Is Arabic in decline?
Over the last ten years, the Arab-speaking world has witnessed an unprecedented spike in political unrest and tensions; from civil wars in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq to the continuation of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resulting displacement and forced migration has had a significant impact on the prevalence of the language that binds these people together. While Arabic is one of the most spoken languages in the world, as the official language of 25 countries and with over approximately 422 million speakers worldwide, new studies and articles have emerged, arguing that as a result of the aforementioned socio-political issues, the language is now suffering a decline with serious consequences for Arabic culture and heritage. I interviewed Hossam Abouzahr, founder of the Living Arabic Project, and Nasser M. Isleem, Professor of Arabic Language and Culture at New York University Abu Dhabi to explore the validity of these claims and the various factors leading to the purported decline. Abouzahr and Isleem both point to a variety of causes from low levels of literacy, the prioritization of foreign languages and political instability in Arab nations as well as advocating for systematic changes such as a greater diversity and creativity in Arabic literature and the integration of Arabic in daily life from school subjects and advertisements to TV shows.
Diglossic in nature, the Arabic language involves a main dialect which is used for literature, formal writing, political speeches and other forms of formal address, and other dialects for everyday communication. The former dialect is known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or Classical Arabic and has derived from the language used in the Muslim Holy Book, the Qu'ran, while the latter dialects vary from community to community. There are over 30 dialects of Arabic, most of which are quite different from the formal dialect of MSA. It is for this reason that MSA is so significant to wider Arab culture; MSA bridges the gap between dialects and unites the Arab world, allowing Arabs from various communities to communicate with one another and find commonality and an Arab identity. It is often directly linked to Arab culture, mainly due to its religious roots as the legacy of Islam and the Qu'ran. As a result, a decline in its use would not only reflect ‘weakening social infrastructure and declining education system,’ but also translates to a loss of culture and the failure of Arab nations to uphold its legacy.
As mentioned above, MSA is used in formal texts and communications and is taught in schools. Therefore, its decline can be mapped by a decline in literature and literacy rates. Few works of Arabic literature are published, with only 15,000 to 18,000 books produced annually — which is as many as Penguin Random House publishes alone. Egypt, which was once the largest producer of Arabic literature, publishing between 7,000 to 9,000 books a year, suffered a 70% drop in production following the 2011 revolution. It has taken five years for the industry to begin to recover. The material that does exist is very heavy, with little light reading, popular fiction, or graphic novels available. This demonstrates how the political conditions in Egypt have directly impacted the language as, with little material available, people turn to other languages that provide these forms of literature. It also shows support for Abouzahr’s argument as it demonstrates that as less literature is being produced in the language, the language is facing a decline. This also applies to other forms of creative arts such as film and theatre for which Arab youth turns to much larger foreign film industries such as Hollywood, which has detrimental effects on the significance of Arab culture and identity in the lives of younger generations.
Although many point to Arabic’s status as the official language of 25 countries, it is worth noting that official languages are not always the most widely spoken languages in those countries. Take for example the United Arab Emirates, where 88.5% of the population consists of expatriates from across the globe. Such a multicultural society hosts many different languages. As a former British protectorate, English has been chosen as the lingua franca to facilitate communication between these communities. All documentation, road signs, menus, billboards etc. are available in English and nearly the entire population, perhaps excluding those in more rural areas, communicate in English fluently. Furthermore, as Indians make up a large proportion of the UAE's population, with around three million Indians, Urdu is the most spoken language in the UAE. Foreign labour is undermining the presence of Arabic in countries in the region.
While there has been limited research conducted on literacy rates in the Arab world, the evidence that is available shows serious issues in adult literacy. According to statistics compiled by UNESCO, 52 million adults in the region are illiterate. This has been a pressing issue for the Arab region and seriously affects the prevalence of MSA in these countries. Moreover, Abouzahr argues that although some countries have shown improvement over the last few decades, ‘there are different levels of language proficiency and literacy’ and most literacy tests do not consider more than basic reading levels to look at the ‘ability to produce (write), actively engage with a text.’ The widespread illiteracy throughout the region contributes to MSA’s decline.
