourselves, not from others. Sheikh Mohammed gave us this charter but after that, what will we do with it?

"It will come down to the people to make use of it."

For Ms Al Kilani, 34, Arabic is her identity. "The language, it's me," she said.

"I can't think in another language, I can't find myself in other languages.

"Most people they turn themselves to the West or to the East," she said. "They are not focusing on ourselves, what we are."

In the 60 novels she has read for her master's dissertation on Identity in Arabic Literature, she has found some Arabic writing to be poor.

"It's broken Standard," she said, referring to Standard Modern Arabic, the formal language used in the media.

"I think that there is a lack of awareness of preserving the language."

Hessa Ruqait, from Ras Al Khaimah, said that Emiratis should take it upon themselves to encourage others. "If the government does this charter and the people don't act, what's the point?" she said.

"If everybody starts using and is proud of the Arabic language, it becomes a force for expats. We'll make it easier for them and they'll learn our language."

This could also restore the prestige of the language among Emiratis. "It's about our mentality, not the expat mentality," said Ms Ruqait, 30.

"If I open my mouth and speak in English, people say, 'Oh she's amazing'. If I open my mouth and start speaking Arabic, it's like, 'Oh she's regular'."

Ms Ruqait started to learn standard Arabic in her 20s when colleagues joked that she must have an English mother and American father.

In fact, her father was a polyglot sea captain who sailed the Indian Ocean and, like him, Ms Ruqait was quick to learn foreign tongues. She had no interest in standard Arabic until her daughter was born.

"I got older and had my kids and I had two options, either an Arabic school or an English school. I cancelled the English school because I knew that she would not know Arabic well."

"If she isn't good in Arabic, she won't be good in her prayers. I learnt my Arabic language with my religion, with my prayers. It's all connected, it's all my identity."

Ms Ruqait will encourage her children to learn languages like their grandfather but hopes that they will teach their friends Arabic in return.

Dr Maher Bahloul, an associate professor of language and linguistics at the American University of Sharjah, said the first step towards popularising Arabic is to change the "archaic" rote-learning methods used to teach it.

"Nothing attracts the student if you adopt a grammar-based approach," he said.

He has seen the results at home: his children's least favourite subject is Arabic.

"That in itself is devastating," Dr Bahloul said.

He suggested that expatriates learn 500 words of Gulf Arabic so that within three months they can communicate the basics. In the classroom, he recommends film, theatre and song.

Bilal Al Bidour, the director of the Arabic Language Protection Society, said the initiative would focus on Standard Modern Arabic and target expatriates and Arabic-speakers alike. .

The announcement has also spurred a rise in teachers and business leaders asking for Arabic teachers at the Ministry of Culture and UAE University.

"As we say in Arabic, it's like the soul has come back to the body, because language is very important for the level of the people, the level of the identity, the level of civilisation," said Dr Ahmad Alzubi, the chairman of the department of Arabic language and literature.

"This announcement by Sheikh Mohammed is excellent and it should be activated in so many ways. We hope that the whole society will take care of it and respond to it in general."