Letter from Haifa: An Official Language Gets More Respect
Adapting an ancient language for a modern population, the Arabic Language Academy is working to expand the vocabulary of Israeli Arabs while maintaining their cultural integrity.
The Hebrew and Arabic languages have a lot in common: They are sister Semitic tongues written from right to left; they have undergone a process of modernization in the last century; and they are both official languages of the State of Israel.
But while the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the official body to standardize Hebrew, has operated by law in Israel since 1953, a law establishing an equivalent institution to regulate the Arabic language was passed only in 2007. Similar academies of the Arabic language operate in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and Rabat; the Arabic Language Academy, which opened in Haifa in 2008, is the first outside the Arab world.
“Our role is different from that of the Academy of the Hebrew Language,” said Mahmud Ghanayim, president of the Arabic Language Academy (www.arabicac.com). “We are less of an ivory tower and more out in the field with the public. Part of what we do is research and standardization of terminology and transliteration, but we are also trying to raise the status of the Arabic language [in Israel], so it will be an official language in practice and not only in theory.”
The law establishing the Arabic Language Academy is based on the law for the Academy of the Hebrew Language and sets out similar objectives: to study the Arabic language in all its historic periods, including the spoken language; offer terminology to adjust Arabic to the modern era; issue topical dictionaries; research the language in literature and other media; advise government bodies on the use of Arabic in public signs; maintain relations with the Academy of the Hebrew Language and research institutes of Hebrew and Arabic in Israel and abroad; advise the Ministry of Education on Arabic language issues; and to issue publications and hold conferences on the academy’s activities.
Throughout the Arab sector—1.2 million native Arabic speakers comprise 20 percent of the Israeli population—evidence of the language’s disuse abounds: Signs on stores in Arab localities are often in Hebrew; Arab municipalities send letters to their constituents in Hebrew; Arab professionals cannot find appropriate terminology in their language; and the Arabic spoken in Israel tends to be heavily peppered with Hebrew vocabulary and syntax.
While the entire Arabic-speaking world faces the formidable challenges of modernization and diglossia—the coexistence of written and spoken forms of the language—in Israel it is further beleaguered by the minority status of its speakers. Because often Arabic is spoken at home, Hebrew in public life and English in international communications, there isn’t enough time in the day to invest in literary Arabic.
Since there is a significant difference between spoken and written Arabic, an Arabic-speaker does not merely learn to read and write in his or her language, but also has to learn literary Arabic, which has a different vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar from the vernacular. For example, “How are you?” in literary Arabic is kayfa haluka. In Palestinian and dialects of most neighboring countries, it is kif halak; in Iraqi, ash lonak; in Egyptian, izayak; and in Moroccan, is (a)khbarak.
Although literary Arabic is critical for cultural identity and literacy—it is used only in writing and, by extension, reading—it does not have much practical application in the lives of Israeli Arabs and is, therefore, neglected. In addition, some Arabic private schools teach French, adding yet another language to the mix.
“When an Arab child goes to the first grade, she hears literary Arabic as a semiforeign language, a language close to her mother tongue, but not exactly,” said Mahmood Mostafa, the coordinator of the academy’s activities.
The schools teach in Arabic, but a new study by the Arab Culture Association, submitted to the state comptroller in November 2009, found that Arabic textbooks for the first and second grade are full of spelling and grammatical errors—an illustration of even professionals’ inability to master the literary language—and that a direct link can be demonstrated between the poor quality of the books and the poor level of Arabic among first and second graders.
“In comparative international tests, you see that Arab students have trouble with grammar, comprehension and expression everywhere,” says Mostafa. “In the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, students in 35 countries were tested for their comprehension in their mother tongue. Israel came in 22nd, which caused a shock and led to a decision to begin teaching the mother tongue in kindergarten. But an internal education ministry memo found that when broken down by language, the average score in the Hebrew-speaking schools was 53.8 percent, placing them in the 12th place, whereas in the Arab schools it was 42.5 percent, the 31st place.”
In another test—the Israeli standardized Measure of Efficiency and Growth in School (known as Meitzav), which measures scholastic achievement in the fifth grade—the average grade for Israeli Jewish boys was 74 percent and 71 percent for girls, while the average grade for Israeli Arab boys was 43 percent and 46 percent for girls.
