Parents need help to save the Arabic language
This summer break, I enrolled my 5-year-old son in an Arabic-speaking camp, one of only a few dedicated solely to the language. I, like many Emirati and Arabic-speaking parents, have long struggled to teach my son his native tongue, and enrolling him in the camp was my desperate attempt to remedy the situation.
Summer ended and my son had a fantastic learning experience, except where it mattered most — learning Arabic. It was frustrating, for both of us, because of the growing demands placed on both parents and children when it comes to learning the language. However, after much contemplation, I realized that this social pressure is nothing but an excuse for a system that has for years failed to preserve and reinforce the language in Arabic and Islamic society.
Before I continue, I must say that it is not lost on me that I am writing an article about the importance of the Arabic language — in English.
First, our schools are failing the Arabic language. Most private schools teach in English and have almost exclusively English-speaking staff. Students are taught the fundamentals in English, activities are practiced in English and the books are generally written in English. Arabic lessons are limited to three or four times a week, if not less. Parents also believe that the Arabic curriculum is outdated and rigid compared with others. They are thus faced with the difficult choice of compromising on a school’s excellence in other aspects if they want to enroll their children in schools that put more emphasis on teaching Arabic.
Those who graduate from government or Arabic-speaking private schools face the daunting challenge of enrolling in universities in the country that are predominantly English-speaking. These students clear hurdle after hurdle, only to graduate into a labor market in which it is almost mandatory to speak English.
It is also fair to say that to learn Arabic in our culture today is to learn two somewhat different languages: The classical language and the colloquial variant. Try teaching a 5-year-old the word “spoon” in its classical form compared with the Emirati dialect. I can assure you, they are not the same.
The overall result is that parents are expected to prioritize English from an early stage, believing that fluency in the language will advance their children’s future careers more than fluency in Arabic.
How can we expect our children to grow up learning and loving the language if everything they are exposed to is in English? Globalization and the use of English as the main language of the internet have led to other languages regressing, including Arabic, which has been losing ground at an alarming pace. Today, our children grow up watching “Peppa Pig” and “Paw Patrol.” They read the Harry Potter books and play with their Marvel figures. They tune into YouTube and its predominantly English content. They think in English and only translate into their mother tongue when they have to. With the sweeping use of smartphones, they communicate through TikTok and WhatsApp. Most technological and scientific advancements are supported in languages other than Arabic.
There is also a shortage of Arabic content, including educational and entertainment, on the internet. According to Google, Arabic makes up only 3 percent of overall online content.
It is crucial to understand that promoting and preserving the Arabic language is not just about the dialect you speak. A language is an ocean of colorful tides. It is the culture and values it celebrates, the folklore, the history and its urban tales. It is the proverbs handed down by grandparents and the music we hum in the morning. It is not merely a set of alphabets but, rather, an immersive experience of poetry and emotions. It is our path to preserving our national identity and the language of the streets.
Much like the global debate over mental health, the responsibility for preserving Arabic falls on all of us rather than the enabling environment. It is easy to expect the individual to shoulder the burden of exhaustion and depression instead of reducing their long working hours, prioritizing their office environment and promoting flexible working systems. The general rhetoric has been to recommend “practicing gratitude and meditation” or “detoxing from social media.” The idea is similar in that it once again reestablishes the focus on the individual when, in reality, it is the system that requires changing.
It takes a whole system to ensure our children speak the language and preserve our national identity.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
The Arab world is witnessing an awakening when it comes to the importance of employing modern methods in the teaching of Arabic. Despite many attempts in recent years to address this challenge, it seems the Arabic language is disappearing with every generation. At the risk of sounding defeatist, we need to accept that this is a huge challenge that requires an immediate and serious intervention from every party involved. Stop ostracizing parents for failing and realize that it takes a whole system to ensure our children speak the language and preserve our national identity.
- Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @AsmaIMalik