Wars, migration and rising preference for foreign languages
The conflicts and crises that have been taking place in Arabic-speaking countries over the last several decades have created alarming instability and affected literacy rates in the region. UNICEF estimates that nearly 9,000 schools and education institutions have been attacked in Syria, Libya and Iraq, and political crises in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have prevented 14.3 million people from attending school. This has affected literacy rates in the region and therefore the prevalence of MSA.
This is corroborated by Abouzahr who argues that the ‘destruction of major Arabic hubs’ such as Iraq and Syria due to wars has a significant effect on MSA. Syria, for example, was recognised as a hub for the academic study and development of Arabic at one point, all of which is now destroyed. The ‘mass displacement of people,’ and political and social instability in the region means that refugees often move to countries where Arabic is not spoken or taught. These refugees will be unable to communicate, write or read MSA and will be more dependent on foreign languages for everyday use. Their only exposure to Arabic will be at home, which will be limited.
As a result of expanding global markets and increasing international business, foreign languages are prioritised. Technological, scientific and business advancements are conducted in non-Arabic languages with very little output coming from the Arab world. Arabic cannot keep up with the evolving markets and translation does not offer an accurate enough understanding. As a result, in many Arab countries, foreign languages as therefore seen as ‘more functional, prestigious, and likely to guarantee them a job’ and therefore, more emphasis is placed on learning a foreign language rather than Arabic. Another effect of wars is that the educated classes, who traditionally read and wrote MSA and were able to speak a ‘more educated form of Arabic’ which was closer to MSA than local dialects, have been ‘decimated.’ To ‘avoid the wars, find work, and secure futures for their children,’ this socio-economic class is moving abroad to countries where foreign languages are more useful and the Arabic language takes a secondary role. Moreover, it is this educated class who can speak foreign languages who are able to secure jobs abroad; this only serves to encourage the acquisition of foreign languages in order to flee the political unrest. According to Isleem, children of migrants ‘will hardly be able to pronounce the Arabic alphabet when they get to university level.’ The irony is, Isleem points out, that while people in non-Arab countries are striving to learn Arabic to gain an edge in the business world, native speakers are letting it fall by the wayside while they try to learn other languages.
As well as creating business environments where foreign languages are promoted, globalisation creates highly interconnected networks with other communities and cultures, Arabic is increasingly becoming hybridised with influences from foreign languages. This new form known as ‘Arabizi’ represents ‘coolness, sophistication and modernity’ amongst Arab youths. This is particularly pertinent to the decline of MSA which is seen as very formal, ‘stand-offish and stilted’ and there is a lack of interest amongst youth in learning it. For example, the use of Arabic is declining in Lebanon with the majority of youth preferring to communicate in French or English rather than Arabic which is seen as ‘outdated and dull.’ The Arab Youth Survey, conducted last year, concluded that 68% of Gulf Arabs aged 18 to 24 used English more than Arabic on a daily basis.
Hope for the future
Obviously, this is not an easy issue to resolve and many of the factors contributing to this decline, such as wars and immigrations, have no easy solutions. However, Abouzahr and Isleem have proposed some measures to promote MSA in Arab countries.
One major hurdle Arabic needs to overcome is the concerning lack of literature produced in the language. Both Isleem and Abouzahr consider this an important move and Isleem argues that this needs to be done by producing original works in Arabic, not just translations of popular books in foreign languages which comprise of the majority of sales of Arabic books. Isleem and Abouzahr also discuss the ‘inaccessible’ and ‘unappealing’ way in which children’s books approach MSA, making it difficult for children to learn. They argue that the books need to be more fun and engaging to be more successful. Isleem suggests further popular children’s TV shows can be revived to increase engagement with Arabic.
