Just before 2020 came to a close, Egypt’s Ministry of Emigration and Expatriate Affairs launched the “Speak Arabic” campaign to encourage Egyptians living abroad to speak their mother language and to find pride in doing so.
Among the platforms to promote the campaign is a Facebook page where videos are uploaded to raise awareness of the importance of the Arabic language, and the consequences of losing it. Page followers are encouraged to post videos of their children speaking or singing in Arabic.
Throughout January 2021 the campaign will be releasing a number of programmes on YouTube designed to help children and youth learn more about their language.
“The Arabic language is indispensable, as it is both the language of our society and our religion,” says Mohamed Fathi, Arabic language specialist at Al-Azhar University, adding that Egyptian youth both living in Egypt and abroad are at risk of losing their Arabic identity.
One of the problems Fathi noticed was that children in international schools and those living abroad need to practise reading and writing the language, citing that many teenagers find it taxing to read an Arabic sentence even if they speak the language daily. In fact, many find it easier to write what they call “franco”, which is writing Arabic using a mix of the English alphabet and numbers.
Fathi said youths will taint a pure Arabic sentence with foreign words. “By mixing both languages they are removing themselves from learning more about their own language beyond their daily necessities,” he added.
However, the problem lies in the ease of learning foreign languages compared to the Arabic language, Ahmed Sabra, a recent international school graduate says. “It’s much easier for me to replace an Arabic word with an English one,” Sabra said, adding that it happens subconsciously without him noticing.
He also said that it’s generally considered a sign of prestige to speak in a foreign language, which is why some people prefer doing so in front of others. There are also people like him who generally prefer using the English language because that is the language they use to think.
The problem lies within the Egyptian society itself, said Ali Salah, a sociology and psychology teacher, explaining that generally it is viewed that international schools offer better education than national schools. “In some schools it is even customary to interview the parents before interviewing the potential student, with the odds of the student being enrolled depending on the level of the English mastery of the parents,” Salah said.
One of the biggest sources of education for teenagers used to be the schools they go to; it is there where students generally learned more about their language. However, Adel Metwali, a sociology teacher for high school seniors, believes that with much of education going online because of the coronavirus, the effect of schools in supporting the strengthening of the Arabic language among teens lessens.
Working from home and online education has severely limited the way teachers interact with students. As such, the enrichment of language has become one of the lower priorities of students because they do not feel pressured to learn it.
The responsibility, according to Metwali, lies in the family to teach their children the importance of the Arabic language. He believes that the current generation of students are severely lacking pride and appreciation of Arabic.
Fathi reached a similar conclusion, however, he feared that family members may not be up to the task of teaching the Arabic language to their children as they themselves may have faults in their language.
“In sociology, one of the most important aspects is to constantly enhance the identity of a society, and one of the biggest factors in the identity of a society is its language,” Salah said.
Salah believes that the Egyptian society generally gives more importance to foreign languages rather than its own, citing the higher salaries of English teachers compared to Arabic teachers, and how companies will demand a second language when hiring.
That being the case, Metwali said that nowadays it is completely possible for a foreigner with meagre skills in Arabic to be able to excel in Egyptian society, in direct contrast to other countries such as Germany, where if one cannot speak German, they will have a very hard time getting anything done.
Sabra agreed, saying that work demands that he focus completely on the English language, so much that his Arabic wouldn’t be an advantage for him in the work place.
Fathi believes that focusing only on Egyptians abroad is not enough and that the campaign needs to address the domestic audience as well.
Stressing the importance of the campaign Fathi explained that the issue is not to get people to speak classical Arabic, fus-ha, “because that would be impossible, however it was important that they speak correct Arabic. That, he said, can be achieved through what he called “media Arabic”, a simplified form of fus-ha. “By constantly being introduced to correct forms of Arabic, one can subconsciously become a better Arabic speaker,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.