Language barrier (diglossia!)

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 4 16:56:10 UTC 2005

March 4, 2005 DAILY EXPRESS

Language Barrier by Joseph Braude

Only at TNR Online | Post date 02.22.05

Since September 11, the U.S. government's bid to promote democracy and
improve America's image in the Arab world has consisted largely of
countering anti-American pan-Arab media with pro-American pan-Arab media.
In 2003, the State Department launched a glossy magazine called Hi, which
it distributed in 13 Arab countries. The U.S.-backed Al Hurra television
network--which recently celebrated its first anniversary--offers programs
resembling those of Al Jazeera in nearly every local market reached by its
rival. The former chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public
Diplomacy, Harold Pachios, has written, "Now more than ever, the United
States needs it own voice in the Arabic language." And these efforts go
beyond government programs. Witness the Global Americana Institute, which
seeks "to engage in translation, publication, and distribution of books on
the United States in Arabic. The initial volume will be the key works of
Thomas Jefferson."

But there's a problem with these initiatives. Just as you won't win over a
crowd of Mexican villagers by speaking Latin, the United States can't sell
democracy and reform to Arab populations by speaking to them in modern
standard Arabic--and ignoring the Middle East's more widely understood
vernacular languages.

The challenge of winning hearts and minds among populations with high
illiteracy rates is doubly complex in the case of the Arab world. Not only
are 70 million Arabs unable to read or write; a much larger number of the
region's 280 million people do not fully speak or understand the
standardized Arabic language (known as "Fus'ha") that is used in broadcast
news as well as official discourse and the academy. Fus'ha was introduced
in schools across the region beginning about 90 years ago as a component
of pan-Arab nationalism. It is a formal construct, gleaned from classical
Arabic grammar and wholly consistent with Koranic syntax, designed to
unite the 20-odd Arab countries culturally and politically. But nine
decades later it unites, in effect, only the region's elites.

Most everybody else prefers to speak a version of their country's
vernacular. Ninety percent of Moroccans, for example, can only understand
their unique brand of Arabic, which is heavily infused with Berber phonics
and French vocabulary--testimony to the country's multiethnic and colonial
history. The Moroccan language, in turn, is barely comprehensible to, say,
Iraqis, whose unique idioms and usages reflect more ancient Mesopotamian
tongues as well as the country's proximity to Turkey, Iran, and the
Kurdish mountains. These vernaculars, derided by pan-Arab ideologues as
"dialects," are in fact the region's major living languages. They are the
contemporary Middle Eastern equivalent of Romance languages, which, of
course, were all derived from Latin and were also once known as
dialects--but now are known as Spanish, Italian, and French.

The Arab world today stands at a crossroads--between an old-fashioned
allegiance to the contrived political agenda of a single Arab nation (or a
single Islamic nation) and a new twenty-first-century emphasis on
distinct, democratic national polities that focus on their own social and
political challenges. But the latter will not be possible if a country's
majority does not understand the language of government. Thus where
countries have grassroots movements calling for mother-tongue media and
education--the list includes Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco--the United
States should support their efforts. The renowned Beirut linguist Sa'id
A'il plans to publish the first ever "dictionary of Lebanese" this summer
for a small group of scholars, but there is no program in place to develop
his life's work into a curriculum. An independent newspaper began
publishing in "Moroccan" in May 2003 and has won a large following among
the working class but requires investment in order to expand.

Might the Middle East Partnership Initiative--founded with great fanfare
by the Bush administration in January 2003 to promote discourse and civil
society in the Arab world--consider supporting projects like these? One of
the Initiative's existing projects, which subsidizes the translation and
publication of children's books by Scholastic, predictably does so in
Fus'ha--a one-size-fits-all approach for every Arab country. Not an
encouraging sign. On the other hand, the U.S.-backed Radio Sawa, which
broadcasts locally on FM dials across the region, has begun to include
some local vernacular content in five separate Arab markets. More work
along these lines is needed.

Meanwhile the natural evolution of new media in Arab countries is
bolstering the use of local vernacular all by itself. The proliferation of
Arabic-language blogs means thousands of webpages are updated daily in the
versions of Arabic spoken in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Tunis, and so on.
Rather than fall behind this curve, the United States should adjust and
adapt its strategy for reaching Arab audiences. We stand to gain
considerably from speaking to the Middle East in languages that Arab
majorities, not just elites, can understand.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for
Its People, the Middle East, and the World.

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