Isleem also believes that ‘the popular usage of foreign languages’ is one of the greatest threats to the language and needs to be address both in schools and beyond these walls within homes. Indeed, hybrid forms of Arabic such as Arabizi are attributed to the ‘deterioration’ suffered by the language. To counter this, Arabic should be used in official school curriculums and subjects such as maths, sciences, history, geography etc, should be taught in Arabic and teachers need to be ‘assessed carefully for their Arabic language knowledge.’ Arabic also needs to be the language of interaction between family members, which is particularly important for families living in non-Arab countries to preserve the language. Arabic education tools need to be accessible for people living in non-Arab countries because this will help lessen the effect of globalisation and ensure the flourishment of Arabic.
Isleem has an interesting proposal, as he believes Arabic should exclusively be used in advertisements, and billboards and should be promoted on social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. This has potential to be hugely successful, as advertising is a massive industry; researchers estimate we are exposed to 5,000 adverts a day. Contemporary society is highly dependent on technology and social media apps. It is especially important as Arabic online content is very minimal, comprising of less than three percent of overall web content which favours foreign languages instead. To build on this, using public figures and popular celebrities to promote learning Arabic could also be beneficial. For example, model Karlie Kloss has used her platform to promote coding and computer programming amongst girls. Through her ‘Kode with Klossy’ project, she runs coding camps across the United States to promote women in STEM. Something similar could be done for Arabic by a popular Arab celebrity.
According to Isleem, the ‘decline in the proficiency of Arabic language among native speakers in the Gulf region has been a subject of concern among Arabic instructors, policy makers and politicians.’ This can be seen in the various movements they have introduced to address this decline. For example, the UAE has pioneered several initiatives such as Bil Arabi, which has promoted Arabic through social media platforms and held special courses in schools. The Emirati government also launched a free online learning platform called Madrasa to offer educational videos on school subjects such as maths and science.
Both Isleem and Abouzahr have also created projects to promote learning Arabic. Kalima wa Nagham is Isleem’s brainchild, which ‘integrates teaching MSA and some key features of Levantine Arabic.’ Abouzahr runs the Living Arabic Project as ‘online database for dialects and MSA so that learners can access both at the same time,’ bridging the gap between vernaculars and MSA.
Language is a ‘tool of culture’ and MSA represents Arabic heritage. A decline in the ability to communicate in Arabic means fewer materials will be produced in the language and therefore fewer ‘cultural artefacts that bear witness to contemporary’ society. This is a cause for concern and needs to be addressed by emphasising Arabic through the ideas offered above. It is important for the Arabic world to increase their output, whether that is through literature, online content, advertising or other domains.
However, culture is continuously evolving and changing according to the various influences that affect it, many of which cannot be controlled. The changes in language are natural over time and can offer an interesting insight into the history of a nation. For example, Hugh Naylor explores a new language seemingly developing in the UAE, a fusion of the various native languages of the residents, where ‘Arabic has absorbed English, Urdu has altered Arabic, Farsi has fused with Hindi.’ This ‘street talk’ offers a fascinating look into life in the Emirates, the people who inhabit it and the culture of the nation. Therefore, to an extent, this change in language is natural. A change in the Arabic language represents the challenges and experiences felt by these Arab countries through wars and displacement as well as through Westernisation and globalisation.
Furthermore, it is important to note that efforts to revive Arabic have been similarly mirrored across the globe, as different languages start to disappear. France, resistant to the ‘encroachment’ of English into their daily language, hosts annual competitions to find French replacements for English colloquialisms. In Scotland, only 1.7% of the population can claim to have any skills in Scottish Gaelic, sparking governmental investment of nearly £30 million across all age groups from classes for nursery children to training from public service representatives. This demonstrates a pressing threat all around the world concerning the decline of languages which are cultural vessels, holding the histories, traditions and legacies of generations.