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Editor’s note: This article addresses schools that teach Arabic as a secondary language in the Middle East. The author went to school in the GCC.
For as long as I can remember, I have always disliked studying the Arabic language in school – since the early days of elementary school and all the way to high school. Arabic, with its endless vowel signs, conjoined letters and multilayered contexts, seemed uninviting. Being introduced to its labyrinthian grammar rules was the final nail in the coffin for me and many other children of my age.
By the time I was in university, Arabic had become an afterthought. I focused on my communications and filmmaking major, which was fully taught, tested and scored in English.
“I have no more need for written Arabic,” I naively thought to myself. “At best I’d require it for filling in paperwork in the Middle East, or other basic uses. For the most part, I should now be free from the oppressiveness of this archaic language.”
If only I had known how mistaken I was. Not only would I actually be forced to take an Arabic literature elective in university, but it would also be a huge plus for a lot of the jobs I was interested in after graduating.
That’s right. For a region whose lingua franca is Arabic, the language was quite in demand. What a shock – there are over 420 million Arabic speakers in the world after all. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it was. I studied in English-language schools and universities, most of the media my generation consumed was in English, and I carried myself solely in English online and even in person at times. Many Arab millennials like myself were born and bred in a world dominated by Western media, in a region with a history of being colonized and influenced by Western languages. This was only exacerbated by the rise of the internet, which further immersed us Gen Y-ers in foreign languages, where all of our favorites cartoons, games, movies and eventually social media platforms were in English, French, or other languages.
During my job search, I realized that what’s even more desirable for most of the media companies I was looking at was a candidate with proficiency in both Arabic and English – essentially, someone able to carry themselves professionally in either language. Already, I was beginning to feel at a disadvantage, and began regretting slacking off on Arabic in my younger years.
Rediscovering Arabic for the first time
I have one single positive experience with Arabic, and it happened during my third year of university. I was nearing the completion of my major, and I had to finally come to terms with the fact that I’d need to take that Arabic elective course I’d been holding off on. Essentially, we were given a choice between an Arabic grammar elective or an Arabic literature one, and in another act that I also came to regret quickly, I picked grammar.
It didn’t end well. Or rather, it didn’t even a have a chance to get started in the first place.
That’s right, I dropped the course within a couple of weeks. There was no way I’d be able to keep up with university-level Arabic grammar, and so I cut my losses. This was during my second year of university, after which I’d decided to hold off on Arabic till my penultimate semester. In the third year, I decided to give Arabic literature a shot, and I was utterly baffled.
Our professor was a writer and a poet, a difficult old teacher cliché in his own right, but a very passionate one at that. We explored some passages from classic literature, and our final course examination entailed writing an analysis of a long chapter from a poetry book he’d written. Given my strong background in English storytelling and analysis, I gave this a shot.
To my surprise, I ended up loving it. While it often took a few attempts to hack away at the dense language and symbolism, when I finally arrived at the heart of message being conveyed in every sentence and passage, I was left in utter awe. This was writing on a level I didn’t think was possible, and unlike anything I’d every come across in English. It was like I was truly discovering the language for the first time.
I ended up acing that course, and warming up to that professor who eventually showed us his softer side. I was grateful to him for showing me a new side to Arabic I had never known existed. While it wasn’t going to help with my career prospects as an English writer, it was great to be able to see it was just as green (if not greener) on the other side.
While it might be a bit late for me to approach the language with an open mind in hopes of relearning it from scratch, it’s not too late for the current young generations – the Gen Z-ers and Gen Alphas. Looking back, I grew to dislike Arabic because of outdated curriculums, old-fashioned teachers, and a general second-thought approach to Arabic. Given that Arabic is secondary in many English-language schools in the region, it is barely as explored and department heads don’t innovate the material as much. If we want our children to not lose touch with their heritage and culture, while ensuring they are better equipped for the regional job market, it is time we demand more from their Arabic teachers.