Alarm bells over future of Arabic language

By the end of this century, more than half of the world's 7,000 languages could have vanished, according to National Geographic's Disappearing Languages project. Could Arabic be one of them?

The classic Arabian decor in the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai contrasts with the many shop fronts and advertising slogans in English. Some experts blame globalisation for a decline in Arabic. Randi Sokoloff / The National
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By the end of this century, more than half of the world's 7,000 languages could have vanished, according to National Geographic's Disappearing Languages project. Could Arabic be one of them?

With about 400 million speakers and a billion Muslims who have at least some basic knowledge of the language, such a prospect seems absurd.

But a growing number of experts are ringing alarm bells about the future of Arabic. The culprits are everything from globalisation, colonialism, outdated teaching methods, the creeping influence of other languages, especially English, and a lack of political will to stop the rot.

At a conference in Dubai earlier this month, it was revealed one of the newest and most disturbing trends was among young Arabs, who increasingly spoke either a foreign language or a hybrid popularly known as "Arabizi", heavily populated with foreign words. For many, this new tongue represented coolness, modernity and sophistication.

Dr Muna Al Saheli was one of the participants at the Second International Conference on Arabic Language, organised by the International Council for Arabic Language in cooperation with Unesco, the Association of Arab Universities and the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States.

"We do not have pride in our language, which is the vocal expression of our identity, because the colonist was successful in making us think it is inferior," she says.

"They told us it is the reason behind our stagnation and was not fit for learning and the sciences.

"If a people have no pride or understanding of their identity, they become an easy prey for colonisers."

Fouad Bu Ali, adviser to the Moroccan minister of information, agreed, using the example of postcolonial Maghreb countries. He says there was a war against the re-establishment of the Arabic language by the francophone lobby. "Language, especially one like Arabic, is not just a tool for communication," he says. "It represents the moral, religious and historical values of a culture.

"It is the channel through which we disseminate our culture, a link to our rich historical heritage and the catalyst for our renaissance as Arabs and Muslims."

For Dr Al Saheli, a professor of literature at Benghazi University in Libya, the issue can be summed up in two words. Arabs are suffering from an "inferiority complex", a natural result of years of living under the colonial yoke and brutal dictatorships.

Some of Arabic's problems are self-inflicted, says Dr Al Saheli, who criticises teaching methods as being outdated, boring and monotonous.

"When students study Arabic, they feel that they have entered a time machine and have been transported to a bygone era," he says. "The curriculums used are highly detrimental to the development of the language, disconnecting it from the present and reinforcing the idea that Arabic is archaic and belongs to the past and not the present."

Another challenge is the dilemma of Fus'ha, or formal standardised Arabic. Mostly used in written form, such as official and religious documents, Fus'ha is at odds with the widely diverging colloquial spoken varieties of Arabic, used in everyday conversations.

So while the colloquial version was the native language, formal Arabic was taught in schools. Because colloquial Arabic could be incomprehensible to speakers from different parts of the region, educated Arabs mostly used the formal version to communicate with each other.

But, says Dr Al Saheli, many Arab education systems taught formal Arabic to children, forgetting that they did not speak it and barely understood it.

"We need to not only revamp the curriculums but also introduce interactive classes where the four skills - listening, speaking, reading and writing - are incorporated," she says. "Only then will we produce a generation that has a good grasp of standard Fus'ha Arabic."

The threat to Arabic is particularly painful for Dr Adnan Eidan, who recalls the pride many of his colleagues feel in the use of Arabic as the language of science and knowledge for hundreds of years.

Now he is witnessing the refusal of Arab universities to teach many subjects in Arabic, especially sciences.

A computational linguist from Iraq, Dr Eidan says academic institutions use the excuse of the job market, saying it demands foreign tongues.

Or they justify themselves by saying there are not enough translations of books in the field of science in Arabic, to tide over what he calls "cultural genocide".

Dr Eidan points out that the failure of Arabic scholarship is challenging the healthy development of the language.

