Commentary | The need to preserve the Arabic language

The influence of Suzanne Talhouk’s talk at the Envision Arabia Summit

On the weekend of October 8, numerous distinguished speakers spoke in Montreal at the first summit of McGill’s Arab Development Initiative. Each spoke about their area of expertise and the ways in which they applied their skills for the benefit of the broadly-defined ‘Arab World’. Some spoke about their initiatives in humanitarian NGOs, others spoke about the innovative ways in which they applied engineering and physician skills to the development of the Arab world, while yet others spoke more generally about the imperative need for the building of democratic states and the implementation of human rights legislation. One speaker that was particularly moving was Suzanne Talhouk, founder of Feil Amer, an organization with a goal of keeping the Arabic language relevant to the current generation of Arab youth.  Delivered in classical Arabic, Talhouk’s speech was particularly moving as it touched on an overlooked issue.

Feil Amer was created as a reaction to the prevalent trend in the Middle East, and especially in Lebanon, to use Arabic as little as possible in conversation.  Talhouk gave the example, which rang familiar to all those with family from that part of the world, of the recurring feeling of pride among families when their young one communicates in English or French. Drawing from a personal anecdote of mine, I remember my family and I visiting my mother’s extended family in Lebanon as a child, and, upon hearing me speak in Arabic, a relative turning to my mother and exclaiming, wide-eyed, “Don’t your children speak French?” I remember feeling flustered on behalf of my mother, and feeling guilty about not speaking in French and shaming her.
It is almost impossible to go about one’s daily life in some, if not all, parts of the Arab world without inadvertently using a few foreign words. Not because some words do not exist in Arabic (although this phenomenon is so ingrained in our minds that it would sometimes take a few minutes to think of the appropriate translation of a term), but, because saying it in Arabic would likely make one sound uneducated, or, one may even go as far as saying, fundamental. It says something about our culture if speaking in our own mother tongue is perceived as demoded or the opposite of modern.

I believe that this  extends beyond the parts of the world touched by the second wave of colonization of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today is a time where one’s professional success in most parts of the world depends in part on their proficiency in the English language. That is why I feel like Talhouk’s plea will hit home with more than just Arab audiences.
The fact that all the other speakers gave their talks in English (even if only for the consideration of the few non-Arabs in the audience) and that, among the Arabs attendees, the main spoken language was English, and occasionally French (albeit with the requisite Arabic word here and there) drives home the fact that Talhouk’s speech is the one that I connected with, and knew how to act on in a practical and immediate way.

I, personally, had not expected this specific talk to be particularly moving or influential when compared to the other speakers’ more obviously pressing topics – such as the health system, democracy, and human rights. However, her talk hit a sensitive spot for students with an Arab origin.

For people of the Arab diaspora who have lived in both the Middle East and the West, our vernacular is composed of multiple languages. In addition, we cannot fully express ourselves in any one language, and our spoken English often hints at our mother tongue through pidgin phrases of transliteration. By alluding to these points, Talkhouk effectively stressed to us how imperative language is to development and reminded us that modern and Arabic are not mutually exclusive.

Mays Chami is a U4 Chemical Engineering student. She can be reached at mays.chami@mail.mcgill.ca


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