Arabic is Dying in Lebanon

We’ve all tossed around the idea of the Arabic language meeting a slow but sure demise in Lebanon. It was only very recently that a friend and I figured we should strive to lessen mixing languages during our day to day discussions. This has proven to be especially difficult seeing as our day to day discussions stem from elements in our lives where Arabic is as dead as dead goes.

As an example at the top of my head, there are next to no Arabic words that I’m aware of with which I can describe what goes on at the hospital. So I simply revert to the language that makes such descriptions easier. It’s a simple matter of convenience.

However, there are now tangible numbers as to the state of the Arabic language today. Out of more than 61,000 brevet students, only 33.7% managed to get the required 30/60 to pass their Arabic exam, one that has been easy by all standards:

I’m guessing such news comes as no surprise to anyone. I also don’t see this pattern reversing anytime soon, no matter how much the Arabic curriculum is changed or the exams made easier as the LBC reporter suggests.

For starters, the bulk of your education, be it at school or at the university level, doesn’t happen through the mother tongue, not that I’m complaining. The last thing I want to do, honestly, is to study Maths and science in Arabic. However, when you are priming a student for years and years not to use his mother tongue in almost all the dealings of his everyday life, isn’t it expected for him to slowly move away from that language?
This lack of Arabic use in education reflects clearly on the extent with which Lebanese use Arabic outside of their education as compared to neighboring countries. For instance, many of my Syrian friends find chatting, texting or doing anything of the sort in Arabic completely normal because of the extent that language is used in their education. Is that the case for us? Obviously not.

Upon leaving high school and going to college, the Arabic you get exposed to is directly correlated it with how much Arabic you are willing to take. For most, that is the one required course in order to graduate – an easy course at best, with many struggling to make it through as I’ve witnessed personally. If you’re not majoring in Arabic literature and have no interest in languages in general, there’s next to no use for you to pursue this language further. Couple this with the fact that your exposure to its components becomes non-existent and the populace suffering a decline in their Arabic proficiency becomes certain.

Back in our days, we were not overwhelmed by a lack of Arabic as the newer generation is today. We didn’t go home to countless Internet pages and smartphones that beeped to no end. How much of our laptops and devices are Arabic-equipped?
How many Internet pages that we actually use are written in Arabic? How many of the Arabic pages that are present do we normally use? Outside of the news ones, I can think of none. Horoscopes, maybe?

Moreover, the entire online presence of the Lebanese population, the youth particularly, is one which doesn’t rely on the Arabic language. We use arabizi out of convenience. We revert to English and French because even arabizi has some aspect on which we fail to agree and its use becomes tedious for those who are not that used to it. Who of us regularly tweets using Arabic? It comes as a surprise for many if some of us actually do that. Who of us has set their Facebook account to Arabic? How many of us even feel it’s easier to blog in Arabic even though it should give us a wider base? My MacBook Pro, for one, doesn’t have an Arabic keyboard.

There are a multitude of jokes about Achrafieh women who are proud of their children not knowing a word of Arabic. The reality though is that in a world as changing as this and with a people as malleable to circumstances as the Lebanese people, the Arabic language simply doesn’t seem to find a place of use except as being the language we were born hearing and speaking. Is that enough? Perhaps not.

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21 thoughts on “Arabic is Dying in Lebanon

  1. There is ONE reason for this, and you have not discussed it –
    Lebanese people speak LEBANESE and NOT Arabic.

    The Lebanese language is certainly heavily influenced by Arabic, maybe based on it even. But the spoken language is entirely organic to Lebanon and has a huge Syriac influence as well as others. It is well known that Lebanese youth raised overseas cannot understand a single word of Arabic, and people who study Arabic cannot understand Lebanese. Some call Lebanese a dialect of Arabic – if you must, then fine. Either way, Lebanese do not speak the standard Arabic of books and news reports. Not even close.

