Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 January 2020

In celebration of a very rich language

Arabic Language Day is a chance to celebrate Arabic in all its many forms
A student in Dubai practices Arabic Calligraphy (Photo: Antonie Robertson)
A student in Dubai practices Arabic Calligraphy (Photo: Antonie Robertson)

Tomorrow is world Arabic Language Day, a UN-designated day to celebrate one of the world’s major languages. But in homes around the Arab world, it doesn’t always feel that way. Few topics provoke as much angst from Arabic-speaking parents as why their sons and daughters don’t seem to be fluent in their mother tongue. In a globalised world, where the language of so much popular culture is English and certain dialect forms of English have a “cool” cachet, it can be hard to persuade boys and girls that they should speak what is, after all, the language of the Quran.

Young people seem to prefer to speak English, which allows them to communicate with people from different backgrounds and cultures. Speaking to friends, especially in a multicultural country such as the UAE, they will often mix Arabic and English, sometimes called Arabish, or even add a third language, often French. Written Arabic, via text or WhatsApp, is often changed to Arabizi, another mixing of Arabic and English. All of this is seen by many educators as a threat to the Arabic language – and therefore as a threat to identity and culture. That’s why it is good to have initiatives such as the Arabic Learning Charter, the Year of Reading and the formation of an International Arabic Language Expert Committee.

Kefaya (enough), as Arabic speakers would say. Arabic, in fact, is in rude health. Hundreds of millions of people converse every day in the language, with no problems. They read newspapers and websites, listen to radio shows, watch news channels and soap operas in Arabic – there are more of these outlets and they are accessible to more people than ever before.

What is different is that, in some ways, Arabic is also more fragmented than it has been for some time. The language has always been divided between classical Arabic – the language of religion, politics and literature – and everyday, dialect language, which has dozens of variations, even within countries, that can vary in vocabulary and even sentence structure. Celebrating the Arabic language, then, really ought to involve celebrating all aspects of it. From the lofty ideas of modern novels in classical Arabic, to the more earthy language of popular films, to even the rapidly shifting Arabish and Arabizi – we should invigorate them all. Enjoying all aspects of the language will encourage others to get involved. If we want to get more young people to speak Arabic, we will have to start by celebrating the Arabic that they actually speak.

Updated: December 17, 2016 04:00 AM

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