As a young Arab person, I am very aware of the fact that I speak one of the most difficult languages with ease due to my upbringing. I am also very aware of the fact that a lot of the Arab sayings and proverbs will die with my parent’s generation because I have begun thinking in English. I feel as though my skill in my mother tongue leaves much to be desired. As much as I love Arabic and think it is a truly beautiful language, I have not been as lucky as my parents to truly master it. My mother speaks in idioms and proverbs – she has a relatable Arabic quote for every situation. Some are funny, some are touching, some make me think. They all have something in common – more often than not, I have to ask her to dumb it down for me or translate to English. She and my father grew up between Damascus in their respective villages. Both very rich areas in terms of culture and language. Nizar Qabbani, the most famous Syrian poet, wrote some of the most beautiful love poems to Damascus, about its beauty and about his longing for his home after he was exiled.
You can listen to a snippet of one of his poems with its translation in English here:
My grandparents and my parents are native Arabic speakers, whereas I am merely a tourist there. The words in their lexicon surpass mine by far, they lived to learn to caress our phrases. They speak in rhymes and quote beautiful poetry as I sit dumbfounded. I am in awe of the beauty. But I am more in awe of their expert handling of a language with words that change meaning with a different twist of the tongue. The older generation is not at fault – they tried to teach us but we were not listening. We have lost our roots in our rush to be more modern and western. I can never adequately translate Arabic – no other language does it justice. Yet here I am. An Arab living in an Arab country, ashamed of how much of it I don’t know.
Schools need to take a better approach to teaching Arabic to students – be it to Arabs or non-Arabs. It is not something you have to “get done with”. Learning Arabic should be like getting to know a new friend – a slow and consistent process that results in a lifelong love and respect. We get taught Arabic like no one wants us to learn it. It is shoved down our throats, something to recite, memorise and forget once we are done with the exams. Clearly, this isn’t exactly the best method as you might have realised.
The KHDA has now enforced learning Arabic until grade 12 if you are Arab which may have been well-intentioned but resulted in a lot of fear and pressure for the teaching staff. Speaking from personal experience, I I was part of a British curriculum school and I had 4 A-Level subjects excluding Arabic in Grade 12. It resulted in me having a full schedule with no interest in Arabic beyond what I was forced to do to pass. It’s the sad reality as to why interest in Arabic is diminishing.
Another issue is that Arabic books aren’t as available to readers as English or other languages. In an article in The National, this was said; “You’d find more English translations,” says Ms Suleiman, a social media executive for an advertising and public relations agency in Dubai. “You find German, French – but not Arabic.”
So even if I were to go out and try to find a book I wanted to read in Arabic, it is unlikely that I would be able to.
We are so concerned with being more Western-friendly that we are personally throwing away our culture and ties to our language so we can be more “universal”, and I used that term loosely.
Thankfully, the problem has been recognised by our country’s VP, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum who launched an initiative back in 2012 to promote Arabic as the language of science and technology by forming an international committee of experts, as well as setting up an Arabic Language charter. Furthermore, there will be a facility at Zayed University to promote learning Arabic among non-Arab speakers.
Hopefully, with these kinds of measures set up, the Arabic language and the history it represents can be preserved.