"When Arabs were leaders in scholarship, the language grew and absorbed words from Greece, Persia and other cultures," he says. "However, our post-colonial situation, where we lived under dictators who stifled and clamped down on any kind of creativity and placed so many restrictions and red lines on our basic freedoms, has arrested the development of the Arab people and, naturally, the language."

A by-product of such policies is that language purities have effectively frozen Arabic in a bygone era, under the guise of preserving its purity, Dr Eidan says.

"We cannot go back to the Arabic that was spoken 1,000 years ago, for even in those days they spoke a language that was simple and suited their time. If we do not take action then the youth will come up with their own hybrid languages, like Arabizi, that will further damage the future generation's grasp of their mother tongue."

What worries Dr Eidan is the trend of parents rushing to place their children in schools that teach in foreign languages and relegate Arabic to the backbench.

"How do we expect the youth to have pride in their mother tongue when the institutions of learning place no value on it and neither do their parents?" he asks.

Samia Bibars, plenipotentiary minister at the Arab League, disagrees that Arabic is in danger of extinction, preferring to concentrate on the many challenges that needed to be addressed.

The sad state of Arabic is a reflection of the current state of affairs in the Arab world, which includes stagnation, regression and fragmentation, she explains. Also to blame are globalisation and the negative repercussions of a lone superpower whose culture, Ms Bibars says, dominates and annihilates other cultures all over the globe.

"As a result of American hegemony, the whole world wants to learn English. Why? Because it is considered a prestige language, the language of the superpower," Ms Bibars says.

Yet while Arabs are lamenting the neglect of the language within their territory, non-Arab participants at the conference took pride in their ability to speak the language of the Quran. Delegates from China, Nigeria and Bulgaria, came to the conference to seek support for their Arabic learning programmes and partnerships with institutions of learning.

Speaking in flawless Fus'ha Arabic, Abdul Rahman Abdul Samad, an adviser with the Thai government, jokes that when Thais send their children to study in Arab countries, they come back speaking a regional dialect and not the standard language.

"You Arabs are teaching them the wrong language," he laughs, pointing out that there is a proliferation of schools teaching Arabic in Thailand, while admitting that many of these institutions lack good curriculums to teach Arabic as a second language.

"Our people are hungry to learn the language of our religion and we are hoping the Arabs will create good content as there is not that much available currently."

Dr Mohammed Andaghi, a professor of Arabic literature from Nigeria, who presented a paper on the Arabic manuscripts of West Africa, is pleading for help to document, research and preserve these priceless cultural heirlooms.

"There is a treasure trove of historical manuscripts in our countries, which are testaments to the fact that there was scholarship in Africa in the Middle Ages, a time when Europe was still wallowing in ignorance," he says. "Traditionally, our history has been told to us by the colonists, a narrative that was condescending and misleading. That is why we insist that our youth should learn Arabic, so that they can read all these manuscripts which were written by their ancestors and learn about their glorious history."

In Chad, a non-Arab country in the Sahel, popular pressure forced politicians to adopt Arabic as one of the country's two official languages.

Dr Ishaq Eisa, a member of the Chadian parliament, says the French colonisers left behind them a powerful francophone lobby that sabotaged any effort to institutionalise Arabic, even though local tribes spoke 200 Arabic-influenced dialects.

"We refused to be forced to learn the language of the colonist, the French, and neglect the language of our ancestors and our religion," he says. "We lobbied for years for our linguistic right and eventually the will of the people prevailed."

Ms Bibars says the question of language and identity will not be an issue if Arabs have strong leadership.

"When we again have leaders like Nasser, who inspired a whole generation, then we will rise and become strong. Arabic will then regain its place," she says.

Dr Eidan, on the other hand, is adamant that firm action is the only key to revitalising Arabic.

"I have been attending these conferences for the past 30 years," he says. "We talk and talk, finish with long lists of recommendations but nothing gets implemented."