Arabic remains a ‘beautiful language’, says Arab science and culture chief
Tunis - Arabic remains a beautiful language but a pan-Arab effort is needed to make it attractive to young people, said Abdullah Hamad Muhareb, director-general of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO).
The UN General Assembly included Arabic among its working languages in 1973 but the classical form of Arabic is facing a crisis among young people who are shifting towards other languages and colloquial Arabic.
The attraction and love of Arabic was nurtured over generations and centuries by religious tradition and artistic expressions such as calligraphy and poetry as crucibles that sustained fascination with the language. However, globalisation has made other languages appear more important and on a more local level dialects have developed, diluting classic Arabic.
“Arab youth are shunning Arabic because they feel it is a difficult language,” Muhareb said. “That is because of problems in the educational system. That was not the case 30 years when young Arabs loved it more.
“The truth is not that way. Arabic is a beautiful language and can be made more attractive to young people.”
More than 250 million people in the Middle East and North Africa speak Arabic, besides languages such as Kurdish, Berber and Mehri. As the language of the Quran, Arabic is used with various degrees of proficiency by the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world.
“Nowadays, young people do not find an adequate environment at the educational system’s various stages that attract them to the language. They leave the high school stage hating Arabic because teachers do not help young learners love the language,” said Muhareb.
“There are teaching tools beside books that can encourage young minds to embrace and love Arabic.”
That is not the case in most Arab countries.
“The situation of Arabic is an issue of great concern for us,” Muhareb said. “Promoting Arabic and developing and upgrading education in Arabic is very important but this needs huge investments.”
The head of ALECSO cited the need for good teachers, which requires higher wages, more attractive books as well as adaptations of Arabic teaching to the internet age and social media.
“Many things are required to upgrade and bolster Arabic language in relation with youth. We can borrow from experiences of teaching foreign languages such as English, Spanish and French,” Muhareb said. “We have good ideas, initiatives and proposals but we do not have the money. Arab states have it and they have to play their roles to protect and expand Arabic.”
Arabic increasingly faces competition from foreign languages, mainly English, as young people look for better opportunities in a globalised economy. Arabic also faces the challenge of coexistence with home languages, as Berber and Kurdish groups and other minorities work to reclaim their heritage and central governments loosen their grip on societies and cultural identity.
Berbers in Morocco and Algeria are rebuilding links with their language. Schools have opened classes for pupils and academies after governments recognised it after it being long confined to homes or festivals.
Unofficial estimates put the number of Berbers, also referred to as Amazighs, at nearly 20 million in Morocco and Algeria and at about 600,000 in Libya.
According to longtime Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi, Amazighs were of “Arab origin” and their language “a mere dialect”. Registration of non-Arab names was forbidden, Libya’s first Amazigh organisation was banned and anyone involved in the group’s cultural revival prosecuted.
Asked about language claims by linguistic and cultural minorities in the Arab world, Muhareb said he was sceptical of the motives behind such demands.
“Why are these claims appearing now? These minorities were present all the time. The minorities have dialects. Those who live in Arab cultural environment are Arabs,” Muhareb insisted.