Friday, August 13, 2010

'Linguistic Democratization' of the Arabic Language is not the Way

I read with interest yesterday the piece titled "The death of Arabic is greatly exaggerated" in the English language UAE-based newspaper The National written by author of the Qifa Nabki blog Elias Muhanna. Many thanks to Portland-based Arabic language teacher Sarah Standish who brought it to my attention. It was enjoyable to read that piece, but the line of reasoning towards the end of the article started to contradict what I believe in. And when I saw that piece being retweeted today in my Twitter timeline, I found myself coming here to write these words. I agree with the title of the piece that "The death of Arabic is greatly exaggerated", but I disagree with the details that you see in the argument laid out in the article (more towards the latter part of it).

The author quotes Kristen Brustad, a professor at the University of Texas who alludes in her argument to the variety of communicative styles Arabs use in their interaction on the non-traditional media platforms such as online social networking sites and to the language used by Arabs on the many satellite television channels that broadcast in Arabic (there are more than 500 such channels). The argument goes to call for bridging the gap (between the familiar spoken Arabic and the unfamiliar Standard or Fus'ha Arabic) in language instruction in the Arab World by "incorporating material from the spoken idioms into language instruction". Kristen Brustad is quoted again as saying that what schools need is “the same kind of linguistic democratisation that is pervading communicative spaces like the internet and satellite television.” 

Distribution of Arabic as a Majority language in the Arab World. [Public domain image on Wikipedia]

I cannot disagree more. This proposal sounds like annoying heavy metal music to my Syrian ears. I do not know what satellite channels Kristen Brustad is looking at, but the vast majority of those 500 Arabic-speaking satellite television channels are not of good quality, and the most credible and popular pan-Arab satellite channels that I know of (such as the Al Jazeera Arabic Channel for example) use Fus'ha almost exclusively as their language of communication. Channels like these not only prove that Modern Standard Arabic can be successfully and brilliantly used as a standard communication medium amongst Arabs regardless of their country of origin, but that also the language is flexible enough to accommodate the continuously proliferating new technical foreign-language terminology, that the opponents of Arabic point to as one big obstacle that faces the Arabic language today. For me as a native Arabic speaker who grew up in a country that strongly promotes Fus'ha Arabic, the original new foreign language terms are as unfamiliar to me as the corresponding newly-Arabized or newly-coined Arabic terms. It is all a matter of habit in using the terms. If all you will do is look at the terms as a critical outsider and never attempt to use them or improve them, they will forever remain unfamiliar to you.

And I cannot even start to imagine how mediocre a curriculum of any subject in school will be in an Arab country if they start incorporating material from the spoken idioms in the formal language of instruction. It is unimaginable that that will ever happen, and especially not in Syria! And just to clarify, we are talking here about the language of instruction in the Arabic countries for the native Arabic speakers. Teaching spoken dialects to the non-native Arabic speakers is a whole different issue!

Here is my comment on this that I left on the Qifa Nabki blog quoted here for completion:

Why do you all ignore the Syrian example in this? The Syrians have done something right to make Fus’ha easy and accessible to Syrians. Think what you may of the Syrian education system, but Syrians can probably use Fus’ha with much more ease compared to some Arabs in other Arabic countries.
I enjoyed reading the piece in The National, but the author lost me towards the end. I disagree with the conclusion and with the premise of Kristen Brustad’s opinion on this as quoted in the article. “linguistic democratisation” is not the solution, and especially not for native Arabic speakers.
The solution is in teaching Fus’ha the way it should be taught. The Syrians have a good thing going in that area in my opinion, and their example should be examined and perhaps followed. Yes. I agree that Arabic is healthy, but in a different way. Isn’t the Fus’ha-speaking Al Jazeera Arabic the most watched news channel in the Arab World? Don’t all its competitors in the Arab World and the West use Fus’ha to speak to Arab viewers. Don’t all [respectable] media portals in the Arab World write and publish in Fus’ha? What version of Arabic do you all read in the ubiquitous Arabic-language newspapers that are published in or outside the Arab World?
The brilliance of the Syrian example is that Fus’ha and the spoken dialect co-exist seamlessly in communication both in daily life and in instruction, but when it comes to published material and curricula, Fus’ha is what rules.
For clarification, I was born in Syria. I lived there most of my life. I studied medicine in Arabic in Syria before moving to North America in the late 90s.

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