The Dilution of Arabic: Why it’s Failing, What Can be Done
Written by Steve Royston via The Mideastposts.com
I am sitting in a busy airport terminal in Doha. All around me, people are having urgent conversations on their mobile phones. An airport is the modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel. Many languages are being spoken, but the default is English, not Arabic. A Lebanese businessman is talking to a colleague, another Arabic speaker. I can understand most of what he is saying, because in one sentence he uses phrases from three languages – Arabic, French and English. Nearby, a Gulf Arab is also on the phone. Like the Lebanese guy, she switches language mid-sentence, but confines herself to Arabic and English.
After five decades of oil-fuelled development, English is firmly established as the second language of the GCC countries. For many Arabs this is a good thing – English is their gateway to other worlds, just as French was for the people of the Levant a century ago. Yet there is also widespread concern that English is colonising the language that gives Arabs their common identity. Words and phrases of alien origin are creeping into Arabic, and creating a common parlance far from the pristine language of the Quran.
Even in Saudi Arabia, that most conservative of nations, it’s fashionable for many youngsters to speak in English, as this article in the Arab News reports. And for all the wealth and power of the Arabic-speaking nations, very few words in the modern era have crossed the other way into common English usage. Those that have made the jump bring with them connotations seen by native English speakers as negative – fatwa, jihad and intifada. A far cry from the language of invention and discovery that entered the European languages in earlier times – algebra, algorithm and safari, to name but a few.
Since humans first grunted to each other in caves, languages have developed, mutated and split off into separate dialects. Even families have special words not understood outside their own small confines. Slang comes and goes – some gets absorbed into the mainstream. And every year a few minority tongues die out.
What troubles Arab intellectuals more than the bastardisation of their language is that its use is declining, especially among the young. There is an Arabic interface for Facebook, yet 75% of Arabic-speaking Facebook users prefer the English interface. Go back to Doha airport and visit a bookshop. Only a small minority of titles are in the native language of Qatar.
For many expatriates living and working in the Middle East, Arabic is an impenetrable barrier that inhibits our understanding of the nuances of the local culture. We expect Arabs to understand our culture, and often think of them as “Westernised” if they have fluent English. Yet we fail to make the effort in their direction. Because we don’t have to. I include myself in that category. I probably understand more Arabic than many, yet recently a close friend from Saudi Arabia said to me “Steve, you have been coming to the Middle East for thirty years. It’s an absolute disgrace that you have not learned more than basic Arabic.”