A plea for the langue arabe

David Tresilian , Tuesday 11 Apr 2023

Nada Yafi
Nada Yafi


In choosing to write a popular introduction to Arabic for French readers that also focuses on the language’s mixed fortunes in France, Franco-Lebanese author Nada Yafi has ventured onto what has sometimes been controversial ground.

As she says towards the beginning of her Plaidoyer pour la langue arabe – A Plea for the Arabic Language – the relationship between Arabic and France has been a complicated one despite the close relations between France and the Arab world, the long history of learning Arabic in France, and the major contributions that French scholars have made to studying the language.

The study of Arabic in France goes back at least to the 16th century as part of a tradition that is probably longer than that in any other European country, Yafi says. She adds that some eight centuries earlier the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, also King of the Franks, was in touch with the Abbasid Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad, presumably writing to him in Arabic.

The mediaeval French King Louis IX, later canonised as St Louis by the Roman Catholic Church, may well have known some Arabic. It probably came in useful to him when he was captured by Ayyubid Mameluke forces during the Battle of Fariskur in the Egyptian Delta during the Seventh Crusade.

Centuries later, the French King Francois 1 introduced the study of Arabic into the Collège royal, the predecessor of today’s Collège de France, in 1536, having decided to ally himself with the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent against the Austrians. In the 17th century, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, first minister of French “Sun King” Louis XIV, decided to set up a school of interpreters in Paris that would train young Frenchmen in Arabic.

France was making all things Arab fashionable across Europe at much the same time following French scholar Antoine Galland’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights in the early 1700s. Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian Expedition in 1798 gave rise to a new interest in Egypt in particular that bordered on Egyptomania, and throughout the 19th century French painters produced images of Arab life that entranced gallery goers across Europe.

French scholars have probably made greater contributions to the study of Arab history and society than those of almost any other European country, with the names of 20th-century French Arabists Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque, and Maxime Rodinson coming readily to mind.

Moreover, French has retained its position as a language of education, government, and the media in the Maghreb countries of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. A sizeable proportion of the French population is of Arab descent, often retaining close links to family in the Arab countries and speaking Arabic at home. Their dialects of Arabic are probably France’s second language.

Yafi notes all this and more, while at the same time saying that despite this long history of links between France and the Arab world, the Arabic language has sometimes had difficulty in making its presence felt in France. It might have been expected to be a popular option for study in French schools and a familiar feature of the wider landscape. The fact that neither of these things is the case is the starting point for her plea for the Arabic language.


“There is a “French paradox” regarding the Arabic language,” she says, adding that while Arabic “is celebrated in the French academic world, it is also denigrated in the French media,” giving rise to an ambivalent relationship that is made up “as much of fascination as rejection.”

There have also been attacks on Arabic in France in recent years, often demanding that the language somehow justify itself in the face of “extremists who take certain Arabic expressions hostage and give them an entirely different meaning.” The headline of a French magazine article describing Arabic as a langue brûlante, a “language that burns,” particularly struck her, she adds. “Imagine using that kind of word to describe any other language.”

Some of these polemics regarding Arabic come from the French extreme right, with Eric Zemmour, a candidate in the last French presidential elections, claiming on television that anyone wanting to encourage the learning of Arabic in France was “a useful idiot for the Muslim Brotherhood” and part of an agenda to “Islamise” the country.

Yafi treats such comments with the contempt they deserve, but at the same time she is unhappy with the arguments sometimes used to counter them. Even some French educationalists wanting to see greater attention paid to the teaching of Arabic in France sometimes argue that it could be a “weapon in the battle against jihadism,” she says. Of course, in reality there is no more of a relationship between Arabic and any particular political agenda than there is for any other language.

There have also been paternalistic arguments that see the teaching of Arabic as a route towards the greater “integration” of people of Arab heritage in France, at their worst relegating the language to the realm of folklore and even at their best ignoring the fact that Arabic, more than most other languages, has signally benefitted from the globalisation of recent decades.

Arabic is a major international language routinely used for diplomatic purposes as one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and it is also used across the media and the creative industries. It is not the kind of “heritage language” that even some of its most well-meaning French defenders may sometimes make of it, Yafi comments.