    The problem is mental – Lebanese people are raised to believe that the language they speak is “slang”. The whole thing. Even polite forms of it. They are taught that the REAL language is Arabic. Now isn’t that a bit unfortunate when nobody in the entire world speaks Standard Arabic as their mother tongue? We are not able to express ourselves as natives in a language that is not our mother tongue – even if it is close to our mother tongue. So now, why would Lebanese want to speak Standard Arabic when it is neither their mother tongue nor helpful in advancing their careers? English and French are clearly more desirable.

    Want a solution? Make Lebanese (call it Lebanese Arabic if you have to, just in order to not start a huge fight) the official language of Lebanon. Standardise the dialect into a major form. Teach it in schools, broadcast it in the news and newspapers. Make laws in it. Then, people will be able to write literature in their mother tongue! Passing exams will be in their mother tongue, just like in America or France!

    Giving prestige and official status to Lebanese and not Arabic is the only way to ensure the native tongue of Lebanese does not die in Lebanon.

    Reply
    • I want to kiss you right now! That’s what I have been preaching for the past decade! But these Pan Arabists think it’s an insult and a treason to raise such an issue!

      Reply
    • @Khodadad Again I want to thank you for your cleverness and the clear and educative answers. Your reactions always make sense yet remain courteous and modest. Truly from the heart.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much Paul and Aden!

        I would love to write more about my opinions on pan-Arabism but I don’t think this is the forum because not too many people seem to read the comments. Maybe I’ll start my own blog – definitely worth it if I had any readers like you 🙂

        Reply
    • I could not agree with you more!!! Maybe you should have your own blog, but that would only serve to educate the already educated, preach to the choir and your visitors will be other like-minded people who enjoy having their opinions echoed back at them as facts.
      I suggest starting a Youtube channel… That has a much better chance of taking off in today’s world, I’m afraid.

      Reply
    • I honestly don’t understand where these myths many of you Lebanese speak about is coming from. Lebanese is an Arabic dialect, just like every other Arabic countries’ dialect is still Arabic. I’m Syrian and speak the Shami dialect, which is basically the same as Lebanese. It is clearly Arabic that I’m speaking. The reason students (and all Arabs) struggle in Standard Arabic in the Arab world (not simply Lebanon) is for one reason….they don’t read!!! They don’t read newspapers, books, articles, etc. All they want is their fun. Hebrew was a dead language and the Jews who illegally occupied Palestine were able to revive it in its Standard form. If they could revive a dead language, I don’t understand why people like you are trying to kill our language which is still alive.

      Reply
      • Mr tat, let me tell you something. We as lebanese don’t speak an arabic dialect like you do and trust me if you hadn’t invaded our country for almost 30 years, you wouldn’t have been able to understand a word of what we speak. All of you are descendants of arabs but we are descendants of Phoenicians. From the beginning we were the one country different from all of other countries surrounding us and we will remain for eternity a Phoenician country not an arabic one.

        Reply
    • OMG!! You are brilliant !! Those are my thoughts exactly!! We speak LEBANESE not arabic. We are of Phoenician descends not of arabic descends! Our language is influenced by the ottoman empire language, by the syriac language and by aramaic language. Any speaker of arabic cannot understand a single word of lebanese !!

      Reply
  2. The Lebanese people are not Arabs or the descendants of Arabs, they are Phoenicians and mix of all the invaders through the history like Th Romans, Greeks, Syriac’s, Assyrians, European Crusaders, Arabs and so on. but why the Lebanese Language is slimier to Arabic the most well because Arabic, Syriac, Assyrian and Phoenician all are Semitic, i think that the Lebanese should start promoting and forming their mother tongue so that the Lebanese identity wouldn’t get lost in this globalized world…

    Reply
  3. Interesting blog post Elie.

    Language should be a tool of communication more than a political tool. If the majority of a country cannot fully express themselves in written form or even orally in what the government tells them is their language, then pick up whatever language is the most suitable for communication for all.

    For example, my generation seems to not understand the difference between the indirect object pronoun and the subject pronoun for the third plural in our language (they vs them), or prefer to use them interchangeably. I find this very annoying, but many people use it and even more just don’t care. Due to the frequency of its use it is perhaps inevitable that it will become accepted in speech or maybe even in written form. Language and its users change, simple as that.

