16 November, 2008

We have 50 words for ‘love’ – and we risk losing them all

Taryam al Subaihi
The National,Abu Dhabi.

The Arabic language possesses an unquestionable beauty and elegance than can be recognised by all. There are numerous stories about people who have fallen in love with Islam or Arab culture simply by being introduced to the perfect form of Arabic writing. A language filled with an endless flow of lines displaying a faultless structure of art, even in its simplest form: to see it is to witness writing that is almost being sung off the pages on which it is written.

To fully understand the meaning of its words is a complex, everlasting journey that many scholars have spent their entire lives travelling. Take just one English word – “love” – and you will find more than 50 Arabic words to appropriately describe it, each more harmonic than the last.

For centuries, Arabic poetry was the most respected form of communication in the Arab world and beyond. For this reason it is not uncommon in the UAE to find Arabic poetry being recited during a casual get together, an official ceremony, a wedding, or even a funeral. When Arabic poetry is heard, all Emiratis stop to listen out of respect.

However, throughout the Arab world, Arabic is struggling in a vicious battle against globalisation. Conferences are being held to support the language and to speak out against “language pollution”. To focus on matters closer to home, a new problem has risen for UAE nationals that threatens to grow if not resolved.

Emiratis are expected to know Arabic. That is a fair statement; after all, it is hard to imagine one without the other, and 10 years ago, it was a rare thing to find an Emirati whose first language was not Arabic – only, maybe, a small minority of people who were educated abroad or whose mother was from an another country. Nowadays, thanks to poor teaching in our schools and the minimal usage of Arabic in our daily lives, the language is beginning to disappear, even among UAE nationals.

This is a tragedy. It is heart breaking to see the language of our forefathers disappearing – especially among the young – particularly as there are so many organisations struggling to prevent this very thing from happening. Yet, it is clear that what is being done to preserve our language is simply not enough.

Today, it may only be a small percentage of our children who are experiencing this loss of language. But 10 years ago, they hardly existed at all; what is the situation likely to be in another 10 years? There is no denying that globalisation will take its toll on the language of the country, but that doesn’t mean we should simply do nothing.

I enjoy travelling to Malaysia whenever I find an opportunity to do so. In my opinion, the country displays a perfect blend of nature and technology intertwined brilliantly with the Muslim culture. I was talking with a friend of mine who is a Muslim Malaysian of Chinese origin. He tells me that the Chinese language among the younger generation of his ethnic group is facing the same problem as Arabic here but has reached a much further stage then our own. According to my friend, it has become socially acceptable for Malaysian-Chinese to not know how to write or read in any of the Chinese languages.

Yet in Malaysia and elsewhere, this erosion of language has happened over centuries. We Emiratis are fortunate to have had our years of development compressed into less than 40 years, and as a consequence we have only begun to see the impact on Arabic in the last decade or so. Which means that we still have a chance to prevent the ultimate catastrophe – the complete loss of our language – from befalling us.

We should take heed and begin building our defences. We need stronger Arabic curriculums in our schools, free courses offered in different levels across our major cities, and more up to date literature. Even in our public schools, when students reach a certain stage in many subjects they are asked to switch tuition from Arabic to English.

We need to find a way to bring life back to the Arabic language, to show its benefits and our involvement in its history. Our children continuously need to be reminded of the beauty of their native tongue and should be expected to express themselves in it with clarity and confidence.

It was shocking to read in yesterday’s The National how few of the novels shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction are stocked by bookshops here. But if you walk into any popular book store you will find that Arabic literature takes up only a small corner. Which is hardly surprising, as I recall the damning statistic from 2005 that revealed that the total number of Arabic language books published across the Arab world in one year was equivalent to the output of a small non-Arab country in the same time.

A strategy must be devised to preserve the Arabic language and to ensure that our children continue to speak their native tongue.

Taryam al Subaihi is a journalist from Abu Dhabi who specialises in human resources



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