Red pen syndrome: In addressing the “paradox” of Arabic in France Yafi examines a variety of misconceptions that French readers of her book may have regarding the language.

She describes the relationship between the dialects of Arabic and the written language, for example, while drawing out some of the consequences, not all of them positive, of this situation. Yafi is also an interpreter with the French diplomatic service and head of Arabic language teaching at the Arab World Institute in Paris, and she is a stern defender of the teaching of the written language.

Writing of the decision by a former French minister of education to deny high-school students taking Arabic for their baccalauréat school-leaving exam in France the right to take parts of the exam in a North African dialect, Yafi says that though this may have put off some students speaking Arabic at home it was the right decision because only the written language “can give access to the cultural heritage and build a connection with the Arab world as a whole.”

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, a document put out by the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organisation, considers “North African Arabic” to be a “regional or minority language” in France since it is spoken by a large section of the French population. Yafi’s view seems to be that this Charter, never recognised by the French government, unintentionally furnishes support to those wanting to see Arabic as a language only of interest to a minority community and feeds arguments about integration.

The promotion of the Arabic dialects in Algeria and other countries of the Arab Maghreb during the French colonial period was part of a conscious strategy of “divide and rule,” she says, intended to make written Arabic a “foreign language” to the populations of these countries and separate them off from the rest of the Arab world. Today, “if there is a linguistic division” at work in the Arabic language, it is caused by an education system that fails to insist on proper standards of written Arabic, she argues.

Far from being a “language of tradition, conformism, and conservatism,” Yafi says, citing this opinion among some Francophone North African writers, written Arabic has come into its own through its use on Arab satellite TV stations and the Internet, opening up a vast space for dialogue and shared opinions. This space has shown that the supposed battle between the dialects and written Arabic is in fact a tug of war without a rope, she says, since it is one that “facilitates the co-existence, and not the competition, of all the variants.”

Is Arabic, and particularly written Arabic, a “difficult language,” Yafi asks, adding that this is an opinion sometimes propagated by speakers of Arabic themselves as well as by a particular kind of western orientalist. During the French colonial period in the North African countries, this opinion was actively propagated by the French authorities in order to detach the populations from their cultural heritage, causing them to believe that there was a wider gap than in fact existed between the Arabic dialects and the written language.

Today, however, this opinion is more likely to be associated by the “red pen syndrome” that still haunts too many Arabic-language classrooms, with the written language being taught as a kind of “punishment” and every error being gleefully jumped upon by teachers teaching it almost as a dead language. Yafi is severe about this sort of thing, seeing it as a result of a regrettable orientalist mindset and failings in contemporary pedagogy.

“Is Arabic any different from many other languages,” as far as its supposed difficulty is concerned, she asks. “Are there really any other languages that one can describe as ‘easy,’ assuming that one wants to speak them properly?”

All this is interesting to read, with Yafi showing considerable feistiness in defending her opinions. However, it can distract from her specific defence of the Arabic language in France today. Returning to this later in the book, she says that the polemics the teaching of the language in France seems to attract, unknown in other European countries, are probably due to what she calls a “collective imagination haunted by the Algerian question.”

Marginalised in Algeria during the French colonial period and excluded from the state education system in that country, in the post-colonial period Arabic has been seen in France as “an identity marker and a community language” and even “an enemy within” undermining “social and national cohesion.” Bizarre as such ideas may seem, Yafi’s diagnosis may explain why no other language is the object of such suspicions in France and no other language has had to bear such calumny from the extreme right and others.

Far from being an inward-looking language guarded by the community of its speakers, Arabic is in fact one of the most open to the outside world. “A cross-cutting language and a translator’s language, the Arabic language is in my view a language of mediation par excellence,” Yafi says, citing poems by the 10th-century Arab poet Al-Mutanabbi commending the role played by translators.

“Arabic is an asset for France in the areas of diplomacy, strategy, commerce, and culture,” she adds. “This is not only because France is itself a Mediterranean power, and one also open to the Gulf, but also because of the exceptional cultural diversity that gives a universal aspect to this country of human rights.”


Nada Yafi, Plaidoyer pour la langue arabe, Paris: Libertalia, 2023, pp191


* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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