    Anyway (to the person above) can’t see how SMA wouldn’t be useful for your career? How can knowing a language spoken not be good for your career if not for yourself as a person.

    Reply
  4. Elie,
    Don’t you think that there is a difference between:
    el yom kenet 3ambektob risele w bas khallaset ba3atta deghre bel barid
    and
    al yawma kuntu aktubu risalatan wa lamma intahaytu ba3athtaha mubaasharatan bil bariidi
    ?

    By the way, how do you translate into Lebanese the following:
    قفا نبك من ذكرى حبيب و منزل بسقط اللوى بين الدخول و حومل
    ?
    I challenge you to translate it into Lebanese.

    Reply
  5. This is an interesting blog post. I appreciate you shedding light on this topic, because it is something that really bothers me. As a Lebanese expatriate whose been living in North America for the past 11 years I noticed how little Arabic or if you must ‘Lebanese’ was used amongst my friends and amongst the people around me when I visited Lebanon for the first time recently. I think education is merely a part of this equation the problem is way deeper than this.

    My first issue is with the Lebanese parents that choose to communicate with their kids in English or French, because they view it as more prestigious. They are proud that their kids don’t speak Arabic. I find that appalling. My nieces were born and raised in the US, they speak Arabic because we spoke to them in Arabic as they were growing up. When they went to Lebanon for a visit they found it frustrating because they couldn’t communicate with any of the other kids in their family, because they only spoke French at home.

    Another instance that bothered me when I visited Lebanon recently happened at a restaurant. The menu I was given was all in French. Not a single Arabic word was used. Although, I am trilingual (all thanks to my education in Lebanon) I wanted to see if they had an option for me if I didn’t understand French. I asked the server for an Arabic menu, he laughed in my face and told me if I didn’t understand something I can ask him and he will translate. Is that right? In a country where the official Language is Arabic I can’t even get a menu in Arabic. I currently live in Montreal, where there are two official languages, English and French. By law any menu, sign, or anything that needs to be read has to be in both official languages as to not exclude anyone that knows only one and not the other.

    Regarding the comment by Khodadad, I get your point. No one speaks Arabic in Lebanon, we do speak a dialect if you must. But so does every other Arabic speaking country in the world! N one speaks the Arabic that is written and read. But, whats beautiful is that I can still communicate and understand anyone that comes from these Arabic speaking countries because we all have the same base. I currently work with a lady from Algeria and even though we can communicate in French together we also have our Arabic that we can always rely on if there is ever anything personal we want to discuss.

    Learning another language like Arabic is more advantageous than people seem to think. Having phonemes like /kh/ or /aa/ that are not produced in most languages gives Arabic speakers an advantage when learning languages. That’s why Lebanese people are so good at accents and at learning other languages, we’ve had to learn Arabic and that is a triumph.

    I wish that we would all get rid of this notion that Arabic is not the Lebanese language and the Lebanese are not Arabs. WE ARE ARABS whether y’all like it or not. It’s our ethnicity and its time we embrace it and are proud of it.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    Reply
  6. Great insight and really useful for me as a student of Lebanese here in Beirut. I wonder though whether this is largely a class thing, and whether it’s largely amongst the middle/upper-middle class who are experiencing this degradation of the language. Mostly, of course, because they have more economic and social contact with the west. Another sticky point is what actually counts as ‘Lebanese’ as within Lebanon itself you have a pretty broad variety of accents based on region and sect.

    Overall I’m really supportive of the idea of considering Lebanese a language in and of itself. It’s a fantastic experience immersing myself in it, and it’s frustrating to see how many Lebanese I interact with (mostly the middle/upper-middle class ones) have a perpetual inferiority complex around their own language. C’mon guys, own it.

