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The Demise of Arabic?

June 9th, 2013 · No Comments · Dubai, The National, UAE

It was a couple of years ago now. I was covering a golf tournament, here in the UAE, and I was talking to the English mother of an Emirati golfer. The kid’s father, the woman’s husband, was an Emirati.

We got to talking about languages, while watching her son play. And she said: “Arabic is going to be one of the most important languages in the world soon.” (Presumably because of all the oil money in the Gulf.)

And I said: “I don’t think so. Arabic may not matter much at all.”

Two years later, I am more convinced of that than ever, and we are beginning to see some evidence that Arabic may be in decline, and perhaps in some trouble.

At the International Conference on Arabic Language in Dubai last month, an event covered by The National, Arabic-speaking experts outlined some troubling trends.

–Some Arab youth speak a hybrid language called “Arabizi”, which includes many foreign words. Particularly English words. (We at The National regularly run stories about how poorly some Arabs here in the UAE speak Arabic.)

–A portion of Arab youth see other languages — particularly English — as representing speech more modern and sophisticated than Arabic.

–Many schools teach a formal, archaic variety of Arabic not actually spoken in the real world. Moroccans already have a hard time understanding, say, Jordanians, let alone Yemenis. And if someone turns up speaking the Arabic equivalent of Elizabethan English (Forsooth!”)… the whole crowd is going to need another language to communicate.

–Some Arabs have had their minds warped by their former “colonial masters” and should fight back against the spread of the languages they left behind, a tired old argument you could expect from at least some of the academics at the conference.

The reality is … there is no right or wrong, in the course of choosing a language. Humans will speak what benefits us most — in conveying a message or sealing a deal or making ourselves understood in a cosmopolitan setting or consuming popular culture.

A person does not need to know Arabic to get along in the UAE. (Or Qatar or Bahrain, to name a few more Arabic-speaking countries.)

However, bizarrely, the local Arabs do have to speak some English if they want to communicate with the majority of expatriates around them. Daily communication, from the souk to the mall, is in English.

I am not proud to say that nearly all Emiratis speak English better than we expats speak Arabic. But that is so, and it is so because expats simply don’t need Arabic.

Arabic disappearing is unlikely; it is estimated it is the mother tongue for more than 400 million people, from Morocco in the west to Iraq and Oman in the east.

But it seems unlikely that Arabic will gain speakers from any means other than internal population growth in Arabic-speaking countries. Outsiders just don’t need it.

Going forward, I see three languages as being important: English, Mandarin (because a billion Chinese speak it) and Spanish, because it is the language of most of the Americas.

Of those three, however, only English can predictably be found around the world. Not because it is intrinsically better (though some make a case for it as a flexible and adaptable form of communication, and others just point to its importance at a time when the whole world became wired.)

As long as it remains the common tongue for commerce, culture and communications, nearly every language is at some risk.

Arabic speakers, when not fretting about the demise of their language, also point to the at least passing acquaintance Muslims have with Arabic — the only proper language for reading the Koran, many believe. And more than 1 billion humans are Muslims.

But the batch of Arabic words from the Koran that stick in the minds of, say, Indonesians … may be no more useful on a daily basis than was Latin to Western Europeans after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was spoken in churches, sure, but people used their own vernacular in daily life. Latin is now a dead language.

Let’s be clear: languages are not about right or wrong; they are amoral.

But they are tools, and most humans prefer the handiest tools. English is one of them.

Arabic? Not nearly as handy. A tool rarely taken out of the box outside of its homelands.

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