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The Arab World’s Tangled Linguistic Landscape

CAIRO–“I feel I don’t have a first language,” says Sara Elkamel, a 23-year-old Egyptian journalist. “I went to an English-language school. But it’s not my first language and Arabic isn’t either.”

As if to prove her point, Elkamel shifts seamlessly back and forward between English and the Egyptian dialect of Arabic.

The use of so-called Arabizi (that is, the mix of arabi and englizi) is a common phenomenon across the Arab world today. On Facebook and in chatting applications, many Arab youth even forgo the Arabic keyboard and write Arabic in English letters. And that mixture is just one element in an increasingly complicated linguistic landscape. Arabic speakers have always had to contend with diglossia, the use of two overlapping languages: the Classical Arabic, or Fosha, of the Koran and of literature, which is shared across the Middle East and North Africa, and the different dialect that has evolved in each Arab country.

Like many middle-class Arab families who despair of the poor quality of overcrowded public schools, Elkamel’s parents sent her to private, foreign-language schools. Command of a foreign language promises greater job opportunities and is a mark of social standing. “If we put a foreign stamp on something,” says Elkamel, “people are willing to pay more for it and think it’s better.”

Regardless of their background, many young Arabs don’t have a command of classical Arabic and its contemporary equivalent, modern standard Arabic, which is used in literature; in high-level political, religious and cultural discourse; and in news broadcasts. Instead, at home and in almost all settings, they use their local dialect. Many university graduates are incapable of writing a business letter or giving a public speech in “proper” Arabic.

Public universities are the mainstay of education across the region, the places where young people whose families cannot afford private university fees have to go. The language of instruction at most of these universities, with the exception of some in the Gulf, is Arabic. Yet many public-university graduates wind up being competent neither in classical Arabic nor in English. Post-graduate programs that try to improve the employability of the graduates often focus on teaching English.

In the Gulf countries, where local citizens are vastly outnumbered by expatriate workers, English is the lingua franca and there is anxiety over the loss of both classical and colloquial Arabic.

In North Africa the situation is ever more complicated: people speak an Arabic dialect and Berber languages that have only recently been given legal recognition. In some former French colonies, French dominates intellectual and public life, although public education has often reverted to Arabic.

As Arabic evolves at a break-neck speed — with new technologies, increased university enrollment and political upheavals pushing millions of young people to participate in an expanding public debate — the debate over what is being lost and what is being gained by this transformation has also intensified.

Is the Arabic that young people speak today — grammatically “incorrect,” full of dialect, foreign words and neologisms — a threat to linguistic heritage and cultural identity? Or is it the natural development of a vital, globalized vernacular?

“Arabic class is like a jail and a punishment”

Many young Arabs don’t acquire a full command of formal Arabic because of the way it is taught.

The method of instruction, the teaching materials, are in fact terrible — they will make anyone hate the language,” says Abbas Al-Tonsi, a professor of Arabic at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Affairs in Qatar.

Students are fed “very silly passage and texts that have nothing to do with their lives, with modern times.” They are asked to “memorize poetry that they cannot even understand.”

One reason that the teaching of Arabic is so rigid is its association with religious sources. The Koran is written in classical Arabic, and Muslims everywhere read the holy book in its original language and many believe the language itself to be sacred.

“People move from the holiness of Islam to the holiness of the language,” says Al-Tonsi.

The quality of instruction in Arabic language departments and teacher-training colleges (which do not generally attract top students) are also generally regarded as poor.

“Arabic class is like a jail and a punishment,” says Al-Tonsi. Ironically, materials used to teach Arabic to foreigners tend to be much more engaging.


Government policies to strengthen Arabic instruction have had mixed results. In Egypt, a government committee was convened to fix the problem and recommended…more hours of grammar instruction.

In Morocco, where the authorities began a policy of “Arabization” of the educational system in the 1980s, the result has been a division between the French-speaking elite and the rest of the country, says cultural journalist Kenza Sefrioui.

“It becomes a matter of social justice,” says Sefrioui. “French is the bourgeois language, the business language. It excludes those who don’t speak French. If you have a diploma from an Arabic-language university it is less valued than one from a French one.” In the Gulf, many universities have selected English as a language of instruction are getting heat from parents and academics who worry that the loss of Arabic will result in the loss of local culture. The University of Qatar reversed its policy of teaching many courses in English, and decided that most business, law, social sciences and humanities will be taught in Arabic. In the United Arab Emirates, parents and some members of a federal council are agitating for the federal universities to return to teaching in Arabic

Concerns over the loss of Arabic

The anxiety over the loss of Arabic is “a slightly imagined crisis,” says Clive Holes, a professor in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. “The concern is about a supposed loss of ability in the standard language, put down to globalization and the pernicious influences of the West.”

Not only do young people attend foreign-language schools, they also consume foreign language media and entertainment, online and on satellite television.

In the Gulf countries, where local citizens are “surrounded by a sea of foreignness,” says Holes, they feel “they are losing contact with their roots — even though their roots are in a language no one speaks.”

Holes points out that historically only a minority of Arabic-speakers have ever been literate in classical Arabic (literacy levels were very low in most Arab countries until the 20th century), and that the language has always been open to outside influences. A thousand years ago, he notes, there was a massive amount of borrowing into Arabic from Greek. Today, Arabic contains words from Persian, Turkish and many European languages. The latest neologisms — newly created verbs for “tweeting” for example — are part of a long tradition.

“The globalized nature of the economy has put Arabic in a bit of a difficult position,” says Holes. “Not many people who are educated need to have Arabic as a working language. There’s isn’t much of an economic award for having fluency in the standard language.”