    Reply
  7. Very interesting post and an even more interesting discussion. Is a dialect of Arabic still the same as Arabic?
    I think the different dialects of Arabic are further than the original Arabic than the different dialects of English are from the “original” English. Where is the line after which the language becomes independent?
    As for the difficulty in passing Arabic tests, the same problem exists here. Arab students quite often fail the Arabic matriculation exams because it is not the same language that they speak.

    But in our globalized world, many languages are slowly dying. Languages are converging and becoming mixed with English or French or other “international” languages and I think it is a process that can’t be stopped. I can complain till I’m blue in the face that most shops in Israel have names which are not in Hebrew, but it is a worldwide trend.
    Anyway, Elie, I hope you don’t switch your blog over to Arabic, because it would take me much longer to read it…

    Reply
  8. Why your blog is not in Arabic though? I don’t see any use of the Arabic language in Lebanon except when we are dealing with Arabs and most of the Lebanese have the basics so i think this article is not very useful. Thank you

    Reply
  9. I have been a student of Arabic and lived in the Arab world for six years, including two years each in Syria and Lebanon. (Yes, Lebanon is part of the Arab world) I would like to second the comments from Rachelle.

    I apologize if you are offended by what I am about to write, but this is my sincere opinion.

    I think it is a tragedy that Arabic is, indeed, dying in Lebanon. It is dying because the Lebanese people today have absolutely no respect or appreciation for their language and their culture. Yes, the “information age” and world commerce have elevated the English language and made it essential to our economic success and global communication. But what why does that necessity have to come at the expense of the rich and beautiful history of the Lebanese culture and Arabic, the language of its people? Why can’t they have both – prepare themselves for a global age AND value and maintain their language? I have travelled to more than 50 countries and lived in more than 10. In no other place on the planet do the citizens of the country sit around on their own and insist on speaking a foreign language to each other. Only five million people speak Danish, but Danes do not sit around at speak English to each other, pretending they are someone they’re not. What happens in Lebanon is bizarre and absurd. In my humble opinion, it is the result of a complex identity crisis (or inferiority complex?). It may be unconscious, but it is there nonetheless. Why is there a desire for people to deny where they come from and pretend that they are Europeans or North Americans? No matter how hard they try, they will never be such. And sadly the result will be loss of the rich and beautiful heritage of an amazing place, with shadows of what once was, running around and speaking three languages – all poorly – with none to call their own.

    I suggest you all watch this video, as it very much captures my sentiments.

    Reply
  10. I have been a student of Arabic and lived in the Arab world for six years, including two years each in Syria and Lebanon. (Yes, Lebanon is part of the Arab world) I would like to second the comments from Rachelle.

    I apologize if you are offended by what I am about to write, but this is my sincere opinion.

    I think it is a tragedy that Arabic is, indeed, dying in Lebanon. It is dying because the Lebanese people today have absolutely no respect or appreciation for their language and their culture. Yes, the “information age” and world commerce have elevated the English language and made it essential to our economic success and global communication. But what why does that necessity have to come at the expense of the rich and beautiful history of the Lebanese culture and Arabic, the language of its people? Why can’t they have both – prepare themselves for a global age AND value and maintain their language? I have travelled to more than 50 countries and lived in more than 10. In no other place on the planet do the citizens of the country sit around on their own and insist on speaking a foreign language to each other. Only five million people speak Danish, but Danes do not sit around at speak English to each other, pretending they are someone they’re not. What happens in Lebanon is bizarre and absurd. In my humble opinion, it is the result of a complex identity crisis (or inferiority complex?). It may be unconscious, but it is there nonetheless. Why is there a desire for people to deny where they come from and pretend that they are Europeans or North Americans? No matter how hard they try, they will never be such. And sadly the result will be loss of the rich and beautiful heritage of an amazing place, with shadows of what once was, running around and speaking three languages – all poorly – with none to call their own.

    I suggest you all watch this video, as it very much captures my sentiments. A Ted Talk from Suzanne Talhouk.

    Reply
  11. Seriously i dont like this article!
    WE don’t want to talk in arabic just ” ma tedakhal bichi ma byeenik” !
    Just accept what is and surrender to english, it’s better trust me!

    Reply

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