Zeinab Ibrahim, teaching professor of Arabic studies, teaching students in 2017
Zeinab Ibrahim, teaching professor of Arabic studies, teaching students in 2017

‘Social media language’ hurting future of Arabic: CMU-Q’s Zeinab Ibrahim

In Qatar Tribune, January 14, 2021

Zeinab Ibrahim is a teaching professor of Arabic studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, a QF partner university

As the world continues to move away from traditional forms of media and embrace digital tools – such as social media – our lives are becoming increasingly governed by these platforms. But with English being the most dominant language on these forms of new media, many young people are abandoning their native Arabic tongue.

The immediacy of social media means that people are able to keep up with events unfolding in real-time, and two-way communication also enables users to interact and share opinions with other users. With this in mind, the priority has become for the language that can communicate the idea as quickly as possible, and with the least amount of effort. As a result, the Arab youth has created a new alphabet using Latin letters and numbers to write Arabic words according to its pronunciation – a phenomenon known as ‘Franco-Arabic’.

Dr Zeinab Ibrahim, a professor of Arabic language studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q) – a Qatar Foundation partner university — and a sociolinguist, explains how the ‘Franco-Arabic’ typing method was first created and reasons behind its widespread use on social media.

“Franco-Arabic typing was developed to meet the requirements of speed, as computer and smartphone keyboards were initially limited to Latin letters. This led to most people becoming familiar with Latin letters and their location on keyboards first, so it was easier and faster to use the same letters to write Arabic – even after keyboards began displaying the Arabic alphabet,” says Dr Ibrahim.

“With time, Franco-Arabic has become an alternative to the Arabic language on social media platforms, and the language that most youngsters use on chat apps. Many users also believe that using this texting method is stylish and modern,” says Dr Ibrahim.

According to sociolinguistics, there is a close correlation between the demand for learning and practising a language, and the global position that this language occupies, which is determined by the political, economic and scientific status of the nation that speaks it.

“The global status of a language is linked to the position of the country that speaks it. For example, British English and French before World War II were the world’s two leading languages, and this is because they were the two most powerful countries in the world at that time. Nowadays, American English is considered the world’s leading language, as the US is the most powerful country,” Dr Ibrahim explains.

According to Dr Ibrahim, there are other perceived benefits of speaking the language of the most powerful nation, including suggesting a certain level of education.

“Not only this, but it can be seen to reflect the social and economic level of the speaker and is commonly referred to as a ‘prestigious language’, which is why the majority tend to favour a language that ranks high globally. It also offers job opportunities in major international companies,” she adds.

There is also a gap between today’s children and the uptake of the Arabic language. Dr Ibrahim believes that there is an urgent need to update and refine the methodology of Arabic teaching to native speakers, and that the delay of this step has had a role in creating that gap.

“There are many factors that have led to young people’s hesitation and lack of confidence when using Arabic language to express themselves. These include a lack of creativity and a limited use of modern technology in teaching the language; curriculum irrelevancy to students’ lives; the intense focus on grammar; and teaching the language in complete isolation, and not applying new, and update techniques in the classroom.”

In order to overcome these issues, Dr Ibrahim believes that new educational methodologies need to be developed, and technical support provided to correct spelling and linguistic errors on social media platforms.

“We must encourage our children to use the formal Arabic language and break the barriers of fear and regain their confidence in practicing their mother tongue in a proper manner,” she concludes.

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