Lebanese American University


What’s holding back the Arabic language?

On the occasion of International Mother language day, observed annually on February 21, we asked LAU professor of Arabic Literature Latif Zeitouni about the state of the Arabic language.

On the occasion of International Mother language day, observed annually on February 21, we asked LAU professor of Arabic Literature Latif Zeitouni about the state of the Arabic language.

MarCom: Is Arabic as a language under threat?

Dr. Zeitouni: For every two or three people in the Arab world who are abandoning Arabic, there are two or three thousand people speaking Arabic like their parents. Arabs speak Arabic and there are many who don’t know any other language. So, no, there is no threat.

What is called the “youth language” today — and which is causing some people concern — is related more to how Arabic is written as opposed to Arabic as a language.  Language preceded writing, so how it is written can develop and progress. The way Chinese is written changed, to simplify reading, but the language itself didn’t change.


MarCom: Is the use of Latin characters in the writing of Arabic a cause for concern?

Dr. Zeitouni: Written Arabic is problematic. Written words are missing information, because we use short vowels and don’t include them in all our scripts. This causes us to have to read sentences twice before gaining a full understanding.

This problem relates to the script, not to the language itself. The present generation is not the first to use Latin characters. Said Akl published his poetry book “Yara” in 1961 using a form of Latin script.  Today’s youth hasn’t discovered something new, but the machines in their hands have Latin letters, while the messages they send are in Arabic. With time, numbers have been used to replace certain Arabic sounds. Because it isn’t clear who developed this form of writing, the traditionalists have no one to complain to. All previous attempts at simplifying Arabic script have been met with contempt by traditionalists, particularly religious men. They don’t use Latin script, but they also don’t send text messages on their phone.

There is a problem and it needs a solution. Replacing a hamze with a 2 and a hard H with a 7 is improvisation, but does it hurt or threaten Arabic as a language? Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. Language can’t stay old. It needs to be active.


MarCom: How should curricula be developed to enable students to like fosha (Modern Standard Arabic)?

Dr. Zeitouni: Nothing forces us to like fosha. It should be likable itself. Those who like English do so because they find it attractive and are able to learn it with ease and find enjoyable stories to read.

English is now a simplified version of itself. Arabic isn’t. In the 1980s, a newly established center for education in Lebanon worked on developing a simplified form of Arabic. Some people objected, saying it would damage our language and religion. I don’t understand how a simplified form of Arabic could be detrimental to the Quran. However, the fear of a sectarian divide meant the project was halted.

Languages need a basic form which can be learned and developed, encouraging an enjoyment of reading, which expands vocabulary and improves language skills. Languages are attractive when children enjoy reading in it. Our schoolbooks however are full of dull stories in a level of language that is too difficult for learners. They don’t engage students.

The problem with the Arabic language is that it will continue to suffer from the backwardness of its people. We don’t need new research; we have tons of suggestions and proposals put forward in the past century. We are not lacking in ideas, we are lacking only in the intention to improve the Arabic language.  

Click here for more information on LAU’s recently launched B.A. in Arabic literature and language. 


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