[lg policy] Death of Arabic language- a myth?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Sep 18 14:23:09 UTC 2010

Death of Arabic language- a myth?
Posted in Arabic language,Arabic
slang,Arabizi,Linguistics,Sociolinguistics by FFSS on September 17,

The month of Ramadhan is now over, how sad, looking forward to the
next one! All Muslims have now celebrated Eid (to mark the end of
Ramdhan), a nice time to meet family and friends and exchange gifts,
oh and not forgetting eating special food.

So once again I could not help myself but comment on yet another
article about the so-called “death”  of Arabic language, or rather the
question of is Arabic dead or in danger?  I came across this article
written very well on Middle East Online, in which the writer clearly
states that the whole idea that Arabic is dead (or dying or in danger)
is a myth and greatly exaggerated for that matter. The more I read on
this topic the more interesting it becomes, seriously, so  many people
investing their time in writing about a concern or a myth or the
demise of a language- that has to get people interested! What’s all
the fuss about? As I always say again and again on this blog, I wonder
what the situation of Arabic language will be in 10, 20 or 30 years’
time. Who will be right? The optimists or those warning over the
“death” of Arabic?

In general, the writer in his lengthy article (that’s why I did not
paste it here),  gives a historical background to the whole situation
of how actually Arabic has never really had so many speakers, even in
the days when it occupied the status of the language or culture and
civilization. Based on that claim, he asserts that today Arabic has so
many more speakers than even then, so why the panic now? Why the fear
that Arabic is in demise if it has an unprecedented number of speakers
today? An issue that constantly comes up – the belief that the more
speakers a language has the less likely it is to become weak, or in
extreme cases for it to die.  As I have said before, any linguist
working in language revitalization or language ecology will disagree
with this popular belief, and perhaps even show languages with more
speakers facing danger of extinction whilst languages with fewer
speakers remain strong and face no danger.

The writer cites many of the language revival efforts which I have
quoted/ discussed in this blog too; such as the Beirul F’il Amr
organisation, some Gulf countries’ efforts to revamp interest in the
Arabic language and so on…and how these are all reactionary ways of
dealing with the fear that Arabic is in danger. He then quotes experts
who share his opinion that Arabic is in no danger, and he then
balances it out by including the opinion of other experts who express
concern over the education policy in schools in the Arab world and
call for that to be revised if Arabic language is to be used
correctly- and by extension if it is to avoid “death”.  So to be fair
he does try to show both sides even if only just.

I liked the way he qualifies all his statements either by historical
examples or instances of Arabic use today by people, this always adds
a touch of veracity.  For example, he uses the case of Ibn Mandhuur
(author of the most respected Arabic dictionary- which spans 25
volumes, but now these are available on CDs, I have to say I prefer
the hard copies) in which Ibn Mandhuur writes in the preface of the
dictionary that he fears the demise of Arabic.  The writer here argues
that there is no way that Arabic was in danger at the time, which is
right, because it was the lingua Franca of the part of the world from
as far as India and to the Iberian Peninsula. It was the language of
education, culture and business and yet this scholar thought to put
down his fears over its demise. The writer says here that Ibn Mandhuur
feared that people were not using the FuSHa (Classical/Qur’anic
Arabic) and were using their spoken Arabic dialects which in turn was
affecting their use and understanding of the original Arabic. Having
read Ibn Madhuur’s words myself, I always think if he was here today
what would he say about the situation of Arabic?  If during its peak
and enlightenment, he thought Arabic was in danger and his primary
concern was the FuSHa, would he even consider some of today’s Arabic
as Arabic?  One might say that his fear drove him to compile a
dictionary that would stand the test of time and a dictionary that
actually played a crucial role in the preservation of Arabic language.
 His type of fear I think is the same type of fear some people have
today, if you keep promoting the spoken and not study the classical
you will lose touch with your language for sure.

