Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Arabic or Arabish?

Concerns are rising over the state of the Arabic language in Egypt, with more and more young people abandoning written Arabic in favour of Franco or Arabish, writes Abeya Al-Bakry

Al-Ahram Weekly

‌The Arabic language traditionally consists of the standard or classical language written across the Arab world and the various dialects spoken across the Middle East and North Africa.

‌Today, however, there are also other forms of Arabic that are gaining ground among young people used to writing on social-networking sites and using various computer applications — “Franco-Arabic” or “Franco” and “Arabish.” The new forms of Arabic use Latin letters and are popular among Internet and smart phone users.

‌Arabic is the official language of Egypt, the mother tongue that is taught in schools and the language that is studied by millions of new learners every year. It is also the language of the Qur’an, the official language of the 22 Arab states and an official language of the United Nations.

‌Two other languages, English and French, are also widely spoken in Egypt. English is becoming more predominant as the international language of business, while French has had a strong foothold in the country at least since the early 19th century. ‌While the use of English in particular seems to be spreading, the state of Arabic in Egypt may be heading towards a crisis.

‌Cairo housewife Heba Samir explains her worries about the way Arabic is being taught in schools. “There was a school book shortage at the start of the year, so parents were asked to buy subject study aids themselves,” she says.

‌Samir is a Copt and has always studied religious texts in Arabic. She was surprised to find a mistake in the Arabic materials she bought for her son that affected their interpretation.

‌“Could this mistake have been due to the tensions in Egypt at the moment?” she asks. “Many of us are more sensitive about issues on the curriculum.”

‌The supervisor of Egypt’s Arabic language curriculum, Ahmed Al-Sayed, says that the school syllabus is set by the National Curriculum Centre, after which the books are written, printed and finally reviewed.

‌New books may be sent to the Arabic Language Academy for review, though this step, part of the Academy’s honorary role, is not obligatory and new books can also be reviewed by academics. Books may be corrected if there are complaints from parents.

‌Study aids are the responsibility of the Books Department at the Ministry of Education. The department does not itself commission the material, but it does check that they conform to the ministry’s format and layout standards.

‌Well-known study aid brands are looked at by the department, but are only reviewed as needed and their curricular content is not strictly monitored for content.

‌Egypt has always been famous for its literature, with many famous linguists and philologists having lived in Egypt and contributed to the study of the Arabic language. People come from all over the world to study Arabic at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. ‌Both Muslims and Copts in Egypt have been accomplished writers of Arabic poetry, with the late Pope Shenouda of the Egyptian Coptic Church being known for his poetry and the late Sheikh Metwalli Al-Shaarawi having written masterful stanzas of Arabic poetry.

‌However, this facility in Arabic does not seem to have been handed down to many young people today, who are content to write a simplified version of Arabic in Latin characters called “Franco” or “Arabish.”

‌Two young adults interviewed by the Weekly on their thoughts on the state of Arabic in Egypt said it is “not in a good condition.”

‌“How can it be if there are up to 100 students to a class in schools?” one of the young people asked. “In private schools there may be more attention paid to the language, but that is not the case in government schools.”

‌He only just managed to get a pass mark in Arabic at school, he said. “The teachers are not good in Arabic either, which explains why they can’t teach it. Arabic handwriting has deteriorated. Some pupils don’t even know how to write in Arabic.

‌“I can’t bear Franco, which is not a language anyway,” the young man said, admitting, however, that he uses it to write on the Internet.

‌Rawan, a secondary school student, said she is weak in Arabic because she does not like studying it. She has to make quite an effort to understand the literary aspects of the language, which she finds difficult to grasp and she wonders whether it’s worth it.

‌However, her friend, in the earlier intermediary stage, says she likes studying Arabic. She says that cartoons have been produced for children, along with literary classics, folktales and manga comics, in the classical language.

‌There are also TV channels for children that broadcast in classical Arabic. Perhaps children brought up on such materials end up being more interested in the language, she said.

‌But the language used on android applications such as Whatsapp or on social media sites tends to be more exciting for young people, she said. “We all use Franco. It’s the easiest way to communicate. I even type it more easily than Arabic. If I have to type in Arabic, I can only do so slowly. That is not the case in Franco.”

‌Advertising campaigns also use Franco, something that neither young woman finds surprising. It is a way to make the message more attractive and exciting, they said. ‌A mother walking by with her four-year-old daughter said she is concerned about her son’s marks in Arabic as he will need high marks for university entry. When her daughter was asked which language she prefers, she said she liked both Arabic and English.

‌The state of the Arabic language in Egypt is a matter that deserves careful study, particularly because many still need to acquire basic skills in comprehension, handwriting and grammatically correct composition.

‌Arabic needs to be improved as a means of communication and a form of creativity. In the meantime, the institutions are in place. They just need to be enhanced to help them reach a wider audience.

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