Arabic’s Uncertain Future Has Troubling Cultural Implications

March 04, 2010 10:30 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Arabic is being replaced by English in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, prompting concerns about the preservation of national identity and culture.

Fallout of the Shift to English

According to Tom Hundley in a piece for Global Post, Arabic has fallen behind English and Hindu to become only “the third most-spoken language in the United Arab Emirates.” Although this is “hardly surprising” since most of the population consists of foreign workers, the loss of Arabic would also mean a loss of “their sense of national identity,” writes Hundley.

There are “more than 300 million native speakers” of Arabic around the world, so the language will likely “survive as one of the world’s major languages.” However, in specific places, including UAE and Qatar, Arabic has become “endangered,” experts tell Hundley. In some cities, such as Dubai, children have adopted “a kind of pidgin Arabic” from their caretakers, often nannies from Pakistan or the Philippines.

Higher Education in the Gulf region is also rapidly shifting to English as universities from the U.S., Britain and Australia set up campuses. However, sources tell Hundley that the issue begins in primary school, where students are being taught a combination of English and Arabic, but failing to perfect either one.

Demand for Arabic speakers

While Arabic has become less desirable in some parts of the Middle East, the U.S. is sorely in need of Arabic speakers to fill foreign service positions. 

The need for U.S. Foreign Service officers in the Middle East “has skyrocketed” since 9/11, explained Josh Kurlantzick in a 2007 piece for The New Republic. With that, the U.S. government faces the added pressure of training “a new generation of Arabic, Farsi and Chinese speakers,” he writes. 

Background: Languages in danger

In April 2009, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger showed more than 200 languages had become extinct. The United States is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, but it also has one of the largest numbers of endangered languages. India, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico are all countries with similar linguistic situations as the United States— many spoken tongues, but also many endangered or extinct languages. Of the some 6000 languages spoken worldwide, it is thought that nearly half of them are endangered.

In a 2007 TED talk focused on cultures at the far edges of the world, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis explained that nearly half of the languages spoken on Earth are no longer taught to children, making these languages essentially obsolete. Davis cited a statistic that a language dies off almost every two weeks, and went on to describe how languages shape the way we think, and can represent a complete history of a people.

Related Topic: Understanding US-Muslim relations

In 2006 the Pew Global Attitudes Project published a study, “The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other,” which found that both Muslims and Westerners view relations between the two groups as being generally bad.

Some of the most important events in the history of Islam have shaped both cultures’ perceptions of each other. The Crusades and the Ottoman domination are among many that developed the relationship, for better or worse, with the West. Read more about these periods in history on the Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook.

Where Western-Muslim relations stand now and where they should go is continually debated. FindingDulcinea provided historical coverage and context leading up to the 2009 U.S.-Islamic World Forum.

Reference: Resources for students and travelers in the Middle East

The Middle East is a vibrant part of the world, with sights, activities and lavish accommodation that speak to both the traditional and ever-changing natures of this ancient region. Find hotels and get sightseeing information, and book a flight to the Middle East.

The American Association of Teachers of Arabic provides background on Arabic language, including its history as part of the Semitic family of languages. Reasons for studying Arabic are discussed, such as the United Nations' adoption of Arabic "as one of its six official languages" and the fact that the Middle East contains "some of the world's greatest archaeological religious sites." Brief introductions to colloquial and standard Arabic, the Arabic alphabet and greetings are included. lists Intensive Language Study Abroad Opportunities for Arabic, including programs in Fez, Morocco, and Cairo, Egypt. Transitions Abroad also lists Arabic study programs around the world, and Language Vacations. The site features a helpful map of the Middle East, as well. 

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