DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Last fall, only five new students enrolled in the Arabic language and literature program at the United Arab Emirates University, the lowest number in the school’s 34-year history.
The figure speaks volumes about one of the nation’s existential fears: that the Arabic language is slowly dying out in this corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
Arabic is no better than the third most-spoken language in the United Arab Emirates, behind English and Hindi. This is hardly surprising in a country where foreign workers make up more than 80 percent of the population. Emiratis live as a privileged minority in their oil-rich country, but their language — and with it, their sense of national identity — is in danger of being swamped by a relentless tide of Western-style consumerism.
Unlike some of the smaller European languages that are at risk of being overwhelmed by the universality of English — Dutch, for example, or the Scandinavian languages — there is little doubt that Arabic, with more than 300 million native speakers, will survive as one of the world’s major languages.
But what of places like the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, where English has become the lingua franca of commerce, media and education, or northern Iraq, where Kurdish is pushing aside Arabic?
“In these places, I think we have to look at Arabic as an endangered language,” said Kamal Abdel-Malek, a professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Dubai (AUD).
“This is a real crisis because language is a tool ... [that] is linked to culture. If the tool is defective, how can you produce anything worthwhile,” he asked.
In Dubai, the United Arab Emirates’ largest and most cosmopolitan city, Arabic shares equal billing with English on street signs and in shopping malls, but one has to strain to actually hear it spoken in daily discourse.
Instead, what is frequently heard is a kind of pidgin Arabic. This is especially true among local children who have apparently picked it up from their Pakistani or Filipina nannies.
Aside from the sheer number of non-Arabic speakers, the biggest threat to Arabic in the Gulf region is the shift to English as the language of higher education.
Education City in Doha is typical of the trend. In a bid to build a top-notch higher education system from scratch, the government of Qatar has recruited a big name cast of American universities to set up shop in a sleek new campus on the outskirts of the capital. Among the participants are Georgetown, Cornell, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon.
Similarly, the government of Abu Dhabi has given New York University a virtual blank check to extend its franchise to the emirate, while a smaller version of Qatar’s Education City in Dubai has attracted Michigan State and several British and Australian universities. The American University in Dubai and the American University in Sharjah are indigenous institutions that offer students an American-style curriculum.
Even at United Arab Emirates University, the country’s flagship university, English is rapidly becoming the main language of instruction.
“I have no problem with this; I like this experiment,” said Ahmad Al-Zubi, chairman of the university’s beleaguered Arabic language department. “The crisis we face [with Arabic] is a separate issue.”
Al-Zubi blamed the failure on the United Arab Emirates’ primary and secondary schools, which try to teach both languages but too often succeed with neither.
“The students come to us after 12 years of school and they cannot write a correct sentence in English or in Arabic,” he said.
A new national plan, unveiled earlier this month and aimed at 2021, the United Arab Emirates’ 50th anniversary, highlights the concern:
“Arabic will re-emerge as a dynamic and vibrant language, expressed everywhere in speech and writing as a living symbol of the national Arab-Islamic values,” the plan said. But it offered few specifics on how this would occur.
Current law requires all non-nationals to study Arabic in secondary schools. Those of Arab origin must take it as a first language; others study it as a second language.
“The problem here is that we have to find a better way of sharing our language with the expatriates,” said Lina Wright, head of the Arabic department at Wellington International School, a private K-12 school in Dubai. “We need to find ways to make Arabic as fun, as interesting as other subjects in school, especially for young children.”
Others have argued that strict laws and tough enforcement are the only way to reassert the primacy of Arabic.
But AUD’s Abdel-Malek, who previously taught at Princeton and Brown, disagrees.
“We shouldn’t end up with language police,” he said. “Laws cannot maintain the vitality of a language. I don’t think you force people to preserve a language.”