Sunday, February 25, 2007

Arabic threatened in Qatar?

In a development that doesn't surprise me but will probably surprise anyone who hasn't been following developments in the Gulf, an educationalist is warning that Arabic is threatened in Qatar, and some Arab children are growing up not speaking it. Recall that Qataris are a rather small minority in Qatar, outnumbered by guest workers from all over the world, mainly from South Asia (especially Kerala), the Arab world, and the Philippines. English has become very much a lingua franca there, and much of the population speaks it far better than Arabic, if they speak Arabic at all.

Qatari children's exposure to English often begins soon after birth, with the hiring of a nanny who is unlikely to speak much if any Arabic, and certain not to speak the Gulf dialect - or as Ms. Al Misnad put it, "the education of the children is left to foreign housemaids, who teach their own language and customs." It continues at school, where about two-thirds of their fellow students are non-Qatari (in practice probably less, due to many expat kids attending expat schools); English is a mandatory subject from first grade up, and the many American universities opening campuses in Qatar are commonly English-medium (for instance, CMU.) In short, it's easy to lead a fairly full life in Qatar with little Arabic, and easy to envision Qatari kids of this generation acquiring English natively.

However, apart from other issues like not giving any statistics or details, the article suffers from the common conflation of classical and colloquial Arabic. "In addition, parents would rather talk to their children in the dialect of their country of origin rather than in classical Arabic, a factor which is also contributing to a general decline in the understanding of the classical language" - as if parents have ever talked to their children in classical Arabic for the past millennium, or as if it were desirable that the children should grow up not speaking their own dialects!

7 comments:

John Cowan said...

I take "classical Arabic" here to refer to modern standard Arabic, but even so, what are they thinking of, to run a kid's channel in MSA? Qatari colloquial is too obviously The Right Thing here.

Lameen Souag said...

Virtually all Arabic kids' programming is in MSA, for better or for worse - Al Jazeera Children is no exception. It's seen as a way to give children a head start on their Fusha.

I don't find the distinction between classical and modern standard Arabic particularly useful except in fairly specialist contexts; there's no reliable way to distinguish which variety a given sentence is supposed to be in unless it happens to involve some particularly new or conspicuously archaic construction. It's like drawing a line between 19th- and 20th century English. For most purposes, the only relevant distinction is Fusha (Classical + MSA) vs. Darja/Ammiya (local dialect).

Anonymous said...

What happens in a kid's head when he hears Dora the Explorer, Franklin or Bugs Bunny speak MSA? He simply notices that it is not the language Mom and Dad speak.

It makes no difference for him if it is English or MSA.

So do we want our kids to learn foreign languages or do we want them to have fun watching their preferred heroes speak in the language they (the kids) understand and use everyday? I would certainly have been a lot more profitable for each Arab country to invest in the development of their respective dialets of Arabic. TV programs would have certainly helped these dialects grow by adding the words they presently lack in sciences, politics, literature, etc.

It's much easier for the lazy people who are supposed to govern us to use ready-made but inefficient solutions.

Lameen Souag said...

"So do we want our kids to learn foreign languages or do we want them to have fun watching their preferred heroes speak in the language they (the kids) understand and use everyday?"

Both would be ideal!

TV programs in Darja/Ammiya are reasonably common; it's just that they tend to be restricted to certain genres (mainly soap operas and movies.) Cartoons would be nice, but if I had to pick two genres for which using dialect is a top priority, I'd make them political programs and documentaries. How can you expect to have a working democracy when the politicians and commentators are speaking a language much of the population has trouble understanding? And how many learning opportunities are we missing by making knowledge of science contingent on knowledge of Fusha or a foreign language?

John Joseph Colangelo said...

This is almost the same situation in Dubai. And the worst of it all is these children grow up not knowing English well nor Arabic for that matter. When I was in Sharjah, I had my daughters go to a bilingual school which I found to be more effective, id est: half of the subjects in Arabic and the other half in English.

My experience in the matter is that Arabic is a lot more difficult than English or any other European language for that matter. So my choice would be to send my daughters to an Arab high school and while learning English as a foreign language and through television.

ZEAL Hammett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ZEAL said...

I am moving to Doha soon. Looking for a school that has strength in teaching MSA & Gulf Arabic. Web sites & blogs on Doha are vague. Does anyone have any insight, direction, suggestions or contacts for this need. The only thing i have found to match this is in UAE at Al-Ain. Anything closer around Qatar? hit me up