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 Abbas Al-Tonsi lamented a lack of teaching standards in Qatar, and said the teaching of Arabic in particular is outdated.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.


  1. As you can imagine, Abbas Al-Tonisi’s approach is also terrible. I am a product of an Al-Kitaab education, and most of my classmates probably still cannot read and/or speak (at least they could not right up until our graduation). I once wrote a scathing criticism on this issue, but it has disappeared from its source ( I am saddened because Abbas commented on it himself, but I never translated his comment. Needless to say, foreign counterparts are not even trying to prepare non-native speakers for interfacing with native counterparts. Translation is bad, and conversation is worse. Oh well, illi faat faat.

  2. awww, don’t slag off the al-kitaab education, young person, don’t you know what it was like before? I had to plough through both volumes of the orange book and, boy, was that depressing! it was a bit like studying latin, except my old latin books were packed with politically incorrect stories which made them a lot more fun.
    it’s interesting to see that the old argument of different forms of a3miya killing off fusha (also amply covered in al-kitaab, if i remember correctly, but not in the orange book, because the arabic there was, well, dead) is changing to arabic dying altogether.
    I do think abbas al tonsi and his colleagues significantly improved the standard of teaching arabic as a second language throughout the world; but i think he refers here to teaching arabic as a first language. i had the honour of observing a bunch of those some ten years ago and they were about as inspiring as watching paint dry.

    for what it’s worth, i really liked the Standard Arabic: An Advanced Course. no pictures, but topics i was actually interested in talking about.

  3. Re: Teaching Arabic as a first language.

    My eldest son (who’s the ripe old age of 6 1/2) is studying Arabic in school right now. It’s not his first language, although it’s the first language of all of his classmates (save, I believe, a boy from Pakistan).

    Anyhow, he’s taking about 30 minutes of fos’ha a day and 30 minutes of French a day. And he loves his French teacher and they sing songs and do things of which I can approve pedagogically, but masha’allah he reads and writes some fos’ha Arabic. As for French, he knows “bonjour” and that’s about it.

    I understand it’s one thing to get a kid to repeat-after-me, take-this-dictation and it’s another to fall in love with a language enough to grasp it. So in the near future the program will have to change tactics, but it’s a start.

  4. Long story short, Arabic is not taught communicatively, with Al-Kitaab or the infamous Orange Book (it could be worse: Qaddafi’s Green Book or his recent release of short stories, I could use some comedy). As might have been guessed, the teacher has more to do with that than the book. What I have seen though is a dichotomy: the foreign teachers of Arabic who try more modern pedagogical approaches (that get people like your son interested in French as by showing its more entertaining side through “not so orange” means of non-traditional media like song, poetry, and less commonly used authentic materials, for all ages, for the sake of exposing them to different communicative tasks that need to be learned as such). The problem is these people never understand traditional Arabic grammar (Nahw, Sarf, etc.) at even a basic level. I was in class with many wannabe teachers in this regard in a masters program in the US. Many of them could not explain Arabic grammar at all, save one who was interested (note that I did not say good), and just like the idea of teaching a language they like. That is not a terrible thing, but it definitely impacts the silliness or the lack of certainty of someone who ought to know grammar at a much higher level.

