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Story | Education
12 January 2021

QF expert: How the legacy of the Arabic language needs to be taken forward today


Dr. Basma Al-Dajani with her class of non-native Arabic students, celebrating World Arabic Language Day in 2020.

Dr. Basma A. S. Dajani, Professor of Arabic Language at Qatar Foundation member Hamad Bin Khalifa University, sheds light on the challenges the Arabic language is facing at the start of a new decade, and how it can respond to them

The Arabic language is one of the world’s most important, distinctive, and rich languages. It possesses a phonetic music and balance; it is founded on wisdom and sobriety; and its grace and power connect thoughts and meanings.

The Arabic language was the chosen language of the Holy Qur’an and the language of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Among the evidence of the sanctity and nobility of the Arabic language is the Almighty’s saying: { Indeed, we have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’ān that you might understand.} and { The Most Merciful, Taught the Qur’ān, Created man, And taught him eloquence}. In addition, it has also been the language of poets and writers across two millennia. This makes Arabic the mother of contemporary languages, and one of the most ancient on the face of the earth.

Dr. Basma Al-Dajani

But where do Arabic speakers stand today in the context of the legacy of their language? What are the challenges facing the Arabic language in the Arabic-speaking world, and worldwide, and what are the reasons behind these challenges?

Dr. Basma Ahmed Sidqi Al-Dajani, a Professor of Arabic Language and Culture in the College of Islamic Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University – a member of Qatar Foundation – holds perspectives on how the Arabic language can respond to these challenges in the 2020s, at a time when the world is being tested on various levels.

Language and identity are two sides of the same coin
In the current era, the world has become connected in an unprecedented way. Modern technology and the possibility of exchanging huge amounts of information through the digital sphere have broken many cultural barriers, and information and news now travel between continents faster than they ever did before.

Any speaker or learner of the language today can read an Arabic manuscript that is over 1,000 old, and this is unique

Dr. Basma Al-Dajani

Against this backdrop, Dr. Al-Dajani explains the role of languages and their value to both individuals and societies, saying: “Language is the means of understanding the other, and, as stated in the Holy Qur’an, God created different nations and people so that we may get to know each other and accept our differences. Languages came as a tool to achieve this purpose.

“In light of our current reality and our world today, which has become a small village in which we are influenced by each other and each of us plays an active role in others’ lives, it has become necessary for everyone to maintain their own identity that expresses themselves and their being and speaks of their civilization. This is where the role of language lies: in expressing the identity of people and nations, refining individual personas, and strengthening people’s sense of belonging.

“When we talk specifically about the Arabic language, we are talking about one of the oldest and richest languages in the world, a language that extends 1,500 years back in history. Any speaker or learner of the language today can read an Arabic manuscript that is over 1,000 old, and this is unique. Arabic is a language without gaps throughout history, and there are no changes or substantial modifications that can differentiate between the language used today and the language used throughout history.

“This means that appreciating our Arabic language and teaching it to others is a responsibility that we hold, as the native speakers of the language. At the same time, diligence in learning other languages is very important, in order to properly communicate ideas and expand areas of knowledge in all sciences, just as it was in the flourishing eras of the Arab Islamic civilization.”

Dr. Al-Dajani believes it is necessary for an expatriate – whether for work or study - to acquire even a basic knowledge of the host country’s language.

Advancing Arabic language to keep pace with our modern time
According to Dr. Al-Dajani, the Arabic language is now facing challenges in winning back its native speakers’ passion for it after decades of estrangement, and in attracting those who seek to learn it, whether within or outside the Arabic-speaking world.

“There are three main reasons behind the decline in teaching and learning the Arabic language over the last few decades,” she says. “The first is the inability to choose appropriate content for curricula, and the methods by which it is taught, which created a gap between the speakers and their language from early school grades.

What if we talked to the students about how the camera on their mobile phone - which they use daily to take selfies - actually works, about the origin of its invention?

