x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Saving Arabic with innovative ideas

An initiative to translate more online content into Arabic is welcome, for the region and the language

While linguists and sociologists are bemoaning the perceived danger to Arabic, a determined band of volunteers, in the UAE and across the Mena region, are taking practical action to keep the language healthy.

In a world increasingly dominated by English, even the oldest and most widely-spoken of other tongues find themselves somewhat devalued: increasingly, the world runs on English. From Hollywood blockbusters to scholarly research papers to international business to ingenious web apps, a disproportionate amount of what's new and popular around the world tends to begin in English, or else is translated into English very quickly.

To help Arabic keep up, two years ago this month two young men used Twitter to launch, from Qatar, an initiative called Taghreedat ("Tweet") with the goal of getting more Arabic content onto the internet.

With enough speed to startle those who are pessimistic about the decline of Arabic fluency, Taghreedat has expanded until it now has 9,000 volunteer translators, around the world, creating and making available Arabic-language versions of worthwhile web content. It's a job that needs doing: Arabic is the world's fifth most-spoken language but only 3 per cent of websites worldwide exist in Arabic.

Taghreedat is working on the problem. It has helped to build up the Arabic Wikipedia, sped up development of Twitter in Arabic, is establishing a crowd-sourced online Arab technology dictionary, and has worked to start or increase Arabic content on numerous web platforms. Founders Mina Nagy and Sami Mustafa Al Mubarak now live in the UAE.

As The National reported yesterday, this laudable initiative has now expanded in another direction: A broad range of university courses, from major universities around the world, will now be translated by Taghreedat's volunteers and made available to all. The project will operate in cooperation with Coursera, a US-based online education project which obtains rights to the course material from universities.

Several recent news stories and letters to the editor in The National have reflected a growing belief, in the UAE and around the Arab world, that there is a need for defence of the Arabic language. Making sure that valuable materials and popular platforms are available in Arabic is an obvious, essential first step in assuring Arabic's future.