But others say there is in fact a demand for Arabic-language skills. Al-Tonsi used to teach at the American University in Cairo, which began offering specialized Arabic classes after a survey of employers in 2000 revealed that they wanted graduates who were truly bilingual, not just fluent in English.

At Georgetown’s School of Foreign Affairs in Qatar, faculty have developed Arabic language classes for so-called “heritage speakers” — students from Arabic-speaking backgrounds who nonetheless don’t have a command of written and spoken classical Arabic.

We found that many of our students cannot function in Arabic,” says Al-Tonsi. “We thought it was a pity that graduates in foreign affairs and political science will not be able to help their country, if they work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to deliver a speech in Arabic or write a report in Arabic.”

Qatar was also at the forefront of developing an Arabic language version of Twitter. The United Arab Emirates has begun several programs to develop engaging Arabic language-instruction materials.

“We all work in English,” Elkamel says of herself and her friends, in fields such as advertising, finance and journalism. But “Fosha is still respected,” she says. “When someone writes something in proper Arabic, it’s like: Wow, you can do that?”

A linguistic revolution

Colloquial and classical Arabic aren’t so much two distinct languages as much as two poles along a vast spectrum — which native Arabic speakers navigate intuitively, adapting to different contexts and audiences. A majority of vocabulary is shared with Fosha, but each dialect also has its own terms, pronunciation and different ways of constructing sentences.

Aameya has always been present in movies, in poetry,” says Mohammed Shoair, an editor at the literary magazine Akhbar el-Adab. “Our literary heritage includes the colloquial,” he says. “It’s always been there; the only daring thing is writing it down.”

Increasingly many are taking that “daring” step. New media and changing attitudes have led to the increased prominence of colloquial Arabic.

In the Arab Gulf, one of the most popular TV shows — Poet of the Millions — features young Arabs reciting poetry in local dialect to enraptured audiences.

In Egypt, colloquial is pervasive, found everywhere from the sets of political TV talk shows, to blogs, to the pages of memoirs.

In fact, Shoair argues that the uprising against Hosni Mubarak was presaged and accompanied by “a linguistic revolution.”

Stultifying official discourse was challenged by the humor, directness and informality of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, where people wrote as they spoke, and aimed for concise expression and the largest possible audience. One well-known opposition newspaper was written entirely in Aamiya.

Holes says that one answer to the quandary of diglossia may be “to write the way you speak. This would be an important part of the democratization of the Arab world. This mysterious code of Classical Arabic is disempowering.”

Others emphasize it’s not Fosha itself but the way it has been taught and used that is the problem. The language of power was “calcified, corrupted, evasive,” wrote Shoair in an article in Akhbar El Adab.

The revolution unleashed a new sarcastic language that “some view as shocking, objectionable and out of bounds, but that is necessary to rid ourselves of the culture of naive nationalism and cliches.”

Today, says Shoair, Aamiya is present everywhere. “Even imams use it in their sermons to make their points,” he says. “President Mohammad Morsi uses it to show he is one of us, close to the people.”

In Morocco, some have even suggested the country adopt its local dialect — Darija — as the official language. Ahmed Benchemsi, the former editor of the Moroccan magazine Telquel, has argued forcefully for this, writing that “to suggest that Darija be Morocco’s national language is not audacious. It’s obvious. We need to give it its rightful place and make, to begin with, the language of instruction in schools. Of instruction, first of all…of classical Arabic!”

Sefrioui, however, fears that the calls for a more widespread use of Darija are a form of demagoguery. Many see classical Arabic as essential to maintaining the links to a heritage that spans the region.

“Fosha has been the language of complete humbug, used to beat people over the head and avoid the truth,” saySefrioui. But she doesn’t want to see Moroccans lose the “keys to this immense civilization.”

Arabic speakers don’t have to choose between a foreign language and their own, or between mastering their dialect and Fosha, argues professor Al-Tonsi, who emphasizes that the distance between classical and colloquial isn’t as vast as many feel.

“Every Arab believes he’s not good enough to speak this language,” he says. But during the recent uprisings, the urgency to communicate overcame these complexes. And it’s only when people believe they are capable of expressing themselves in Arabic, and stop fearing making mistakes, that they can “develop in that language,” says Al-Tonsi.

In any case, argues Holes, these kinds of linguistic transformations are as unstoppable as “tidal waves.”

“You have to live with it, absorb it and cope with it. And you could look at it in a more positive way.”


  1. An interesting overview, Ursula. Until Arabic curricula in schools are able to provide opportunities for meaningful and productive use of language, supported by a revolution in teacher training and sustained over a period of time, I don’t think it is possible to claim any evidence that there is an inherent and insurmountable problem in the differences between dialects and formal written language. It is remarkable that while mother tongue lessons for many children in the Anglo-Saxon world and other countries may be their most enjoyable and engaging experiences, for most children in the Arab world the Arabic lesson is regarded as the least enjoyable. As Abbas el Tonsi says, Arabic class “is like a jail and a punishment”.

  2. Thanks for the interesting article, Ursula. Actually this is the situation in most of the Arabic countries nowadays… I just wonder where are we heading? And how would the new generation perceive their language and what would their speech sound like?
    Between diglossia and bilingualism, it would be a pity to speak of Arabic as an endangered language while it is a language of millions! Whether we like it or not, it is a fact and we have to live with it, as Holes says.

  3. Thank you Ursula for this interesting article. I wonder if part of the literacy/reading problems for children in tbe Arab-speaking world stems from the disconnect between spoken and written Arabic

    I am surprised that al tonsi finds the chism between colloquial and classical Arabic not as large as people say. As someone who understands many Arabic dialects, I have noticed a. How others unfamiliar with them do not understand them; and therefore b. We cannot claim they are not v different from classical because they are each very different to begin with!

    I wonder whether programs to improve Arabic education in schools take this into account

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