How Arabs Have Failed Their Language

The insistence on teaching Classical Arabic over modern dialects has hindered our linguistic and literary development

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How Arabs Have Failed Their Language
The book “Willi – The cat that kept on growing” in the original (L) and in the Arabic translation / Andreas Arnold / picture alliance via Getty Images

Reading with children is, or should be, an enjoyable act of bonding and education. But, in the case of Arabic, I have often found reading in the language I inherited to be an experience of mutual misery. My son and I speak Lebanese Arabic, which he understands well enough — and better every day. But we can only find a handful of books available in that dialect — or in other accessible, useful dialects, be they Egyptian or Iraqi. Conversely, although we find many more books in Classical Arabic, my son understands very little of it. Accessible books are rare, while common books are inaccessible. Children do not seek out books written in an old Arabic, because they are full of unknown words and unfamiliar grammatical structures; parents struggle to instill a love of language and learning, or even to access these materials themselves.

Arabs have done this to themselves, doubly damning their communication in diglossia, or linguistic variety, and denying their role in this. Diglossia is a situation in which two or more varieties of a language are shoved together through social circumstances; for Arabic, there are numerous spoken dialects that exist side by side with the formal, standardized al-fuṣḥā, or fus-ha, also known as Modern Standard Arabic or Classical Arabic. Arabs have tried to elevate the only so-called true or pure Arabic, while working to discredit, disable, and even destroy dialects. They have thus made an official language out of a form that nobody considers a native tongue, while making everyone’s different native tongues seem subpar, uncouth, and useless.

This emphasis on preserving Classical Arabic — itself an acknowledgement that the language needs protection, without which it will die out — has made such reading an unlovable experience for most speakers, who struggle to properly speak the language. More importantly, the fixation with or sacred view of the old language has directly affected the dialects.

Speakers can’t pass on their dialects fully because they lack institutional support, have few available tools, and suffer from sociocultural snootiness toward the spoken tongue(s). And they can’t access Classical Arabic — which everyone glorifies but no one speaks as a native — easily enough.

As it is used today, Classical Arabic is not even a complete or living language. Most people do not use it much and only do so in formal settings (or, perhaps, for official purposes). It lacks expressive qualities needed for everyday speech. This discourages wider uptake and use, which in turn creates a scenario where Arabs cannot develop such phrases. If dialects were to disappear tomorrow, people would struggle to use Classical Arabic as an everyday language.

Dialects are limited, too. Often mutually unintelligible, dialects divide people who might otherwise be part of a realm connected culturally by the Arabic language, such as somewhat standardized Arabic in the press and certain sociocultural traditions and practices. Lacking legitimacy and acceptance, dialects are less useful — at least now — in different spheres like education, law, and administration (areas that also involve precedent, meaning that future changes are constrained by the past).

Perhaps nothing illustrates Arabs’ contradictory approach to their language than the messages they give their children. On the one hand, parents laugh at their children when they pick up Classical Arabic words (from, say, cartoons). They chide their children with comments like, “Nobody speaks like that.” But they also implore their children to learn the language they have just exposed as useless and worthy of derision. Recalling a time when her kids were fighting, one Arabic professor laughed with exasperation at the thought of one yelling at the other: “tabban lak!” — an archaic and awkward phrase meaning “damn you.”

On the other hand, people degrade dialects all the time. Children who ask why a certain phrase is used are told they are speaking a “grammarless” or even “fake” language. Even worse, that language might be branded as vulgar. Parents might call someone who uses even the simplest, easiest words of their lexicon a “farmer” or a “barbarian.” In doing so, they attach shame to the language of their daily lives. Unlike Classical Arabic, nonetheless, dialects are unregulated and so better allow users to create new words or absorb new phrases from foreign languages or the old language.

Reviewing global literacy rates against money spent on education, the language professor John Myhill concluded that the focus on Classical Arabic in formal education hurts literacy rates in Arabic-speaking countries. Across the board, even in richer Gulf Arab states, Arabic-speaking literacy rates are lower than expected given the amounts these governments spend on education. The problem is worse than the numbers suggest, although an illiteracy rate of 28% in Egypt should be alarming enough. Exam results, a widely used metric of educational success, fail to convey an accurate picture of language proficiency given reports that people pay bribes to pass literacy exams (according to an article in Al-Fanar, an academic assessment, and my interviews with non-governmental organizations working on literacy in Egypt).

