Nashwa Mohammed El Darawy reports on the bell tolling for the end of classical Arabic and the need to halt its disappearance

As teenagers today grow up facing an identity crisis, many Arabs are drawn to western culture and conform to it in terms of clothing, looks, rituals and most of all - language.

For example, in malls in the Middle East, you can spot numerous Arab teens strolling around with extra large T-shirts and baggy, sagging jeans, addressing their friends in "thug language", as many African-American rappers would call it, composed mainly of rude words.

They tend to master that language, which they have learned from movies, and rap songs, yet would probably not be able to compose a proper sentence in classical Arabic.

Another example would be the many university students who have spent their lives in non-Arabic schools and can talk and write fluent English, yet cannot read nor understand the classical Arabic written in a seven year-old's textbook.

So do today's Arab youth really know their language?
When Dr. Saiyad Ahmad, assistant professor of near eastern studies at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), was asked that question, he answered in the negative.

"Based on my experience living in different parts of the Arab world, no, in my estimation, most Arab youth don't know their language." He clarified that there is "no question that they speak their dialect but the Fus'ha (classical Arabic) is where they're lacking."

Ahmad disagrees with the claim that since Fus'ha is different from the dialect, Arabs must spend their life learning Fus'ha like a foreign language in order to become competent in it.

He said that Fus'ha is not a foreign language yet that peculiar situation found in the gap between the formal language and the street language, as named by linguists - diglossia.

Ahmad stressed that diglossia is not unique to Arabic, but is also true for German, Greek, Tibetan or other such languages.

Ahmad said: "In this case [of diglossia] there are two divisions [of Arabic], one being Fus'ha, which is the language of the written text, pre-Islamic and Islamic literature, the language of the Quran, Arabian heritage, arts, law, and oral communication between the intellectual and educated."

The second sect is the dialect, what Saiyad calls "the language of the common people," or "the language of the street", which is day-to-day talk and is rarely written.

Who's responsible?
Ahmad highlighted the responsibility of the education system, and more specifically the role of teachers in stressing and enhancing the use of Fus'ha in the classroom.

He commented that the curriculum has been "dumbed-down" and the books being used now are not as effective as the older books that teach classical Arabic.

Consequently, neologism or the coining of new words has taken place, where many English phrases and ideas have been absorbed into the language.

Ahmad says that this, along with the corroding effect of television, has led to "the erosion of Arabic literary discourse".

Ahmad added, "We have effectively lost our authenticity … our ideas are not our own, but are imported like other products."

He said: "Nowadays, if someone doesn't know English, they're seen as uneducated … people have forgotten other ways and means of thinking."

Ahmad agreed that many of today's youth neglect of classical Arabic indicates the loss of an essential part of Arabic culture and heritage.

He said, "we can stop this" mainly through the educational system, by making "the Arabian heritage and Islamic civilisation essential and central parts of it again".

Ahmad obtained his master's and PhD in Near Eastern studies from Princeton University in New Jersey, USA.

Experience and advice
Salma Banawan, a 19-year-old Egyptian, computer-engineering student at the University of Sharjah, grew up in the US speaking only English.

She tried attending an Arabic school twice a week but fell behind since it coincided with her other school. At the age of 10, she moved to Qatar with her family and continued studying at an American school that did not encourage spoken Arabic.

She described her experience saying, "I saw people who seemed to be following Western culture rather than Islamic culture in many ways including language … I couldn't find anybody who spoke classical Arabic and the complete mixture of the different Arabic dialects confused me."

Banawan noted that when she moved to Sharjah, she grew older and more mature and "realised that [classical] Arabic is very rich, intricate and is extremely important in my religion, and for my culture and workplace … I needed to make a big change in my life and attempt to develop my Arabic language skills."

As a result, Banawan took the initiative and began "tripling" her effort in studying Arabic as opposed to studying other subjects.

Banawan said: "My advice to parents would be to strike a balance between the workplace language, the country's dialect, and most importantly, classical Arabic."

She suggests assigning a specific language for each day of the week, leaving a few days for practicing and developing classical Arabic.

She stressed that "the first language that [Arab or Muslim] parents should up bring their children on is classical Arabic, then consider the other languages, especially since children pick up languages quickly."

A matter of love

Lana Ali Salha, a 20 year-old information technology student at the American University of Dubai, agreed with Ahmad and Banawan that many Arabs are imitating the West due to globalisation and that is a reason for their neglect of the Arabic language.

She added that, most importantly, parents and schools share the blame for not raising their children "to love their [Arabic] language or learn the Quran".

Research and conclusion

AUS TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) students Gihane Sadek and Ghada Batawi wrote a masters research paper titled AUS Arab Students and Their Mother Tongue suggesting that "the Arabic language is at risk and that an awareness campaign to promote the importance of developing English and maintaining Arabic is necessary and timely".

After surveying a few students, Sadek and Batawi concluded that the "causal factors for some students' preference of English are their desire to belong to the Western culture more than the Arabic ... .

"On the other hand, the conservative group [those who were traditionally dressed and quite conventional in their perceptions towards language, heritage and identity] valued Arabic, and they told us that their parents promote its maintenance."

They also suggested that "in order to safeguard the Arabic language among Arab AUS students, we suggest to all stakeholders - educators, students, parents, policymakers - to plan and implement an awareness campaign on the AUS premises to create alertness towards the importance of developing English and the need to preserve the native language at the same time."

They said: "In gaining control over two language systems AUS Arab bilingual students would gain cognitive, linguistic, and emotional advantages.

"They would be more flexible in thinking, have meta-linguistic awareness about the structure, function, and use, of both languages, and, finally, maintain the