Continued growth of Arabic outside Arab heartlands

July 02, 2017
Alive and well. A Syrian refugee Adel Bakkour teaches Arabic in Rio de Janeiro, on April 20. (AFP)

London - A major polemic has been ignited in Nigerian edu­cational policy in rela­tion to the teaching of Arabic as a foreign lan­guage option instead of French. This has caused concern among residents of southern Nigeria, where language has been equated with religious affiliation and in­doctrination.

These concerns are unfounded because the option for pupils to choose Arabic over French has been around for a while, even if the matter only recently attracted public debate.

What the public debate in Nige­ria has done is to show the grow­ing appetite for Arabic both as a regional lingua franca and as a mi­nority language outside traditional Arab heartlands. Despite this, there is a chronic lack of funding from mainstream Arab countries to pro­mote the Arabic language in areas where Arabic remains vibrant and alive. Many northern Nigerians are conversant with Arabic script and with basic Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or classical Arabic grammar.

When South Sudan declared independence in July 2011, there were wholesale policy plans to supplant the local dialect of Arabic (known as Juba Arabic) and replace it with Swahili. Six years later, Juba Arabic is as present as ever and South Sudan in 2014 applied to join the Arab League.

Arabic remains strong in Chad and the so-called transnational Baggara Belt across central Africa where there are 3 million speak­ers in the Darfur region, more than 2 million speakers in Chad, nearly 300,000 speakers in Nigeria as well as, phenomenally, approximately 170,000 speakers in Cameroon, 150,000 speakers in Niger and a further 107,000 speakers of Arabic in the Central African Republic.

Arabic has status as a national language, recognised constitution­ally, in Eritrea and Senegal, where its presence, understandably, is the least prominent in a Franco­phone society. In the Western Sa­hara and Mauritania, the local Has­saniya dialect of Arabic has spread into neighbouring north-western Mali.

Arabic remains a minority lan­guage in southern Turkey and southern Iran in the province of Khuzestan.

The continued growth and emergence of Arabic outside the traditional Arab League region is staggering. It means that Arabic is spoken continuously across a dis­tance covering one-seventh of the Earth’s latitudinal surface if one counts from the easternmost tip of Oman in the east to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean on the beaches of the Western Sahara. Not many — if any — languages can make that claim across one continuous area.

Factoring in the areas where Ar­abic is spoken in non-Arab League countries, the total land area of the language’s reach far exceeds the size of the whole of Europe (with all its languages) even if one uses the easternmost definition of Eu­rope that ventures beyond Mos­cow and to the Kazakh border.

The growth and emergence of Arabic outside traditional Arab heartlands such as Mali, Niger and Northern Nigeria has been fuelled by commerce, Arabic’s flexible dialectology and religious com­mitment as opposed to pedagogi­cal measures to consolidate this growth.

Funding, to promote the growth of Arabic at any level in these are­as, remains non-existent and Arab powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt (the two most influen­tial Arab countries) have invested in humanitarian projects and reli­gious education but with very little emphasis on linguistic education and development.

Given the growing appetite for Arabic across parts of Africa and Asia, such funding will become necessary to foster and consolidate the language’s presence. For this to happen, either one of the Arab powerhouses must take initiative or the Arab League must formulate a set of feasible educational poli­cies.