A panel of international researchers was commissioned six months ago by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, to investigate the state of Arabic.
The team presented their findings to the Ruler yesterday in a report, Arabic for Life.
“Arabic is not in danger or on the verge of disappearing,” Dr Farouk El Baz, the chairman of the commission, said.
“We have seen people bring back languages that have been dead for thousands of years. Arabic is not dead, so it should be much easier to improve it.
“We need to teach it as you would a science – start with the basics and slowly build on that,” added Dr El Baz, a former Nasa scientist for the Apollo missions who is now a research professor and director of the Centre for Remote Sensing at Boston University.
Arabic for Life outlined five key areas in need of attention to revive the Arabic language.
The first suggestion was to improve the curriculum in schools.
Teachers should also be retrained to teach Arabic and teach other subjects in the language. A culture of reading Arabic should be fostered and the media should play a bigger role in supporting the teaching of the language.
The final area highlighted was the need to teach Arabic to non-native speakers.
“Governments must reflect their concern about the education sector by allocating a substantial part of their budget for it,” Dr El Baz said.
Another member of the commission, Dr Yasir Suleiman, a professor of modern Arabic studies and fellow at King’s College at the University of Cambridge, said schools had to implement better administration, hire better teachers and encourage parents to get involved.
“Arab countries are in a situation where we give our teachers the fish rather than teach them how to fish, and we want them to teach how to make fishing rods,” Dr Suleiman said.
The material used to teach the language may be putting students off at an early stage, according to Dr Mohsin Al Ramly, a philosophy professor at St Louis University in Madrid.
“What we do traditionally is we start with the old texts that can be hundreds of years old, which can surprise students and alienate them, then we advance to modern texts,” Dr Al Ramly said. “This should be the other way around.
“We should start with the modern terms that students can recognise and relate to, then advance to the old texts.”
The commission also recommended the strengthening of Arabic as a universal language and a language of science and culture.
“In 1974, I came to the [Arabian] Gulf to conduct a lecture in Arabic on lunar travel and exploration,” Dr El Baz said. “I had just spent eight years of my life without using the Arabic language, so I was nervous and asked myself if I could even give a lecture in Arabic – never mind one that had so many difficult technical terms.”
He went over his presentation and tried to replace the technical terms with Arabic words.
“It was much easier than I thought. The language had simple terms that could clearly explain the functions of these terms,” he said.
Dr El Baz said the community should not be afraid to embrace foreign words.
“Arabic has terms that were adopted by other languages and old scholars took knowledge from other cultures and adopted the terms to Arabic as well,” he said. “This is part of the evolution of the language.”
An Emirati children’s author, Qais Sedki, agreed with the commission that Arabic was not in danger or on the verge of extinction.
“I am with the optimists. So long as there are people working to solve this, there is hope,” he said.
But he warned that the efforts would require partnership and participation.
“Yes, there is a problem and we all have to pitch in to face this problem,” he said. “I want to see what comes out of this report, what are the deliverables. I’m sure that with this great experience we will have good outcomes.”