Paradoxically, higher education can make things worse. Hebrew is the language of instruction at all universities in Israel, even in Arabic language departments. As a result, Arab students become proficient in their academic disciplines or professions, but will not have the vocabulary in their own language at a university level.
“A lot of high school graduates who go to university lose contact with the Arabic language,” said Ghanayim. “If an Arab lawyer in Israel is asked to write a letter to a client, he won’t know how to write it in Arabic. He won’t know how to stand in court and give a defense in Arabic. You need professional, vocational language.” Their only option for learning the professional terminology in their mother tongue, which would allow them to practice law in Arabic countries, would be to study law would be out of the country, at schools in Egypt or Jordan, at Al-Quds University (although Israel doesn’t recognize its degrees), or at West Bank Palestinian universities Bir Zeit, Al-Najjah and Bethlehem. The Israeli Arab community is lobbying to open the first Arab university in Israel, which would address these problems in the future.
The situation becomes absurd when official bodies in Arab communities communicate with their Arab constituents in Hebrew. “The municipalities of Baka al-Gharbiya and Umm al-Fahm write letters to the residents in Hebrew, even though legally they could choose Arabic,” Ghanayim explains. “Logistically, it’s easier for them to use Hebrew [which everyone has learned]. Our job is to convince people to use the Arabic language.”
Like linguistic minorities everywhere, Arabs in Israel have adopted countless terms in the majority language, to the point that they no longer remember the Arabic terms for items. Says Khawla Al-Sa’adi, an academy member: “Arabic speakers use Hebrew daily. Even old ladies who live in villages. Every contact with officialdom is in Hebrew: medical services, banks, social security.” For example, there is no Arabic word in use in Israel for traffic light; Arabic speakers use the Hebrewramzor. But it is conjugated in Arabic so that the plural is ramzorat, whereas the Hebrew plural is ramzorim. (The Arabic forramzor is ishara daw’iya, a literary Arabic term.) Al-Sa’adi says everybody in Israel and the occupied territories uses ramzor, “even if they don’t know Hebrew—that is how deeply it has penetrated.”
“That is why we have a committee of daily usage—to protect the language so it does not disappear,” said Al-Sa’adi, referring to the branch in charge of answering questions posed by the public. The committee fields questions from the general public as well as businesses; banks may ask for banking terms and radio and television stations pose questions.
Sasson Somekh, professor emeritus of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University and an Israel Prize laureate, is a member of the Arabic Language Academy as well as a former secretary of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Part of his job is to contribute his experience with the Hebrew institution to its Arabic counterpart. He says he has seen a decline in the level of the Arabic spoken by students entering university.
“On the TAU campus, I am constantly surprised by how much Hebrew has gotten into Arabic,” he said. “There is a very strong interference of Hebrew, especially for those who go out of their communities and mingle with the Jewish population. From there on, every new thing they learn is in Hebrew. The Arab intelligentsia is irked; their newspapers are full of complaints about Hebrew infiltrating Arabic but they can’t do anything about it. Meanwhile, the written language is weakening and disappearing. The Israeli Arabs have a feeling of losing their cultural basis.”
The Arabic language has remained relatively unchanged since the 10th century, when Islam rose out of the Arabian Desert to become a world force. Today, the language that was so nuanced in the description of desert life (there is a unique word for a female camel in her 10th month of pregnancy, ushara) now has to address cell phones, global warming and insurance claims.
Israeli-Arab poet and literary scholar Salman Masalha bemoans the gap between Arabic’s ancient splendor and its present degradation. “The Arabic language may well be rich when it comes to the nomadic life and nature, but that wealth is merely a dictionary wealth the language’s speakers are hardly aware of and don’t use,” he wrote in the Middle East Transparencyelectronic newspaper (www.metransparent.com), a forum for a free exchange of ideas that advocates greater openness and criticism of society and politics. “What is the use of all that wealth if it is all stuffed into crumbling bags thrown into garbage dumps with nobody noticing them? Anyway, all of that desert wealth…is useless for people’s scientific and cultural needs today.”
