Arabic language faces new challenges in own region

There is often more variety in Western literature and media than in Arabic, which leads people to watch or read in English.
Sunday 16/12/2018
A student reads a book in Arabic on her first day back to school in one of Beirut’s poor suburbs, last September.  (AFP)
Losing ground. A student reads a book in Arabic on her first day back to school in one of Beirut’s poor suburbs, last September. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Globalisation and the use of English as the main language of the internet have led to the regression of other languages, including Arabic, which has been losing ground at an alarming pace among young people in its native region.

Patrick Rizkallah, an Arabic language schoolteacher and co-founder of Tawasoulonline website for enhancing Arabic teaching in Lebanon, has raised the alarm. “The language is losing its popularity and values. Websites, social media platforms and the massive use of smartphones and applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook have been detrimental to Arabic.”

“Students and the young people in general communicate through modern technologies in a new language using the Latin alphabet and numbers to express themselves in slang Arabic. We know that mastering a language is a matter of practice and if it is not used in communication it will eventually be lost,” Rizkallah said.

He noted that, while some schools in Lebanon introduced modern technology in the classroom such as interactive boards and tablets, little has been done to procure worthwhile material and Arabic content on the internet.

The idea for Tawasoulonline came in response to “the degradation of the Arabic language,” said Rizkallah, who enlisted the assistance of his own Arabic schoolteacher, Samir Iliya, and a friend, Doha Asaad, to implement the project.

“There is a big shortage of educational videos and other audiovisual content in Arabic on the internet. There are many websites in other languages, websites for mathematics and sciences but nothing for the Arabic language,” he said.

There is often more variety in Western literature and media than in Arabic, which leads people to watch or read in English, he added.

Tawasoulonline was launched in 2012 designed for students and teachers from seventh grade through high school. A second website for younger students, Tawasouljunior, started earlier this year, Rizkallah said.

The idea of having a mere website for enhancing Arabic learning developed into introducing new Arabic teaching techniques and content.

“Why should I only teach Khalil Gibran or Mikhail Naimeh when we have contemporary writers and poets who are living among us and writing about timely issues?” he asked.

“We need to update the Arabic curriculum and move away from traditional methods of teaching. Students feel the material they are given in class is alien to the realities in which they live and this is very dangerous. Our language should be lively and timely.”

In addition to modernising Arabic teaching and offering information on Arabic culture, Tawasoulonline is also a platform of interaction between students and teachers and among other students.

It has a bar displaying news about events and cultural activities, icons offering grammar lessons, writing and dissertation guidelines, applied exercises, synonyms and explanations, profiles of key Arab authors and contemporary writers, publications from Lebanese and Arab publishing houses, Arab poems and Arab newspaper postings in addition to audiovisual material.

“We are proposing new content that tackles issues of concern today, such as electronic waste or the environment crisis. It is also an interactive website. Teachers can answer students’ queries while they are doing the exercises online. However, the website is not a substitute to class lessons,” Rizkallah said.

Engaging the Ministry of Education to introduce the site in public and private schools is on the agenda but a main obstacle is that not all establishments, and especially public schools, are equipped with modern technology, Rizkallah said.

Despite the regression of Arabic, Lebanon is still a country that masters the language, said Rizkallah, who stressed that pre-emptive action is necessary “because new generations are losing their mother tongue.”

“In the past people used to read newspapers. The Arabic media were very important in acquiring the language. Unfortunately, today the media are no longer as professional and social media are taking precedence,” Rizkallah added.

While mixing languages, a common feature in Lebanon, was regarded positively in the past as reflecting the country’s diversity and multiculturism, it has become a threat to the mother tongue and national identity, he cautioned.

“Some schools don’t give priority to Arabic teaching. Even parents want their children to speak good French and English before Arabic, believing that fluency in English can advance their future career more than a similar fluency in Arabic,” he said.

Rizkallah said, however, that “not the whole picture is gloomy.” After decades of subdued Arabic under French colonisation, countries of the Maghreb region are witnessing a strong renaissance of the Arabic language, including the establishment of linguistic research centres.