Analysis

Israeli Arabs Are Strangers in Their Own Language

Arabs in Israel are concerned about the dilution of the Arabic language, but they’re not alone – Egypt has even proposed a law to fight the phenomenon

People browsing through books at Cairo's international book fair in Egypt, February 9, 2017.
Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Listen to Israeli Arabs speaking Arabic with each other and you’ll hear Hebrew and English creeping into their lexicon – words like kanyon (mall), T-shirt, mahsom (checkpoint), jeep (well, they say “jeeb”). Students, meanwhile, use words like martzeh (lecturer), mivhan (exam), srika (scan) and ma’amarim (articles).

This linguistic tossed salad of Arabic and Hebrew (which in turn borrows from English) is well-known within Arabic society. Without exception, this jargon characterizes both Israeli Arabs and Arabs living in the territories.

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The language of Arab students studying in Israel is particularly fascinating: They leave the professional terms in the original language – even if it’s Latin; they express analyses in so-so Hebrew; and provide the explanations necessary to really understand the significance of terms or theories in Hebraicized Arabic.

This linguistic difficulty frustrates the students. Part of the problem lies in their understanding of Hebrew or English, but a no less important part involves their weak command of Arabic.

“We don’t really know Arabic,” a student who graduated from high school in the predominantly Bedouin city of Rahat told me. “Basically, our teachers don’t know good Arabic and use sentences that mix Hebrew and Arabic. We learn impractical Arabic in religious studies, and the laws and rules in language lessons are too difficult and don’t bring us closer to our mother tongue.”

“We are like strangers in our own language,” says Sabreen, a Bedouin student from the village of Hura. “I speak Bedouin Arabic with my girlfriends with a lot of Hebrew words,” she explains. “I speak Hebrew with my teachers in college, but construct short sentences in my head first. When the lecturer starts explaining, I lose my train of thought because I am busy formulating my answer to the next question.”

This linguistic difficulty causes a large proportion of Bedouin students, mainly the female ones, to hesitate to ask questions, join in during class conversations or to make comments.

However, knowledge of and use of precise Arabic is not only a problem facing Israeli Arabs. Education ministries and language teachers in Arab countries are also grappling with the question of how to teach the language effectively and enjoyably.

An equally important question is how to get the public to use the language properly. The Center for Arabic in Egypt proposed new legislation two months ago to deal with the issue.

This law would oblige government ministries to issue official documents and public announcements in proper Arabic. Business owners would have to use Arabic as their sole language and only translate text into English when absolutely necessary.

The media would be forced to remove mistakes in its stories and hire professional proofreaders to ensure it is correct. Failure to obey the law could lead to a fine of tens of thousands of Egyptian pounds. Repeat offenders could face fines of up to 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,600) and even jail time.

However, you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for this law to be implemented, since it’s doubtful if the Egyptian parliament will approve it in the near future. Such a law would require a huge investment in the supervision of schools, newspapers, television networks, public signage, and so on.

Still, recognizing the problem, some Arabic lovers have started opening websites and Facebook pages to try and improve the situation.

For example, linguist Mustafa Ibrahim launched the “Aktab Sah” (Write Correctly) page on Facebook, which posts a list of common mistakes and the correct way to use words and phrases. Another site with the same name allows users to alert people to common errors in journalistic writing, join a writing contest, learn grammatical rules and receive information about technological developments in the field of linguistic studies.

Arabic teacher Karim Shandi opened a YouTube account called Remind me of Arabic. His channel contains videos in which he tells stories to children in a high form of Arabic. He says he approached the educational authorities and offered to share language rules through social media, but that the authorities prefer the traditional methods of instruction, even though these have failed. Another site helps people who are having a hard time with grammatical rules via the use of comics, jokes and linguistic analyses of popular songs.

These sites have thousands of likes and shares. Unfortunately, users’ comments reveal that when asked very difficult questions related to rare grammatical rules, the answers themselves are written at a lower level of Arabic.

“How can I learn correct grammar on social media when the language required on these sites is poor and prefers symbols over words?” asked one frustrated user on the Write Correctly website.

Salvation for the Arabic language, if any, will probably not come from the networks – not in Arab countries, and not in Israel. The preference for fast, understandable and universal media foresees a dire future for Arabic linguists, and not only for them.