Why is it that many young Arabs can't, or choose not to, speak their own language?
Restoring pride in Arabs will help restore the language
Over the past few months, we have witnessed increased debate among FNC members in the UAE over the state of the Arabic language. Some of these debates have pushed for enforcing Arabic as the teaching language in all government schools and universities. Others focused on boosting the stature of Arabic language overall in our communities. Whether some of us are for or against these positions, the fact remains that our Arabic language is facing a battle for survival.
When I was at school in the UAE, the subjects taught in Arabic were almost equal in number to those taught in English. Religion, social studies, geography and history were delivered in Arabic. Maths, science and business studies were delivered in English. I was never really aware of the impact of such a split on my Arabic language skills until recently.
A 16-year-old daughter of a friend of mine called me up for help with an Arabic language assignment. She was tasked with writing an essay on a topic of her choosing. As I sat down to review her first draft, I was simply shocked.
Her essay contained a flood of slang Arabic words, a couple of English words and too many grammatical errors to count. She is an honors student. She is also a student in one of the private schools that follow a fully English curriculum, except for the Arabic language class.
She speaks to her friends, who are a mix of Arabs and non-Arabs, in English. At home, she speaks to her parents in English. At malls and in restaurants, she speaks to the staff in English. She tells me that the only people she speaks Arabic to are her grandparents, and mainly because they are not comfortable conversing with her in English. She obviously stands little chance at nailing her Arabic essay.
Not long after that incident, I happened to be with my daughter in a toyshop. An Arab lady walked in with her two daughters. Immediately, our girls started playing together. It was not long before one of the daughters rushed to tell her mother that she didn't understand what my daughter was saying. The little girl was speaking to her mother in English; my daughter spoke Arabic.
As I acted as a translator between the two girls, I understood from the mother that she only speaks to her girls in English and French. This way, she explained, they will be fluent in two foreign languages early on. Fluent in two foreign languages, I thought to myself, but can't speak their own mother tongue. Something just didn't add up.
The factors that are contributing to the demise of the Arabic language and its use amongst its native speakers are numerous. Some of these are institutional, in the form of schools and universities that have dropped the focus on enriching Arabic language skills in students.
Others are part of the westernization and globalization that our region - and other regions of the world - are being exposed to. And sadly, some of these factors come from within us. I can't help but associate the tendency of native Arabic speakers to avoid speaking in Arabic to a lack of pride in who we are and what we are.
Globally, I think we face a lot of scrutiny as Arabs. From some quarters, we are constantly questioned on our culture, beliefs and traditions. We are associated in the minds of some with chaos and anarchy. In western media, some even portray the Middle East as aggressive. In news bulletins, we are the troubled region. And to an extent, these are indeed some of the realities of our communities and societies that we continue to battle on a daily basis.
But there is also another side to the story. There are a lot of things to be proud of as Arabs. There is a history of bright advances and civilisation that we brought to this world. There is a set of values we carry that cherishes family and community. There is a genuine dose of empathy and care that we extend to all around us, local and foreign. There is humbleness and generosity so engrained in our culture. There are Arab cities and citizens who are trying to rise above the chaos. There is a future that is ours to shape.
There is a lot more to be proud about. And perhaps it all starts here. Perhaps we ought to restore our pride in who we are before we can restore the stature of our Arabic language.
Rana Askoul is a Dubai-based writer and leadership development consultant with a focus on the Middle East