How a Jordanian family is trying to save the Arabic language, one cartoon at a time
AMMAN // When Luma Adnani and her husband, Ibrahim Taha, tried to keep their infant son entertained with Arabic educational cartoons on YouTube, they noticed he became restless. But when they switched to English, the videos and songs captured his attention.
“His attitude changed and he became cheerful, but it was irritating because we want Adam to like his mother tongue, which we are proud of,” says Luma, 29. “We could not find appealing Arabic videos for children that are both educational and fun. So we wanted to provide Adam with something that he would like and make him happy.”
The Jordanian couple’s experience with their son, now two years and nine months old, inspired them last year to come up with a project called Adam Wa Mishmish (Adam and Mishmish), an online cartoon show in Arabic which combines education and entertainment for children up to five years old.
A collaborative family effort by Luma, Ibrahim, and Luma’s younger sister, Lina, the project aims to make learning Arabic a pleasurable experience in a region where many young people prefer the English language.
Ibrahim, 37, who has played the guitar since he was a child, composes tunes with a combination of Middle Eastern, Western and Latin flavours. Luma and Lina, 25, come up with the words, and Lina and Ibrahim sing the songs.
Luma’s mother, Razan Ibrahim, who is a professor of Arabic at Petra University in Amman, edits the Arabic content, while graphic artist Lutfi Zayed creates the cartoons.
Cartoon Adam – who is inspired by the real-life Adam – is an endlessly curious and energetic two-year old boy in red pyjamas. Mishmish is the cuddly toy he always takes to bed with him. In Adam’s dreams, Mishmish comes to life and the pair go off on adventures around the world together.
The show’s first season and the first two episodes of its second season have already been released, with episodes posted to YouTube, Facebook, the online Arabic video service Istikana, and the online Arabic music service Anghami. They teach children the alphabet, numbers, colours and shapes – and also good behaviour, such as going to bed when they are told and the importance of being polite.
“We wanted to create a quality product for anyone who wants to learn the basics of Arabic,” Ibrahim says. “The best way for children to learn things is through songs. The content and the music is appealing to them and they learn without knowing.”
Arabic language experts are concerned that Arabic, the sixth official language of the United Nations since 1973, is at risk in Jordan and other Arab countries. This is in part due to the dominance of colloquial Arabic in social media and on television, as well as the methods by which the language is being taught in schools, and the fact that among upper-middle class families a mix of Arabic and English is increasingly spoken.
Lina says globalisation and the influence of western culture and pop music has also contributed to deteriorating attitudes towards the Arabic language among her generation.
“Western pop culture is very attractive and appealing and this is one of the main reasons why our generation and those younger do not like Arabic,” she says.
“It is perceived as not cool. So what we are trying to do is send a positive message to children to love their language.”
Compared with English language educational entertainment, Arabic content for children mostly lags far behind in terms of quantity and quality, although in recent years several Arab entrepreneurs have developed apps and games in Arabic to make learning fun and exciting for children.
“The standard of material in Arabic is not as high as in the West, which contributes to the deterioration of Arabic language,” says Lina. “The content is not entertaining enough, and we are trying to make something that is just as good if not better than western material.”
Before launching their project, the entrepreneurs tried an experiment: they asked around 30 friends and acquaintances aged between eight and 35-years-old to recite the alphabet in English. All 30 did it with no mistakes. But when they were asked to recite the Arabic alphabet, only one or two managed it. The rest struggled, says Lina.
So far, the only revenue from the project has come from the sale of Adam Wa Mishmish CDs, which feature songs from the show. But there are plans for accompanying books, toys, DVDs and a mobile app.
The first two episodes of the show’s first season were funded by the entrepreneurs themselves and the other seven were funded through Afkarmena.com, an Amman-based crowdfunding site.
The second season has been funded by the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation, an Amman-based non-profit organisation dedicated to investing in cultural and social innovation, which has also agreed to sponsor another two seasons. New episodes will now be released every two weeks between now and November. But Luma, Ibrahim and Lina have plans for even more seasons, which means that Adam and his furry friend Mishmish will likely have many more adventures to come.
“We are planting the seeds for children to love their language,” adds Luma.