The inability to read and write Arabic well is a "new disability", says a member of the Federal National Council. As The National reported yesterday, the consultative body debated the extent to which schoolchildren are falling behind in learning their mother tongue. Dr Shaikha Al Ari (UAQ), said she had been shocked to visit a school and discover that 8-year olds were unable to tell one Arabic book from another.
This discussion is not a new one in the Arab world, though it seems to be intensifying. The subject goes to the heart of concerns about culture, history, the legacy of imperialism and national identity.
Arabic is complicated by a distinction between the formal tongue, known as Modern Standard Arabic or Fusha, and colloquial Arabic, known as amiya or lahja, which is essentially dialect. Fusha is how Arabic is written; outside of casual online correspondence, in fact, there is no standard way of writing colloquial Arabic. Fusha, on the other hand, is the language of the Quran.
There is no one colloquial Arabic. Every Arab country has a different colloquial tongue although some - among the Gulf countries, in the Levant, in North Africa - are very similar. But there is no agreed written form, in some cases because there is literally no way of writing it down: in the Gulf, for example, it is common to pronounce the Arabic letter qaf as gaf, with a short, hard G. But writing that down is impossible. Standard Arabic has no letter that is a short, hard G.
In practice the language that children learn at school and the language they speak at home are different. While television news is in formal Arabic, almost all other Arabic television is in a colloquial dialect, reflecting the language of the country or region where each programme was made.
How to square this circle? Better teaching of formal Arabic, as the FNC discussed, is surely necessary. But once children leave the classroom, they will revert to the language around them. Formalising colloquial language would be an immense task - involving creating multiple versions of every book - and also a disservice to the language.
It would be far better to bring formal Arabic into the real world. And the best way of doing so is to encourage reading.
Some young Arabs complain that formal Arabic is too far removed from everyday life. There is almost no setting in daily life where an educated Arab would speak formal Arabic, although they deal with it in almost every written pursuit. As a first step, parents could encourage their children to read more widely, so that they experience the Arabic language as a source of pleasure, rather than merely of instruction. That might bring formal Arabic into the every day experience of young people, which could encourage Arabs to use it more often.