Can We Stop Denying that Arabic is Dying?

Odds are you are reading this article in English

byMaán Jalal

Let’s be honest. Arabic isn’t “cool”. In fact, Arabic has done a terrible job at ensuring its own survival by not being “cool”. Look around. It’s not hard to notice that Arabic is dying. Not only in reading and writing but also how we talk.


When I was 11-years-old, and in Arabic class, my teacher straight up asked me if I was stupid. With no understanding of the context, I answered ‘no’. “Well then, why can’t you read the sentence in your book? If you can’t read Arabic then you aren’t Arab.”


After that particularly delightful incident, my Arabic literacy took a dive for the worst. 18 years later, having attended a talk on the current state of the Arabic language, whereby a panel of experts spent the session avoiding the topic of why millennials weren’t interested in speaking and learning Arabic, and instead concluded that if the use of Arabic was dying out, then it’s simply because the language just isn’t as necessary as it used to be.


A language doesn’t just become unnecessary. It becomes outdated. It gets left behind for specific reasons. One of those reasons is that Arabic can’t keep up with English.


So, why does English have the upper hand? Well unlike Arabic, English is cool. English is pop culture and pop culture is cool. I’m not talking about the Kardashians. I mean real pop culture. From the late 60s, American and British pop culture swept through the Middle East where music, movies, fashion were all progressive, innovative and framed within English language and Western culture.


What else is cool? Books. Don’t laugh, literature is cool. Arabic literature has slowly but surely suffered since the 70s. My Arabic homework included memorizing poetry and reading archaic war stories from a million years ago. There was never any fiction. So I immersed myself, with no guilt, into the worlds of C.S Lewis, Roald Dahl and J.K Rowling.


But where are the modern-day Arab vampires, wizards and superheroes? Well, when you consider that the literary epicentres of the Arab world are Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo – it’s no surprise that literature has seen a stunt in development over the last two decades.


When it comes to education, learning Arabic has never been about learning. It’s about memorizing. Arabic was, and still is in many places, taught using a combination of bullying and shame. The result can cause, as it did in my case, an instant rejection toward the subject and in many ways a dislike toward anything associated to Arabness.


Let’s think about how we speak Arabic for a minute. Given the diversity of dialects across the Arab world, and how English has been placed as a figurehead for all things modern, many unofficial sub-languages and forms of broken Arabic have developed. This should be a good thing.


Language isn’t static, it’s a culture of its own and is supposed to grow and develop in new and interesting ways. But there is still a complacent attitude towards what Arabic really is. The only ‘real’ way to speak and write Arabic is the classical way. With no support for new ways to express oneself in Arabic, and with a retrograde educational system, Arabic is basically disintegrating.


In the online world – Arabic is pretty awkward. Despite the many platforms of communication out there, most are heavily skewed towards English. Let’s not forget that there is huge difference between classical Arabic used for writing and the colloquial way in which we speak. Bridging that gap between the two online has proven difficult.


It’s created a barrier in expressing opinions in a natural, free flowing, creative, modern manner. And despite having words and phrases that can’t be explained or translated in English, Arabic is still disabled in the sense that there are no modern Arabic words for everyday items such as computer, tissues, microwave or even text message.


During my research for this story, I reached out to a number of academics and professors of Arabic from a few prestigious universities. I was surprised to see that all of them denied that there was any such issue with Arabic. In fact, they even questioned if this was even worth writing about. These Arabic language experts were mostly middle aged white men. Although experts in their fields, I find it hard to believe that they would have any clue in how millennials are interacting with Arabic on a day-to-day basis.


So what chance do we have in celebrating our mother tongue when it isn’t thriving in the mainstream or taught in a manner that’s engaging or modern? There’s a lot of work to do, and the first pivotal step to breaking the cycle, is simply admitting that there’s a problem to start with.


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