Arabic speakers admit to holding negative views of Classical Arabic — and, relatedly, their own skills in it. Everyone from high school students to adults expressed a “dislike of reading in general, especially ‘longer pieces’ like books,” during a study in Egypt by Niloofar Haeri, a linguistics professor at Johns Hopkins University. Finding Classical Arabic to be “heavy” and “scary,” Haeri’s participants “simply did not enjoy the activity” of reading and found writing to be even more difficult and “intimidating.” Suggesting that the official literacy numbers are shaky at best, she notes that “the majority of people do not attain a level of literacy that allows for participation in various creative or civic communities when these require proficiency in the official language. … Even grammar teachers, copyeditors, and university-educated people speak routinely of their fear of making mistakes.”

They learn to speak one language at home and read or write another language at school.

While other researchers have made different arguments, they ultimately misdiagnose and understate the problem. Helen Abadzi, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Education, claimed in an article that Arabic is difficult for children because the script is complex. Echoing a complaint common among Arab scholars, she stated that reading tests in four Arab countries “have shown a widespread inability to understand written text.” Describing issues that children clearly face because they learn to speak one language at home and read or write another language at school, she concludes that the problem is the complexity of Arabic script. But the script, or the script alone, cannot be the problem. Other languages, such as Persian, use the same script as Arabic, but their users do not face the same reading and writing challenges.

Make no mistake. The problem is diglossia.

When I studied Arabic as a child, and when I restarted studying it as an adult, I didn’t know much about these issues. The more I learned, the angrier I became. Why did I, and millions of other children, have to go through a bad education system that left us frustrated and hating our own language, then go through it again while trying to relearn Arabic as adults, and then perhaps again while trying to teach our children?

If Arabs wanted to keep Classical Arabic and dialects, they could still develop an education system that took on the challenges of diglossia and even turned the presence of dialects and Classical Arabic into a strength.

I learned even more when I launched The Living Arabic Project in 2013. Back then, I had one target audience in mind: me. I wanted database-quality search capabilities and the ability to access my Arabic dialect database from wherever I was. I figured this would be the last step in creating tools for studying Arabic and that I could flesh out the initial dictionaries and then consume material in dialect whenever I needed.

But the project, like so many things in life, was not as simple as I initially assumed. My task kept growing more complicated. Dialects were relatively unmapped as languages and their grammar and lexicon was not as well understood as better-documented languages. I had to do a lot more research than expected, and I was constantly finding new words and phrases to add to the database. What started as a word list became, by necessity, a more complex tool to bridge the gap between dialects and Classical Arabic and ease the Arabic learning process.

And then came the real monkey wrench in my grand design: my son. As a parent determined to raise his son to be multilingual, I wanted to get resources like kids’ books, songs, cartoons, and games for him. I began the quest before he was born. But while my desire to pass on this heritage was common, I discovered that I would not be able to find any resources. That was, and is, unusual. For example, Shangaan, the minor Bantu language I studied in the Peace Corps, has an estimated 3.5 million speakers, or less than one percent of the 400 million Arabic-speaking people on the planet, and somehow there are more resources for teaching kids Shangaan than there are for Arabic dialects — combined!

Like others, I am now stuck teaching a child a little-documented language, in our case the Lebanese dialect, with a relatively small number of native speakers and essentially no resources, while also teaching him the almost alien language of Classical Arabic with plenty of materials for reading and writing. And like others, I am learning so that I can teach.

Blessed and condemned by fatherhood, I have tried my best to now do what I have failed to do in the past: learn, and thus teach. I tried widening my net beyond the Lebanese dialect to include the Levantine dialects in general, which together boast a population of about 40 million. Eventually, I found a few materials — most published in the past decade, as some publishing houses, authors, and producers have braved criticism to create content in different dialects. I found materials from Dar Onboz, a Lebanese publishing house that has published in the Lebanese dialect. I also discovered the works of Riham Shendy, who has recently published a collection of short stories in Egyptian (a testament to her talent and real demand, a top seller of children’s books for several months in a row at Egypt’s bookstore Diwan).

I also took comfort in the Egyptian-dubbed cartoons, stories in Levantine dialects, and shows in Gulf Arab dialects — the latter, in particular, are more available these days than in years past. But I still felt like I had failed. Children need much more than these slim pickings to learn properly. They need hundreds of books, at least according to the early education studies I have read. And, of course, they need more than books to learn different dimensions of the language and — God forbid! — enjoy the process. Everything else for children remains dominated by the high language of Classical Arabic.

While parents and children struggle, others insist on the old and counterproductive ways (including a mistaken belief that early exposure to Classical Arabic will help children master it and purify them of their dialects). Despite all evidence to the contrary, Arab authorities, scholars, religious figures, and others have protected Classical Arabic and obstructed dialects. Arab-led governments have preserved Classical Arabic as the language of instruction in schools, of law in courts, of records in documents, and more.