    This leads me to the other group, native speaking professors. Some do know grammar quite well, having been educated in traditional Arabic language education (one professor that comes to mind, who was Tunisian and studied some traditional schools at home and at Baghdad University, had us shakkal/vowel everything as exam material in his literature class; no one I know at other universities had people doing this since kids were so bad and it required some grammatical knowledge to motivate what you said and some kids did so poorly they wanted to drop the class, save the native speakers students who rarely got it completely correct). Other native teachers, unfortunately, have as little grammar education as the non-native group, but they make up for it with some type of native proficiency and competence to look at a board of Arabic and at least filter out what is wrong. Problem is the spectrum of these native teachers do not have so much background in modern teaching pedagogy, or more realistically just do not care about applying these methods. The value is not there. As a result, more traditional classes that the Orange Book series encourage flourishing in grammar exercises. These are my impressions, but few professors bridge the gap in both directions well, and this directly impacts why Arabic education in most schools are so awful. Al-Kitaab cannot solve it, but really is not helping either. In my critique that I cannot find and disappeared off of WordPress, my biggest complaint with Al-Kitaab is that encounters many rules piecemeal in Arabic. That would be ok if it mentions that very clearly or tells you where to get reference on the full grammatical rule. As a less experienced teacher of anything, I know what I am saying sounds unreasonable and impractical. Fortunately for students of grammar-translation approaches like the Orange Book, I am sure you did not have to worry about this all the time. Three years in to studying and being abroad in Cairo, professors would crack up listening or reading our writing samples. We would say Al-Kitaab said, and the teacher would laugh. He said you should have known better. The more time went on, I realized that book encouraged so much incomplete learning I would only approve of teachers who did not teach it. I even said so to Mahmoud Al-Batal’s, co-editor of the Al-Kitaab series, daughter (she was a classmate in a Teaching Arabic as Foreign Language class at AUC). Needless to say, it was embarassing since I had no idea who she was at the time, but I will not compromise on my view of that book: its approach was a step in the right direction, but its quality is quite lacking. The stories are not as inappropriate as the Orange Book, but typecasting in Al-Kitaab is egregiously bad. The main characters in the plot of initial books are a less than attractive Arab girl who is lonely and wants to get married and her Egyptian cousin, also lonely, who needs to get a respectable economics degree instead of literature and hides out 3al balkoona to smoke his cigarettes outside the prying eyes of his nutty grandmother who he cannot stand up to? I am not surprised when so many people base their knowledge of future meetings with “Arab people” while studying and are confused with the disconnect. I know Abbas was being sarcastically funny and irreverent (a friend of mine had him when he was still an AUC professor, I am sure he was great from the stories I hear), but he forgets sarcasm does not translate well and will be offensive if not handle correctly. That is inevitable since everyone teaches to the text, and rarely modifies anything out of the book (when Abbas responded to my criticism of his book, this was his own point that I admit is sadly very true: Al-Kitaab and other books were meant to be primers, not total lesson plans and course materials). And so concludes the end of that rant.

    Now, on to the more interesting (or really boring at this stage) conversation all languages discuss about diachronic change (over time, as opposed to analysis on concurrent changes in dialect, known as synchronic change) and its negative impact on language. In English, this story is only a couple of hundred years old now. In Arabic, thanks to the fragmentary nature of the language, it probably has continued for more than a millennium. People continuously complained and continue to complain about the decline of the language thanks to dialects. That is cute, but languages change, people. And it really upsets me the likes of Bahaa Taher, and more notably and prominently Jalaal Ameen in _Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?_, cannot handle the fact that all languages change. It is evolution, there is really no better or worse except for the nostalgic among us. What makes it more ironic is that Al-Fus7a, as we know it today is really not the same as it was in the past (Mrs. Qualey can refer to a previous post where I point one example of where MSA grammar/stylistics, not just word transfer, noticeably changed in the earlier 20th century once Western media was more largely published and consumed directly and indirectly by Arab intelligentsia). This is not to mention all the major Arab authors and educators, especially in Egypt and Lebanon, solidified a type of Fus7a we see today that is a product of numerous attempts to create a body of literature reflecting their admiration “for the greats” they were reading at the time from Europe. I suggest all, especially people who like this blog as much as I do, read up on that history. It is truly fascinating to see cultural exchange so directly with decent documentation.

    Secondly, I would like to point out Arabic has never really had a standard. No one language does, but most people naively assume Arabic has this static Fus7a reference point everyone can relate to. Unfortunately, ladies and gentleman, that is a casualty of history more than anything else. If you go way back to Sibawayhi, the first of the great Arabic grammarians, his methodology speaks a lot to how unsure people are about “proper Arabic.” I also call him the first sociolinguist because of his methodology since he was doing it long before Westerners, but I digress.

    He used to collect inordinate amounts of samples from the field, basically embedding himself with a tribe or whatever target group he was interested in to see all their linguistic derivations. There were many, and his life work was spent in an attempt to codify such things to make it easier for the rest of us. The fact that he was going around to different tribes and assessing who was “right” and who was “wrong” says a lot, especially since it was back then, long after the Quran was formalized (I will not get into the history of the officializing of the Quran where one of the Four Caliphs had to ban and confiscate all non-conforming copies that was not the official one we have today). Does anyone even remember that when the Quran was delivered (I will not pick any bones here, so I am just going to leave it), Mohammed and his affiliates spoke a Saudi dialect that may or may not been the same as everyone else around him? The dialects before and after were this in KSA and elsewhere, I would be surprised if it magically changed for only a few years. Whether or not the Quran was delivered in a dialect or in a language that was specially divined from heaven is a conversation for obvious reasons I will not have here. My point is that even Fus7a, as a poetic register that existed before and after the Quran, was influenced by informal dialectical information and deviations that became popularized there. And yes, even the grammar was different (the word laysa, for it is not, has not always been used and appears at a distinct period if I remember a professor correctly). Why is all of this a surprise to authors? Yes language is changing. As I am trying to point out, I want an author to give me a date of when Arabic was static and beautiful without any “impurities” muddying the water. I would love to see it, since not even the Quran would qualify. That is, many people believe that one of the first words in it, Siraat, might very well have come from Latin. And an Egyptian professor told me this years ago. Lo and behold, it is a commonly held belief among some etymologists.

