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Arabic: An Endangered Language

Spoken Arabic is becoming more widespread, but classical Arabic is at risk as it fails to modernize.

There is a big difference between the classical, written form of Arabic and the colloquial spoken dialects.

Classical Arabic is sometimes referred to as the Arabic used for literature.  It is never used conversationally because each Arab country has its own dialect.  We can even find different dialects within the same region.  In Northern Africa, Berber is spoken in many parts of Algeria and Morocco and their Arabic is influenced by French colonization.

As a child, I had to learn Arabic and one other language, in order to join any school in Lebanon.  All schools teach Arabic and one second language, French or English, in preschool and add a third language in middle school.

The new generation of Arabs struggle with the classical form of the language due to the educational system that delivers most of the curriculum in foreign languages.

History of the Arabic Language

Arabic is a language spoken by over 300 million people in more than 22 countries. The language is native to the Arabian Peninsula.

In the seventh century it became the language of the Qur’an and the liturgical language of Islam. The territorial expansion of the Arab Empire in the Middle Ages, along with Islam, resulted in widespread use in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe (Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete, Cyprus, and Malta).

The language has spread on several continents and extends to non-Arab people and is now one of the most spoken languages in the world. It is the official language of more than twenty countries and several international organizations, including one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Emphasis on Grammar

Literary Arabic is a written language, not spoken. Most Arab writers only manage to master it after the age of 40 because language proficiency requires more time than for European languages.  The grammatical analysis is in fact the main problem of our language, because it is a barrier that exhausts teachers, while blocking the possibilities for mastery of reading and writing.

I started to learn Italian at the age of 15 when I arrived in Rome. My Italian teacher asked me to assist some of his friends who wanted to master Arabic.

After two years of studying Italian, I wrote well enough to have a biweekly column in one of the school newspapers. But, my students still struggled to learn to read Arabic. One of them said:

“We taught you our language in two years and now you are able to write and speak it, but we have not yet succeeded in learning Arabic.”

I was frustrated because my students were not young children and I taught them using the same method used in college. I thought about my experience and realized that we were losing time learning complicated grammar rules, including syntax, which only a minority of specialists can master.

Preserving Arabic in the UAE

In Dubai, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), responsible for the growth, direction and quality of private education and learning, has put great emphasis on the Arabic language.

Experts blame many factors for the decline of the Arabic language, including:

  • Globalization
  • Use of the English language in these countries, especially on social media
  • Use of Arabizi (Roman characters and English numbers) in speech and text
  • Foreign, non-Arabic speaking workers out-numbering native Arabic speakers
  • Classical Arabic being replaced by local dialects among Emiratis
  • Inadequate Arabic language teachers

According to an article in The National, the government is preparing to introduce a law to protect the Arabic language.

In late 2014 a conference was organized in Dubai to discuss the problems of the Arabic Language.  It was organized 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.

Panelists discussed the state of the Arabic language in the Arab countries and agreed that the curriculum used for teaching needs major changes. The committee wants Arabic to be the official first language used for teaching in all institutions across the country.

One school administrator from Abu Dhabi voiced his concerns over the law:

“What concerns me is the universities and colleges that would be forced to deliver their content in Arabic when the content was written in English and delivered by people who are not necessarily Arabic speakers.”

“I’m talking about engineering, architecture, law. Rather than bringing excellence you’re driving people offshore if the first language is going to be in Arabic.”

In contrast, The New York Times cites Patricia Ryan, an English teacher at Zayed University in Dubai with over 40 years of experience teaching in the Gulf, with believing that promoting Arabic in schools is a way to preserve written Arabic and may also lead to more original research in Arabic. She cautions, however, that this jump in instruction language is something that must happen slowly over time if it is to be beneficial.

The opinions on the matter are very controversial within the Arab world. Some, like Egyptian Philosopher Mustapha Safwan, argue that Classical Arabic is a dead language like Latin and Greek, while others see it as a tool for unifying the Arab world

GPI’s Approach to Arabic

At Globalization Partner International we have been providing translation, desktop publishing, website localization and Arabic SEO, into and from Arabic for many of the world’s top brands who operate in the region.  We understand firsthand the challenges of working in the Arabic language.  Working with numerous Arabic professionals,  both in-house and freelance, we recruit, test and utilize only Arabic native speakers from many countries including Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, UAE, Syria, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi, Morocco and Egypt.  These mixed teams with subject matter expertise in various fields are formed and utilize GPI’s global collaboration tools such as our Translation Portal and Globalization Project Management Suite to globally collaborate in order to produce Arabic language content that engages with the Arabic speaking world.