Learn Arabic ... or else

Preserving and promoting Arabic as "a linguistic identity" in the GCC countries was the aim of a three-day conference held in Riyadh last week.

Fears that Arabic – or at least the more formal standard version of it – may eventually cease to be the universal language of Arabs are by no means new. Nor are they without foundation. Look at what happened to Latin, the language of the Roman empire, which fell into disuse after giving birth to Spanish, French, Italian and the other Romance languages. It's conceivable that Arabic, with its numerous colloquial variations, could fragment over time and follow a similar path.

According to the Saudi Gazette's report of the conference, a large part of the blame can be laid at the door of foreigners:

One of the academics, Latifa al-Najjar, professor at the United Arab Emirates University, said the presence of non-Arab[ic] speaking labour in the GCC countries [Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE] contributed, along with the use of colloquial Arabic in audio and video media, to the creation of a distorted Arabic language, negatively affecting the process of acquiring knowledge of standard Arabic.

“So, a possible solution would be to make Arabic language a requirement, at various scales, for foreign labour coming to work here, taking into account their type and level of jobs.

“It would be one of the most important mechanisms to consolidating the status of Arabic language and protecting it in these countries.”

She said GCC countries are still ignoring the fact that it is their right to impose such conditions on foreign labour.

Another speaker, Hasna al-Guenaier of King Saud University in Riyadh, "called on the authorities to implement the necessary laws to make all transactions in government departments and agencies in Arabic language without delay, otherwise the language of the Holy Qur'an will be gradually abandoned, leading eventually to abandonment of the Arab and Islamic identity."

Two things struck me about this. One, that the issue here is not just language -- it's part of a much wider debate about Arab culture and identity in an age of globalisation. Two, that regardless of the Arab Spring, the approach of the academics in Riyadh continues to reflect old ways of thinking:

  • Resist the inevitable

  • Blame others

  • Look for authoritarian solutions

Language, like most aspects of a living culture, cannot be frozen in time. It's there for people to use, and they'll develop and adapt it in whatever ways they see fit. This may horrify supporters of "proper" Arabic but there's precious little they can do to stop it -- and one might argue that the more a language is able to change and develop the more useful it is to people and thus the more likely it will be to survive.

Blaming others, meanwhile, is a time-honoured tradition, and of course it often comes with a strong dose of xenophobia. In principle, there's nothing wrong with encouraging foreigners to learn the local language -- as far as I'm concerned, anyone who spends an extended period living or working in another country ought to make some effort to do so. 

But requiring foreigners to learn modern standard Arabic as a condition of employment raises a host of secondary issues (
discussed by Steve Royston on the 59 Steps blog) and it's not at all clear that this would actually help, as Prof Najjar hopes, to consolidate and protect the status of the language.

There is surely an element of scapegoating here. If foreigners are not entirely to blame, governments are partly culpable too, for failing to "implement the necessary laws". Between foreigners and governments, that leave a broad mass of ordinary Arabs who can carry on lamenting the decline of their language but without being expected to do anything about it themselves.

This leads to the final point, about compulsion. Over the decades, Arabs have become so accustomed to trying to solve problems by authoritarian means that many find it difficult to move on from there. It's one thing for Arab governments to promote and facilitate the use of Arabic but seeking to impose it on people and regulate its use is something else.

No one can order the preservation of a language in the same way that one might order the preservation of an historic monument. Its fate is in the collective hands of all who use it.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 12 May 2013