Most Arabs also resist any suggestion of change, or of flexibility. Politicians disparaged a campaign in Morocco to use the vernacular, claiming that proponents of the campaign meant to divide the country and restrict Classical Arabic to mosques only. They pressured the campaign’s founder, Noureddine Ayyoush, to water down his goal. Instead of elevating Moroccan dialects, he then declared that he wanted to promote “a simplified Arabic.” Similarly, Algerian academics and even members of the public attacked the Algerian minister of education’s proposal to teach in the local dialect for the first two years of primary school.

Others have found excuses for sticking with Classical Arabic in education, too. A June 2017 article in Raseef22 asserts that using the native language in education in Morocco “will collide with multilingualism” because of the different languages used in Morocco, concluding that it is easier to just stick with Classical Arabic. Politicians and scholars commonly claim that the differences between dialects and Classical Arabic are minor and “can be easily corrected” in a way that Classical Arabic can be understandable to children.

They all miss or refuse to see the truth. With their contradictory and counterproductive attitude toward their own language(s), Arabs have turned diglossia into a curse — one that may mean the ossification or even death of Classical Arabic and a perverse damning of dialects. While proponents of each side of the language argument may feel that they can force a solution, they will only make matters worse if they continue to adopt a binary approach. For instance, official and other influential proponents of Classical Arabic have insisted on purifying their language of the dialects people speak and understand. Not only have they excluded their own dialects from important public spaces, they have also relatedly discouraged certain learning in private spaces and made it more difficult for parents — in different segments of society, not just in a diaspora — to pass on their cultural inheritances to children.

And for what? The illusion of a certain type, and level, of agency. Despite their denial and obstinacy, Arabs may not be able to save Classical Arabic, suppress dialects, or otherwise assert their preferences on everyone, anyway. Nor can the proponents of one dialect, anywhere, impose it as a common language in the entire Arabic-speaking realm. As the academic Charles Ferguson wrote in his 1959 article in which he coined the term diglossia, “often the trends which will be decisive in the development of a standard language are already at work and have little to do with the argumentation of the spokesmen for the various viewpoints.”

Ultimately, Arabic’s diglossia might last centuries in its current forms and with its negative consequences. Arabs need to renegotiate their relationships with Classical Arabic and the modern dialects, lest the former slip without the latter rising to replace it. Instead of imposing a zero-sum view, Arabs may adopt a less restrictive approach with — and between — both “languages” in official, social, and familial levels. States, for instance, may use their native tongues earlier in education and gradually teach the formal language later. Myhill noted in his 2014 article on literacy and Arabic diglossia that Sri Lanka, which is challenged by its own diglossia, met with remarkable success when it took a similar approach to improve literacy.

Arabs can and should do the same. They may also try new tools to more effectively and easily bridge the gap between Classical Arabic and modern dialects. Writing systems for dialects can be standardized in a way that maximizes cross-referencing with Classical Arabic, which is what I have actively tried to do in my own dictionary work. Even if Classical Arabic were to become the sole form of Arabic, Arabs would need to expand it to work for day-to-day communication. They just need to get over their own barriers.

Getting past all the academic analysis, I’m still thinking about my son and how I can pass on a part of his heritage: language. Immersion is not an option now. We live in the United States and can only visit Lebanon, our place of origin and heritage, infrequently.

Sure, we’ve made some progress. I’ve translated a number of books into dialect, from both English and Classical Arabic; edited his kindergarten Arabic books to capitalize on overlaps between dialects and Classical Arabic; and created other learning resources for him. He now speaks Arabic fluently. But even I — someone with expertise in, and a passion for, this language and ways to teach it — cannot create enough material for him. We face barrier after barrier, then reach plateau after plateau. And, anyway, not every parent has the time, expertise, and inclination to create these materials for their kids! What about other parents and their children, who for too long have struggled with similar dilemmas and lost so much in the process? And what about parents who feel frustrated but have neither the resources nor the access to challenge others with institutional or informal power over the sale of written materials?

Watching my son grow up, I have been thinking about why we should care so much given the choices we all make: to live somewhere new, while seeking to preserve our heritage, or to seek to improve our children’s chances in this globalized world, and thus try to overcome that selfsame heritage while having never left home.

Why? Why do we care so much?

I now realize that I have been worrying about more than the words we read on paper or hear over the airwaves. I want to pass on a love of self, so that my son may love this and every part of himself. Arabs and other Arabic speakers voice love for Classical Arabic while despising themselves for being unable to master it, and they look down on their own dialects, despite living their lives with those languages every day. Maybe I just want my son to be free of that perverse and painful contradiction — and to feel that he can love and embody Arabic, in all its forms, without being in conflict with or within himself.

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