The writer insists that today Arabic is in more use that it has ever
been before in history because of the available channels by which
communication can take place, such as satellite TV, internet, forums
and blogs.  Claiming that 300 million speakers guarantee that Arabic
will never be in decline and that merely going through these forums
one can see the different, local and idiosyncratic ways in which
Arabic language is being used- something unprecedented. Unprecedented
indeed! There has never really been a time in which communication
across the world has been so easy or managed to break linguistic,
social and economic barriers like today.  But does that mean that just
because so many people are writing, texting and blogging in ‘Arabic’
(however one wishes to define Arabic) that the language is in no
danger of being under threat or at least facing what linguists call
‘shifting’?  I have to say here that Arabic is greater demand today
for many different reasons, religious/liturgal (which is the primary
one, because this extends to non-Arabs too, so we could exaggerate and
say over a billion people will do some type of Arabic learning during
their lifetime ), political, security reasons, and maybe even cultural
reasons. In relation to this point, let’s ask (apart from religious
reasons) who else is interested in Arabic? In my experience (as a
student and teacher) definitely non-native speakers are the ones
investing their time and money in studying and understanding the
Arabic language. Apologies if this statement offends anybody, it does
not take much to come to my conclusion, simply browse the internet and
you will see the number of centres, academies and places in which
Arabic can be taught, none of the adverts are in Arabic!  How many
university students from Europe, America and Australia are in the Arab
universities studying Arabic language, either for one term, one
academic year, summer courses, Easter courses, Christmas language
breaks and so on? So although the author says that Arabic is now
studied in a way that it never has been before, I agree but not by its
native speakers, at least in the Gulf countries. And those who are
concerned over the demise of Arabic are worried that native speakers
are losing the language. One might say well that’s like English, as a
native English speaker I don’t invest in studying English, I might
study stylistics or academic rhetoric but those are advanced levels
for someone who has mastered the language. In school it is one subject
that a student studies throughout their life, it’s one of those
subjects that if students could opt out of they would; but the whole
education system ensures that all students who leave school need to
have a certain level of linguistic competence. In England, as I am not
sure about other English speaking countries,  if one fails English at
school they may not be able to do their desired course at A- level or
nowadays get a job!  To reinforce this all subjects are taught in
English, and the education policy introduced something called
‘literacy across the curriculum’ where students needed to be competent
in writing or expressing themselves in English in all subjects.
Therefore, I don’t need to invest in learning English, I can
linguistically afford to learn Chinese or French- it makes sense.  But
Arabic language policies are apparently not so clear-cut, at least
based on my research of Gulf countries (but that is a topic for
another post). There are different types of schools for different
types of people, for different types of aims so the education system
is one that is unique- hence any language policy would need to be
written coherently and implemented by the letter.

Another point he brings up is that today people are more literate than
ever before and that even the great cultural civilizations such as
Egypt until recently had less than half their population classed as
illiterate.  My question, really not just to the writer but in
general- how do we define literacy? Does it mean that if I cannot read
a language, therefore I am cultureless or therefore I cannot be
considered to be academically sound? What if my culture is one of an
oral tradition? Can I not participate in culture or add anything to
the arena of civilization?  Arab culture has always been an oral one
and information by their greatest scholars and poets was stored by way
of a rote system. These people had, and in some parts of the Arab
world this still happens, what we might call photographic memories; I
discussed this is the ‘Preservation of the Arabic language revisited’
post, where committing to memory 10,000 lines of rhyming poetry was no
great task! It was the revelation of the Qur’an and it subsequent
writing down and the recording of hadith (sayings of the Prophet
Muhammad peace be upon him) that transformed the Arab culture from an
oral one to a literary one- hence its survival until today.

To end, I think that numbers of speakers is no indicator of the
whether a language will survive or not, rather it is the quality and
accuracy by which its speakers use it that will determine the
robustness and shelf-life of a language.  Perhaps it is a myth that
Arabic language is dying, but I don’t think it is a myth that Arabic
proficiency is very weak among some native Arabic speakers.


Source: www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=40566

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