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Modernizing Arabs must not surrender the Arabic language

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

An unfortunate side effect of the Gulf countries’ ambitious economic agendas is a gradual decline in their children’s ability to communicate in the Arabic language. This trend must be reversed or our children will grow up without a sense of national identity, which in turn causes a range of social and economic problems.

In virtually every modern language, a literal transcription of a verbal dialogue differs considerably from the written form of the language, i.e., people speak differently from how they write. However, for the most part, this difference is primarily stylistic, and with sufficient exposure from schools and written media, children master both forms of communication.

In Arabic, there is a wide chasm between oral and written forms of the language. While in certain formal settings, such as lectures or news reports, people speak in a manner similar to that in which they write, the spoken version of the language that dominates daily life is almost a distinct language to written Arabic: the syntax and vocabulary are very different.

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Languages continuously evolve, meaning that under normal circumstances, as the oral form of a language changes spontaneously, so too does the written form, albeit with a lag. This ensures that oral and written forms remain quite close. But Arabic is unique in that its classical form – that used in the Quran – is unchanged, and continues to be used heavily in daily life due to the salience of Islam.

Because altering any element of the Quran is the highest form of blasphemy, the Quranic form of Arabic acts as a huge anchor on the language’s written form. Consequently, as the oral form continues to evolve, the written form can’t keep up, and the gap grows ever larger.

In the days when young Gulf nationals spoke nothing but Arabic, this was not a problem since they would learn the language’s different forms at home and school, and could communicate with pen and tongue satisfactorily by the time they reached their teens. This tendency was reinforced by the dominance of Arabic media, such as Egyptian cinema, Kuwaiti television series and Syrian literature.

However, by the start of the 21st century, globalization had led to foreign English-language media displacing local Arabic media.

Moreover, education and job markets demanded at least the basics of the English language – with a preference for high aptitude. Many children in the Gulf simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to maintain high standards in both Arabic and English, especially in light of the aforementioned unique challenges associated with mastering the Arabic language.

A view of Kaaba in the Grand Mosque during the annual Haj pilgrimage, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (File photo: Reuters)
A view of Kaaba in the Grand Mosque during the annual Haj pilgrimage, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (File photo: Reuters)

As a result, improvements in the English language came at the expense of a decline in the Arabic language. Today, many of the young elites in the Gulf – who have studied in the best private schools and the finest Western universities, and who hold important positions in the public and private sectors – are proficient in the English language, but are alarmingly weak in Arabic, especially in written form.

A common remark is that this is not a big deal, since English is the world’s language, and Arabic is irrelevant to modern education, business, and media. The UK’s elite used to learn Latin, but the cessation of this practice hasn’t harmed its children, and has arguably benefited them by allowing them to study more useful subjects.

However this myopic view overlooks the importance of the Arabic language to Gulf Arabs’ sense of national identity. Humans have an innate psychological desire to belong to a group, and to able to answer the question: who am I? If you speak and write English only passably and with a strange accent, and look different to the whites that inhabit English-speaking countries, then you are clearly not one of them, so what are you?

If you can speak Arabic, then you are an Arab, and you can feel a sense of attachment. The resulting psychological comfort is critical to your sanity – many terrorists and serial killers go astray precisely because they feel like aliens and have no sense of identity. Much of the social tension in Western countries at present can be attributed to a large proportion of the population feeling lost.

Mastery of the Arabic language is important at the national level, too. Implementing an economic development plan – especially one as complex as a Gulf economic vision – requires a capable state. A strong national identity plays an important role in producing an effective impersonal bureaucracy, and much of the culture and customs of the Gulf countries is inseparably tied to the Arabic language. It is no surprise that three of the most powerful states in the Middle East – Iran, Israel, and Turkey – all have a unique language that is part of their national identity.

The religion of Islam – conveyed to its followers in the Arabic language of the Quran – ensures that Arabic will never be a dead language like Phoenician or Aramaic. Learning modern languages like English and Mandarin is crucial to the economic success of the Gulf states, but so it is retaining a sense of national identity, which depends on mastery of the Arabic language.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.