x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

It's time for action to encourage the spread of Arabic

With English on the ascendancy in the region, it could be a case of use it or lose it for Arabic speakers.

There are almost 400 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, more than enough to harness the power of our language and make it grow.

Instead, however, some of the region's cities have started losing touch with the Arabic language and are adopting English, which has more global reach.

There is nothing wrong with learning English, or any other language. In fact, it is beneficial in many ways to learn as many languages as you can in this globalising world.

But what is wrong is replacing a beautiful tongue, one of the world's oldest, with a more "convenient" language to get a global education and secure a good job.

I know this subject has been touched upon several times by analysts and commentators. If I am to play the blame game, I should start with myself for using English more than Arabic. I have done this because my schooling and my job demanded it.

Yet when I realised that I was giving my mother tongue less attention, I began reading Arabic newspapers more often and speaking Arabic, not English, with other Arabic speakers.

Tackling the issue of Arabic's decline is a difficult social challenge. There is no one person or entity to blame. However, getting back on the Arabic track is a job for all. It isn't enough that we have Arabic-only newspapers or bilingual signs.

The National reported last month that some parents in Abu Dhabi were upset that certain lessons were being taught to their children in English rather than Arabic.

But why did these parents get angry, if it had been their choice to put the children in English schools? Is it the school's fault for not having subjects in Arabic?

Perhaps educational authorities should have set mandatory standards about teaching in both languages, or require that certain subjects - such as science and history - be taught in Arabic.

My question is this: how and when did we decide that we can't have a bilingual society?

Many cosmopolitan cities around the world have bilingual education, road signs and populations.

In some cities and countries, people refuse to speak English so as to maintain their own culture and pride. They understand that in their mother tongue they can naturally be more expressive.

It is important to discuss the issue of maintaining Arabic language as part of local heritage. But if we are to do anything about it, the responsibility must rest with schools.

So far, only government bodies use Arabic all the time, and that isn't enough.

True, considering how cosmopolitan the UAE has become, it is unfortunate that some officials are unable to communicate in English. But official use of Arabic has become a necessity for maintaining the language.

A number of other things can also be done to encourage the spread of Arabic in daily life. For example, corporations could enrol employees in Arabic courses - and make them mandatory. Salespeople in restaurants, shops and supermarkets could be expected to speak some Arabic, at least, beginning with "hello" and "how are you?"

And Arabic speakers should encourage others to speak the language, at work and in their free time.

When I was in Paris a few years ago, a couple of restaurants wouldn't serve us if we did not speak in French. Thank goodness I carried a pocket dictionary.

Of course learning a new language at the age of 30 or 40 isn't as easy as when you were 5 or 10, but everything is worth a try. We could start by giving away "learn Arabic" books or DVDs to encourage people to start.

If we can build up our language, then some day expatriates who go home on holiday to visit their families will be able to show off their Arabic, instead of just handing out camel-themed souvenirs.


Aida Al Busaidy is a social affairs columnist and former co-host of a Dubai television show

On Twitter: @AidaAlB