“Protecting” the Arabic language risks missing the entire points of languages and the modern Lebanese Identity.
A campaign to preserve Arabic in Lebanon (AFP)
First, some questions:
-Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie dubbed in Arabic?
-Did you ever solve a math problem in Arabic?
-Did you eat in an Italian restaurant where the entire menu is written in Arabic?
If you answered “no” to all of the questions above, you’re probably Lebanese. A “yes” answer on the other hand means that you could be Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian or a holder of any other Arab nationality.
To people like Suzanne Talhouk, founder of a new Lebanese movement that seeks to preserve the Arabic language, this is a problem. Her frustrations are laid out in an Afp article entitled “in polyglot Lebanon, one language is falling behind: Arabic”
“Some of our youngsters are incapable of writing correctly in Arabic, and many university students we interviewed were not even able to recite the alphabet,” Talhouk told AFP.
To the extend that her campaign seeks to fight mediocrity, she could have a point: If you really want to speak and write proper Arabic, you have no excuse doing it half-heartedly. There is no shortage of places in Lebanon where you can learn good Arabic.
But if Ms. Talhouk seeks a government role to artificially “preserve” Arabic and frown at those who don’t speak it at home, we’ll have a problem.
Ms. Talhouk, like many who seek to protect languages all over the world (I’m looking at you France), has it backwards: It is not that people think it’s cool to speak French or English at home with their kids. It’s that they know that it will put their kids at an advantage when it comes to their education: All the centers of educational excellence in Lebanon are in English and French. Giving your children fluency at a very early age is the best way to secure them a good education.
You see, a language is not an end in itself, it’s a means to communication, education and development. If you want more people to speak Arabic, the best way is to have Arab breakthroughs in Science, technology and economics. If Facebook was invented by an Arab, “Facebook Arabic” will no longer be the insult Ms. Talhouk intended it to be.
There’s another reason why we shouldn’t lament the dilution of Arabic: The Lebanese have always had a complex relationship with their national identity. We have fought wars over which of our cultural ancestries is the dominant one, but we ended up concluding that we derive our richness from diversity itself, that we are Arabs and citizens of the world at the same time. In that context, the concept of a “mother tongue” becomes slightly obsolete.
We all know people of Lebanese ancestry who can’t speak a word of Arabic. Lebanon is a country with a huge diaspora: More people of Lebanese origin live outside of Lebanon than inside Lebanon. If they don’t speak Arabic, that doesn’t make them any less Lebanese. In an increasingly connected world, we should take pride in the fact that that we form that cliché bridge to the rest of the world.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a thought: This blog has always been about Lebanon and the Lebanese. Does the fact that it’s written in English make it any less authentic?