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Exclusive: Meet the UAE minister who's taking Arabic language into the future

Dubai - For Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, Arabic is not only a language — it's in the heart of the identity of over 400 million people around the world.

By Joydeep Sen Gupta

Published: Tue 16 Mar 2021, 1:55 PM

The UAE has long been at the forefront of enriching, promoting and preserving the Arabic language — and behind these efforts is the leading voice of Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, the country’s Minister of Culture and Youth.

For Al Kaabi, Arabic is not only a tool of communication. “Arabic is a core aspect of the identity consciousness of more than 400 million people. Outside the Arabic speaking world, millions of people learn and treasure Arabic because of its religious and historical importance,” she said.

In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, Al Kaabi spoke about the current status of the Arabic language and how the UAE has been shaping its future.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

Question: What’s the UAE’s role in promoting Arabic?

Answer: The UAE has always tried to promote Arabic while also encouraging our people to acquire skills in other languages. The decision of the UAE Cabinet in 2008 to authorise Arabic as the official language at all ministries and federal institutions and entities was an important step. The Arabic Language Charter, announced in 2012, which aimed to enhance its role and status within society, is another significant initiative. There are also several other initiatives. On the occasion of the UN Arabic Language Day on December 18, 2019, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives launched Arabic language lessons on the Madrasa e-learning platform. This is aimed at enabling access for 50 million Arab students from kindergarten to Grade 12 to free online Arabic language educational content.

I would also like to draw attention to a study that the Ministry of Culture and Youth did recently. The study, titled ‘Report on the Status and Future of the Arabic Language’, examined the role that publishing companies, technology and academia played in sustaining and enriching the Arabic language.

Q: Are linguists unnecessarily ringing alarm bells about the future of Arabic? There are over 400 million speakers and a billion Muslims who have at least some basic knowledge of the language. In that context, why is there a looming threat to Arabic as one of the disappearing languages in the world?

Ringing alarm bells about the future of Arabic may be an exaggeration. We recently published a detailed report on the current status of the Arabic language and its future across the Arabic-speaking world. The report demonstrates that Arabic continues to be vibrant and powerful, and capable of creative and scientific expressions. The report reveals, with plenty of evidence, the massive potential for the language to grow in the future and confront the challenges. It also stresses that Arabic is eminently capable of communication, expression and innovation at all levels.

The report showed that the increased use of Arabic in a number of fields has actually enhanced the potential of the language. It looked at the use of Arabic in law, legislation, science and technology, Internet, education, media, publishing with special reference to e-books, translation and so on. We must also note the wide use of Arabic on social media platforms. A number of recent initiatives for the Arabisation of sciences hold immense prospects for the growth of the language.

Publication in Arabic of magazines such as ‘Popular Science’, ‘National Geographic’ and ‘Harvard Business Review’—all published in the UAE—are notable developments.

While highlighting the strength and growth potential of the language, our report also analysed the challenges confronting Arabic. The absence of strong language policies in several Arab countries, lack of coordination between various institutions working to develop the language, weak implementation of IPR (intellectual property rights) laws, shortage of interesting books for children and young adults, lack of an institutional framework for developing digital content in Arabic, limited research activity to enable Arabic technologically are some of the challenges we need to surmount.

Q: What is your view on the Arabic curriculum? Should teaching methods be changed?

Arabic curricula development needs improvement. We need to focus on two different aspects in this regard. One is the development of curricula suitable for Arabic speakers in various countries. Another is a curriculum suitable for teaching Arabic as a global language. For instance, students of Arabic often do not understand the lived reality of the Arab world because of the focus on standard Arabic in education curricula. Spoken language represents a dynamic aspect of a culture. Another issue related to this is the shortage of qualified human capital capable of imparting language training.

Last, but not the least, is the lack of agreed-upon quality standards, tools and methods for language teaching. Arab governments, particularly ministries of education, should address these issues collectively so we can develop common standards across the Arab world. In the UAE, I believe we have developed our curriculum and teaching methods to very high standards. The same is true of some other countries as well.

We are of the view that the teaching of language should be freed from the old methods which focused on learning of grammar and literature. I mean to say that grammar and literature are very important, but their learning should be made more interesting. In designing language curriculum, we also need to put it in a cultural framework suitable for each country. For example, an Arabic language curriculum suitable for the UAE may not be replicated in another Arab country whose socio-cultural environs may be drastically different

Q: In 2019, Omani author Jokha Alharthi became the first female Arab author to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize for her novel Celestial Bodies. How has her feat put a spotlight on the Arabic language?

Jokha Al Harthi’s accomplishment is particularly important because it puts the spotlight on literature from the Gulf region. Arabic literature has been read in translation around the world for a long time. But the Arab authors best known across the world are mostly from outside the Gulf region — Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, etc. An Omani woman winning the Man Booker Prize, one of the highest awards in the world for translated fiction, has brought attention to the cultural life of the Gulf. That is a very welcome development because discussions about the Arabian Gulf often revolve around issues related to the economy, politics and so on.

Q: What is your take on this perception about Arabic-speaking millennials: ‘We do not have pride in our language, which is the vocal expression of our identity, because the colonist was successful in making us think it is inferior’?

Scholars like Edward Said have given us many insights on that aspect. Arabs, regardless of their age and nationality, continue to take pride in their language and culture. There is no denying the fact that colonialism did leave a devastating impact on our language and culture. The report I mentioned above argued that the impact of colonialism on many aspects of our region may have vanished over the years, but its destructive impact on our language is visible in many ways even today, especially if we look at our spoken dialects. At the same time, we must note also that people nowadays may be more open to other cultures and languages, which I think is a positive and welcome development. That, however, does not mean they are losing respect for their own language and culture.

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