The insistence on teaching Classical Arabic over modern dialects has hindered our linguistic and literary development

How Arabs Have Failed Their Language

Reading with children is, or should be, an enjoyable act of bonding and education. But, in the case of Arabic, I have often found reading in the language I inherited to be an experience of mutual misery. My son and I speak Lebanese Arabic, which he understands well enough — and better every day. But we can only find a handful of books available in that dialect — or in other accessible, useful dialects, be they Egyptian or Iraqi. Conversely, although we find many more books in Classical Arabic, my son understands very little of it. Accessible books are rare, while common books are inaccessible. Children do not seek out books written in an old Arabic, because they are full of unknown words and unfamiliar grammatical structures; parents struggle to instill a love of language and learning, or even to access these materials themselves.

Arabs have done this to themselves, doubly damning their communication in diglossia, or linguistic variety, and denying their role in this. Diglossia is a situation in which two or more varieties of a language are shoved together through social circumstances; for Arabic, there are numerous spoken dialects that exist side by side with the formal, standardized al-fuṣḥā, or fus-ha, also known as Modern Standard Arabic or Classical Arabic. Arabs have tried to elevate the only so-called true or pure Arabic, while working to discredit, disable, and even destroy dialects. They have thus made an official language out of a form that nobody considers a native tongue, while making everyone’s different native tongues seem subpar, uncouth, and useless.

This emphasis on preserving Classical Arabic — itself an acknowledgement that the language needs protection, without which it will die out — has made such reading an unlovable experience for most speakers, who struggle to properly speak the language. More importantly, the fixation with or sacred view of the old language has directly affected the dialects.

Speakers can’t pass on their dialects fully because they lack institutional support, have few available tools, and suffer from sociocultural snootiness toward the spoken tongue(s). And they can’t access Classical Arabic — which everyone glorifies but no one speaks as a native — easily enough.

As it is used today, Classical Arabic is not even a complete or living language. Most people do not use it much and only do so in formal settings (or, perhaps, for official purposes). It lacks expressive qualities needed for everyday speech. This discourages wider uptake and use, which in turn creates a scenario where Arabs cannot develop such phrases. If dialects were to disappear tomorrow, people would struggle to use Classical Arabic as an everyday language.

Dialects are limited, too. Often mutually unintelligible, dialects divide people who might otherwise be part of a realm connected culturally by the Arabic language, such as somewhat standardized Arabic in the press and certain sociocultural traditions and practices. Lacking legitimacy and acceptance, dialects are less useful — at least now — in different spheres like education, law, and administration (areas that also involve precedent, meaning that future changes are constrained by the past).

Perhaps nothing illustrates Arabs’ contradictory approach to their language than the messages they give their children. On the one hand, parents laugh at their children when they pick up Classical Arabic words (from, say, cartoons). They chide their children with comments like, “Nobody speaks like that.” But they also implore their children to learn the language they have just exposed as useless and worthy of derision. Recalling a time when her kids were fighting, one Arabic professor laughed with exasperation at the thought of one yelling at the other: “tabban lak!” — an archaic and awkward phrase meaning “damn you.”

On the other hand, people degrade dialects all the time. Children who ask why a certain phrase is used are told they are speaking a “grammarless” or even “fake” language. Even worse, that language might be branded as vulgar. Parents might call someone who uses even the simplest, easiest words of their lexicon a “farmer” or a “barbarian.” In doing so, they attach shame to the language of their daily lives. Unlike Classical Arabic, nonetheless, dialects are unregulated and so better allow users to create new words or absorb new phrases from foreign languages or the old language.

Reviewing global literacy rates against money spent on education, the language professor John Myhill concluded that the focus on Classical Arabic in formal education hurts literacy rates in Arabic-speaking countries. Across the board, even in richer Gulf Arab states, Arabic-speaking literacy rates are lower than expected given the amounts these governments spend on education. The problem is worse than the numbers suggest, although an illiteracy rate of 28% in Egypt should be alarming enough. Exam results, a widely used metric of educational success, fail to convey an accurate picture of language proficiency given reports that people pay bribes to pass literacy exams (according to an article in Al-Fanar, an academic assessment, and my interviews with non-governmental organizations working on literacy in Egypt).

Arabic speakers admit to holding negative views of Classical Arabic — and, relatedly, their own skills in it. Everyone from high school students to adults expressed a “dislike of reading in general, especially ‘longer pieces’ like books,” during a study in Egypt by Niloofar Haeri, a linguistics professor at Johns Hopkins University. Finding Classical Arabic to be “heavy” and “scary,” Haeri’s participants “simply did not enjoy the activity” of reading and found writing to be even more difficult and “intimidating.” Suggesting that the official literacy numbers are shaky at best, she notes that “the majority of people do not attain a level of literacy that allows for participation in various creative or civic communities when these require proficiency in the official language. … Even grammar teachers, copyeditors, and university-educated people speak routinely of their fear of making mistakes.”

They learn to speak one language at home and read or write another language at school.

While other researchers have made different arguments, they ultimately misdiagnose and understate the problem. Helen Abadzi, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Education, claimed in an article that Arabic is difficult for children because the script is complex. Echoing a complaint common among Arab scholars, she stated that reading tests in four Arab countries “have shown a widespread inability to understand written text.” Describing issues that children clearly face because they learn to speak one language at home and read or write another language at school, she concludes that the problem is the complexity of Arabic script. But the script, or the script alone, cannot be the problem. Other languages, such as Persian, use the same script as Arabic, but their users do not face the same reading and writing challenges.

Make no mistake. The problem is diglossia.

When I studied Arabic as a child, and when I restarted studying it as an adult, I didn’t know much about these issues. The more I learned, the angrier I became. Why did I, and millions of other children, have to go through a bad education system that left us frustrated and hating our own language, then go through it again while trying to relearn Arabic as adults, and then perhaps again while trying to teach our children?

If Arabs wanted to keep Classical Arabic and dialects, they could still develop an education system that took on the challenges of diglossia and even turned the presence of dialects and Classical Arabic into a strength.

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