More About the Death of Arabic: In 20 Years, A Language of Ritual?

Perhaps things just things look different in Egypt, because it’s hard for me to grasp these doom-and-gloom views about the Arabic language. Here, after all, Arabic is the language of 60 million (or 70 million, or 90 million—who’s counting?) people. Yes, Bahaa Taher can say that Arabic’s on the decline, and a handful of elites may know English better than Arabic, but the language is alive and changing, fresh and vibrant, spinning new literature and cultural change.

However, things apparently look different if you’re sitting in Lebanon, the Emirates, and now Qatar. Lebanese university students reportedly don’t know their alif bey teys; no one’s signing up for Arabic lit classes in Emirati universities; one Qatar professor says in a recent interview in The National:

I am afraid that after 20 years, Arabic will just be a language of religious ritual.

That is quite a statement. I imagine it must be more of an attention-grabber and less of a heartfelt prediction. And why is Arabic on the decline? Abbas Al-Tonsi lamented a lack of teaching standards in Qatar, and said the teaching of Arabic in particular is outdated.

The teachers mainly teach grammar, and it’s mainly teacher-centered. They lecture rather than engage the students.

The high status of English also, I imagine, plays a part. But many peoples around the world, in the face of an invading language, have become successfully bilingual, or have melded the two languages into one. Indeed, cross-pollination between languages doesn’t have to be something we fear. However, according to the article in The National:

…instead of becoming bilingual, most students in Qatar lack fluency in any language. In the past four years, only five to seven per cent of primary and junior high school students in Qatar achieved acceptable standards in national tests for Arabic and English.

Languages do change over time; we wouldn’t want language to remain stiff and inflexible, unwilling to accommodate new realities. Or perhaps some would, but it hardly seems possible. In any case, I do support these ideas:

He urged schools to improve teacher training and create extra curricular activities in which students could converse in Arabic – book clubs, speech groups, drama clubs and poetry readings. He also thinks schools should use audio and video as the main texts, and teach an Arabic that is challenging, enjoyable, respectful of young minds and develops critical thinking.

And, if you’re worried about your own Arabic, Al Tonsi has authored a number of textbooks.