    So, again, find me a pure language that does not change, and I will show you one dead and devoid meaning and/or use. Sorry if I ranted too much here.

    @bibi Your point on first language versus second language teaching is very apt. From what I hear, at least in Egypt, Arabic instruction as a field of study at the university level is reserved for those with the worst Ath-Thanawiyya Al-3amma scores. So, not a surprise that it is bad. That is another comment to itself. That book sounds interesting. I will check it out.

  5. 🙂 does he like arabic? he, you, and i are still in a different position, the one where we can walk away. (or not, i depending on the situation, obviously.)

    i don’t really like (or believe) these alarmist predictions about languages dying and such like, but i do think you and al tonsi raise some valid points.

    i remember how shocked i was when my egyptian students were telling me how even they could never learn “good” arabic, because it is so difficult. this was supposed to make me feel better about my own bad arabic, but it sounded really strange. and then i saw their textbooks. they would make a stone weep, seriously. page after page after page of rules and examples that were completely useless for any situation resembling functional literacy. or reading for pleasure.

    i would have thought things have improved since then, well, apparently not. so, introducing foreign languages into everything brought diglossia instead of bilinguism; mix this with a hefty dose of belief that english is better suited for business and science and that is a disaster waiting to happen. (yes, i’m a drama queen).

    maybe i’m old-fashioned, but i think you only get the luxury of falling in love with your second, third, umpteenth language. your first is who you are. and it doesn’t help if you are told from a very young age that who you are will never be good enough.

    or am i simply reading too much into this?

  6. Oh, I don’t know, I think most (literary) writers are in love with the language in which they write. I am in love with English, my mother tongue. I can also be in love with another language—or all languages. The idea of language.

    And yes, my older one does like Arabic; he still imagines himself as an Arabic teacher some day, although I can see the coming of disaster as he gets a little older and the textbooks and teachers become harder-edged.

  7. MAID: Professor, especially not philology, philology leads to calamity…

    Eugène Ionesco: The Lesson

    sorry, couldn’t resist. this is like the best quote ever for language geeks 🙂

    @ m: what i wanted to say was that with your first language you dont get the choice of leaving if you don’t love it. it’s there for life, and if you feel it’s not on par with other languages, not useful, not “something”, i think it can be a challenge. writers, translators, editors … yes, they (we) love languages, but not everybody is a writer.

    @ al haraka:
    — i actually read quaddafi’s green book quite often, for who could resist the pearls of wisdom like “it is an undisputable fact that women are people”? i found it years ago at the sur el-ezbekkiya and got it in return for some mills and boon someone’d left in my flat. best exchange i’ve ever been involved in 😉

    — “… my biggest complaint with Al-Kitaab is that encounters many rules piecemeal in Arabic. That would be ok if it mentions that very clearly or tells you where to get reference on the full grammatical rule.”
    agreed. i was taught parts of the second and the third book, but by the teachers who went through classical training system, so they did in fact use it as a primer. we also regulary did tashkeel as a part of our lessons. it was, erm, for fun. also, as someone who was taught grammar of her (very complex) first language as well as classics, i could fill my own gaps. my english speaking counterparts often could not, especially if they didn’t speak another foreign language already. which, in the 1990s, they often did, but even that has now changed, i believe.
    i trained as a TEFL teacher when the communicative approach was the “it” method, so i am well aware of its traps. however, i also have the mantra “it’s never the student, it’s always the teacher” tatooed to my brain and i would never, ever laugh at a student for attempting to produce something above her or his “station”.

    — “In English, this story is only a couple of hundred years old now. In Arabic, thanks to the fragmentary nature of the language, it probably has continued for more than a millennium.”

    let’s not go there, eh? languages change, but it’s not a contest, and a century or so doth not much of a difference make, methinks.

    — as for your other points, i really don’t have much to add, except that i know about the ossman edition and that i love how contemporary fus7a is different from country to country, even though it is standardised. standard doesn’t mean rigid.

    happy easter & sham el-nessim!

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