Indeed, the language has to expand constantly to embrace new concepts, and it is often businesses, consumers and speakers who lead the way in breaking new linguistic ground, rather than an official guiding hand. Just like English speakers on either side of the Atlantic often use different terminology for the same thing (which is why the Harry Potter series came out in separate editions in the United Kingdom and the United States, for example), Arabic speakers in different countries often come up with different solutions to the same problem.
Take cell phones, for instance. In Egypt they are called mobayil, in Lebanon khalawi, in the Palestinian territories jawwal and in Israel belefon, a rendition of the Hebrew pele-fon (wonder phone), hatef mahmoul or nakkal, which mean portable phone. The Israeli academy favors the last term. There have been attempts to coordinate terminology between the different countries, but they have not been successful. Local influences give rise to different terminology, and once a term catches on it is hard to undo.
Al-Sa’adi was head of curricula for Arab schools for the Israeli Ministry of Education before she was named as a member of the academy. One of her responsibilities was to oversee the translation of textbooks. “[The Ministry of Education] doesn’t write a different book on science in Hebrew and Arabic,” she said. “It is written in Hebrew, and [the Ministry then has] to translate it into Arabic and adjust it to the grade level.”
Al-Sa’adi retired before the study on elementary school textbooks by the Arab Culture Association was run and doesn’t give much credence to their findings. Because the language is so complicated, she says, with a highly developed system of grammar, there can be differences of opinion about the way to write something and the word endings that denote syntactical function. She thinks some of what were counted as “mistakes” is really a disagreement between two legitimate options. Therefore, she doesn’t take it seriously.
It is precisely these options for translation that make modernization so difficult. Added Al-Sa’adi, “When we come across a term, we look first in the Arab world to find options and then choose what suits us. If we don’t find a suitable word, sometimes we borrow from foreign languages and sometimes we invent.” The same process is used by the academy to coin terminology.
Because of the disparity of the spoken Arabic languages—Somekh says there is one written Arabic, literary Arabic, and anywhere from 20 to 40 spoken languages that are not mutually understood—there has been a process in the last century of creating a new intellectual language. Based on literary Arabic and therefore shared by speakers of different dialects, this version is used in international relations, by newscasters and in Arabic newspapers. The intellectual language is simpler than classical Arabic, the literary Arabic unchanged from a thousand years ago, with fewer word endings and inflections and dropping complicated noun declensions. “But not a single person in the whole Arab world [uses] literary Arabic at home,” Somekh points out.
And while Hebrew has been absorbing foreign words to fill gaps, to the objection of some Hebrew speakers, Arabic tends to translate everything—a noble but cumbersome and inefficient process—seeing absorption as contamination. Israeli Arab author Salem Jubran comments, also in Transparency, that “the disputes over the translation of international terms into Arabic make it easier for Arab intellectuals to read in English or in French than in Arabic.”
Mostafa, the academy’s coordinator, says the public has been enthusiastic about the academy’s efforts to raise the level of Arabic and strengthen its status; in fact, he has been unable to satisfy the demand for activities and services.
Although research and publications are high on the academy’s agenda, field activities are paramount. It maintains 14 coordinators in Arab communities in Israel. The coordinators work with schools at all levels, community centers, cultural institutions, public libraries and more. They conduct workshops on the Arabic language for teachers, students and parents, enrichment classes for students, reading hours, meetings with authors and lectures. Several coordinators work with university students to help them speak, read and write Arabic at the level and on the subject of their university studies. Mothers are taught the importance of reading to children, the emotional value of connecting children to literature and the value of language as a vehicle for success in life.
Mostafa says the problem extends throughout the Arab world and reflects its low cultural and scientific levels.
“Personally, not scientifically, I think language proficiency and richness show the cultural situation of the people who speak it,” he continued. “English was not always the number one language in the world; there was a time when Arabic was the number one language, when the Arabs were a leading force. Today, the Arab world has no studies of science, we bring everything from the outside and then we have to translate it.
“If you bring a child into the world yourself, you can name it,” he said metaphorically, referring to ideas and inventions. “But if you adopt it from the outside, you have to translate its name.” H