Dr. Basma Al-Dajani

“It is therefore imperative to renew the methodology of teaching Arabic and align it with the interests of students of this era. For example, we often mention the ‘golden era’ of the Arabic language and civilization in our curricula without going into any details about it and how it relates to our world today.

“What if we talked to the students about how the camera on their mobile phone - which they use daily to take selfies - actually works, about the origin of its invention, and how it evolved from the early discoveries of the Arabian scientist Ibn Al-Haytham? This would motivate students to research their history, creating a sense of pride that makes students more eager to learn about their past, and relate to it.”

As a custodian of the Arabic language, heritage, culture, and knowledge, Qatar Foundation has developed and introduced ways of advancing the teaching of the Arabic language within its educational ecosystem. Its schools engage students in creative activities that focus on the Arabic language and give them the opportunity to create their own content that expresses their ideas – whether through theatre, story writing, film-making, newscasts simulation activities, or other forms. and it harnesses technology in promoting the use of the Arabic language.

“The second reason behind the decline in Arabic language teaching relates to the family’s focus on educating their children the English language to master it in recent decades, as it is considered the modern language of globalization,” says Dr. Al-Dajani. “And although it’s good to learn the largest possible number of languages, people should never replace their mother tongue.

“A family’s keenness and awareness of the importance of mastering and respecting the mother tongue, and teaching this to their children, creates a special value for this language in the child’s consciousness, regardless of how many languages they speak. In the same way, for educational institutions where the use of the Arabic language is nurtured, colloquial speech can be used outside of class to practice speaking and listening, but once students enter the classroom, speaking the Arabic language’s formal “al-fuṣḥá” should be respected and used to practice writing and reading skills.

“As for the third reason, it is the lack of efforts made by countries to promote and spread the Arabic language internationally. It is necessary to activate efforts in this field, as this will help in spreading the culture and history of the Arab world, as well as providing economic benefits."

Efforts by QF to promote the Arabic language on a global scale include TEDinArabic – a two-year initiative, launched in 2020 through a partnership with TED, that provides a platform for Arabic speakers around the world to share their ideas with a new audience, in the Arabic language. It will include a TEDinArabic digital library housing content focusing on topics of great relevance to the Arabic-speaking world, which will remain accessible after the culmination of the partnership between QF and TED, empowering Arabic speakers to continue bringing ideas in the Arabic language to the world’s attention.

Learn the other’s language, and teaching them our language
Learning and mastering a native language should always be a priority, but that does not mean neglecting learning other languages. Science has proven the ability of a child’s brain to absorb a large number of languages at an early age. in addition to their mother tongue. Exploring and practicing other languages enhances a person’s sense of respect for others, and their awareness that differences between nations and their cultures are natural and should be respected and celebrated.

I certainly feel more connected than before with the culture and traditions of the Qatari society

Agata Braja

In teaching Arabic to non-native speakers, Dr. Al-Dajani believes it is necessary for an expatriate – whether for work or study - to acquire even a basic knowledge of the host country’s language, as it is essential for daily social interactions, contributes to their understanding of their host society’s culture and traditions, and supports the integration with their surroundings.

Agata Braja, a non-native Arabic speaker living in Doha who chose to learn the language

Agata Braja, a Polish national, and a member of the digital media team at Qatar Foundation, is in her fourth year of studying Arabic, and says: “I think it is difficult to understand a country and its culture without speaking the language of its people.

“My journey in learning Arabic began out of curiosity to decipher Arabic words I would hear in the streets, and this curiosity quickly grew into a deeper need to understand conversations with Arabic-speaking colleagues and friends.

“Despite some difficulties that I faced in practicing the Arabic language, as we are in a multi-lingual and multi-dialectal society I certainly feel more connected than before with the culture and traditions of the Qatari society. Getting to understand the algorithms and logic of the language, which basically depend on learning the source of a word, and being able to understand the different derivatives of it has increased my passion for this unique language.”

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