Has the UAE's melting pot of cultures contributed to a shift away from the Arabic language?
Arabic needs to be rescued, revived, made relevant and reintroduced into public spaces
On a hot and humid Friday morning in a popular cafe in Dubai, I saw an exchange between an Emirati mother and her child that is becoming common.
“Mama, can we please go to the beach today?”
“Inshallah, habibi." (If God wills it, darling.)
The child became increasingly more frustrated with each inshallah uttered by his mother. “Mama, please just say yes or no!”
“I said inshallah, habibi. That means yes, inshallah.”
A pithy yet powerful observation can be made here about the relationship mother and child have towards both the English and the Arabic language. For the mother, the Arabic word inshallah is perhaps more powerful, conveying an intention that she would be happy to honour her child’s wishes. For the child however, a simple yes or no answer would have been more satisfying.
English is becoming the lingua franca of the UAE and it is not limited to the cafes and restaurants of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Corporate offices, law firms and financial institutions are made up mostly of foreign residents and English is the number one language used for the majority, if not all, forms of communication.
Historically speaking, the English language was introduced into the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf region through a shortlived experience of predominantly British residency. Prior to the country forming in 1971, the emirates were once all part of the Trucial States and independent sheikhdoms allied with the UK based on an interdependent system of military presence. From 1971, the UAE left behind a century of British military protection and conduct of its external affairs. A strong relationship with the UK continues to exist today, with the UAE being in the UK’s top 15 trading partners in terms of export sales. UAE nationals also favour the British curriculum and university system, choosing it over other world leading academic institutions to continue their higher education. Rapid expansion and modernisation has led the UAE to build a heavy reliance on foreign workers, who have relocated to the desert nation, with English becoming the language of commerce, trade and social communication. Arabic is becoming increasingly less popular, even with Arab region-born residents and UAE nationals.
The country as a whole is a diverse and multicultural society and while an estimated 10 per cent of the population is made up of UAE nationals, a further 25 per cent of the population is composed of nationals from surrounding Arab countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen. Arabic speakers from these countries speak various dialects and they diverge greatly from the formal or written Arabic. They also differ significantly from the fusha or classical Arabic found in literature and the Quran, which for centuries has been a uniting force for Arabic speakers, spanning from the Atlantic to the Euphrates.
The Greek word diglossia, describing a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community, can marshal a more profound distinction between the written and spoken Arabic, not to mention the vocal colours of the Arabic dialects. Arabic has one of the more profound examples of diglossia, possessing two styles or standards of language, one for formal use in writing and speech situations and one for colloquial use. A good example of diglossia can be observed in Arabic news channels, where a news presenter would use classical Arabic to read the news but will use colloquial Arabic when conducting an interview with an expert or eyewitness. The presenter will most likely conduct or attempt to conduct the interview in a dialect that will be understood by the interviewee.
In the UAE, diglossia has also contributed to a shift in communication and a veer towards a more standard and uniform language, namely English. Penelope Eckert, a linguistics professor at Stanford University, explores this phenomena of language in her paper titled Diglossia: separate and unequal. Eckert asserts that the extent to which the domains of one language are exclusively associated with social and economic survival will strengthen the position of that language and precipitate language shift.
The more populous emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have, over the years, become a beacon for cohesive and harmonious living for foreign residents and cultural sensitivity has been an important factor in determining the overall harmony and living experience. Such cultural sensitivity is determined by the resident's ability to understand the culture in which they are living and, of course, the language. In most cases in the UAE, the only language a resident needs to understand is English. Undoubtedly, having a uniformity in language contributes to cohesion and therefore to economic prosperity but this has occurred at the expense of the native language of the land. I would argue that the evolution of cohesive and harmonious living and Dubai’s reputation for being a melting pot of cultures and communities has contributed to a shift away from the Arabic language. With some schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi prohibiting students from speaking any language other than English in the classroom and within the school grounds, it is easy to see why. While such policy is implemented in a bid to curb any exclusion that might occur as a result of language barriers, it prevents students from speaking their mother tongue and further encourages this shift away from Arabic.
This shift away from Arabic has not gone unnoticed and the UAE government in particular has begun implementing initiatives for the purpose of integrating Arabic back into public spaces and encouraging its use from an individual to a community basis. In 2015, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, launched a children's reading challenge aimed at inspiring children to read 50 Arabic books a year, in line with the UAE’s national strategic vision for 2021. A further initiative set up by Sheikh Mohammed is the translation challenge, which invites entrants to translate 11 million words and 500 videos from English into Arabic. The aim is to use the translated content to enrich educational content in the Arab world. This initiative recognises that Arabic content in itself is not as relevant to its reader as English content and that Arabic seems to be limited to classical text and reading of the Quran. Children especially need content that is relevant to them and when you ask many of them why they do not like speaking Arabic or reading Arabic content, they tell you that it is boring and that the Arabic they learn at school is not relevant because it is not the same Arabic spoken by their parents and family members.
Arabic needs to be rescued, revived, made relevant and reintroduced into public spaces so that the next generation of regional speakers can engage with not only classical text but appreciate the language as forming part of modern and popular culture.