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Is Arabic underestimated?

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Joined 2753 days ago

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Speaks: German*, Latin, English, Spanish
Studies: Arabic (Written), Arabic (classical)

 Message 1 of 75
08 July 2015 at 12:57am | IP Logged 
Arabic has nearly as many speakers as Spanish, much more native speakers than French
and German and it is an official language in 27 countries (compared to 24 where it is
Spanish), also dont forget the 1.5b Muslims viewing it as holy language.

But when I look at the internet, and here on the forums, Arabic seems quite unpopular.
We know it is more expenditure because you have to learn a new alphabet, but the same
is true with Mandarin, which is booming. So this cannot be the main argument.

I mean, if we look at the demographics the number of Arabic-speaking people will
further rise, also there is a trend that Arabic overpowers other languages in their
countries like French or Berber, and also the dialect level will shrink because of
globalization, alphabetization and mass media.

If we look at this, Arabic should be a booming language with a bright future, and the
potential to be more important than Spanish, French and Portuguese. But it still seems
unpopular, do you think it is underestimated as world language?
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Monox D. I-Fly
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 Message 2 of 75
08 July 2015 at 1:17am | IP Logged 
Because it is hard? Don't get me wrong, I'm a Muslim and learn Arabic, and that's why I can say that it is hard. Going by the amount of verb types alone, Arabic has... what? 12 x 3 = 36?
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Senior Member
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 Message 3 of 75
08 July 2015 at 1:31am | IP Logged 
The problem is arabic isn't a monolithic language comparable to Spanish. Spanish is AFAIK
pretty much mutually intelligible between its various dialects. The same can't be said of
Arabic. Generally people can only understand dialects nearby their own. Further you can't
rely on MSA all that much because most aren't comfortable with it (In so far as I
understand the situation), especially if they're not highly educated speakers. As such
you kinda need to know local dialect + MSA. If you wanted to have the broadest coverage
you'd probably need to know 2-3 dialects + MSA.
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Senior Member
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 Message 4 of 75
08 July 2015 at 2:30am | IP Logged 
Well, whenever I've been considering taking up a new language, Arabic was on the list (because it sounds beautiful and would be a challenge) and quite fast got on the bottom of it. And I think my reasons aren't unique:

-it is hard, it is a large commitment of time and efforts (but you are correct that so are other languages, like Mandarin

-The countries are just not as popular touristy destinations as France or Japan. It is not only a matter of fear or prejudice of the last few years. I had visited Egypt in summer 2001 (so, before the nowadays fear era started) and one of my impressions was that the tourists were not usually coming to see much of the culture. They came for the monuments, perhaps saw a touristy market and a few shops, and then the beach. There was far smaller incentive for an Average Joe to dream "I will order a coffee in a local restaurant in Arabic".

-lower amount of learning material, there just aren't some of the things people are used to. And a lot of the courses are religion centered. However, this appears to be improving. My recent procrastination (=exploration of the internet and language resources) shows a lot of interesting stuff being created these days.

-this is one of the main troubles (and it isn't related to nowadays migration crisis and all that jazz as much as one might expect, I'd say): the presentation of the Arabic language and culture is too islam centered. Yes, islam is one of the main religions of today's world, it is an important part of the culture, you need some basic cultural knowledge when you travel to the coutnry and so on. But the supposed lack of arabic yet non-islam heavy culture can be a huge con when it comes to many non muslims, especially those from more secular societies. I think this is actually a fault of PR of the Arabic world. Even some of the language courses are clearly targetting muslim learners above all. The good thing is that some of those resources are free on the internet, thanks to the propaganda.

-Thinking of it, do the Arabic countries even have something like Alliance Francaise or Instituto Cervantes to spread the language and interest among foreigners?

-another fault of "middle eastern PR" is lack of the culture's presentation.
--Yeah, several arabic countries were, for example, the main guests on the largest bookfair in the Czech Republic in the last decade, but their presentation wasn't that much of success as they seemed not to care much. They presented a ton of exotic looking Arabic books but without any notes or explanations (such as "our newest bestsellers", "classics", etc.), all the lectures were in English and I don't think there were always interprets (but even if there were, they could have gotten someone speaking Czech right away for the occassion).
--But that is just one example. But where are Arabic movies and tv series? Not on european channels, I suppose. Everyone knows about anime, everyone knows at least one chinese movie (usually the Tiger and the Dragon), everyone can see Haruki Murakami in their bookshop. Arabic culture isn't that much presented, apart from kebab. Which is wrong, there must be plenty interesting writers, music bands and movies, the general public just doesn't get to know them. Or is the situation really different in other european countries? Last time I explored bookdepository, or a real bookshop abroad, it didn't appear so.

-the presentation of the whole MSA vs. many dialects issue sounds quite scary as well

-Arabic language knowledge is not associated with economic advantage. nd that is probably a number 1 reason. Most people learn languages for their CV.
--The Japanese and Mandarin popularity is caused primarily by all the "they are on the rise, their economies are gonna crush us, all the technology is being created there, they have armies of scientists" thinking. Arabic is being associated just with oil and islam in the minds of most people. You don't meet many people dreaming of working for a branch of an egyptian/lebanese/saudi company. And those people that travel to work in the countries (I know many nurses leave for the Emirates and awesome salaries) are usually needed so much they can get by with English only.

-One last reason: many Arabic natives going abroad are not doing their culture, countries, and language good PR.
--I am now not talking about the hundreds of thousands desperate people running away from war and poverty. But as long as educated young arabic students abroad make their new classmates disgusted by some of their opinions (this is not just my experience with one student. There is actually quite a lot of arabs on my university and my impressions are similar to those of others. But I am of course not trying to say all the arabs are like that or that all our arabic classmates are like that). A town with spa that gets many tourists from arab countries is out of options of dealing with all the waste in the streets and parks because the visitors just do not use the bins and the citizens are getting really angry. There was a medialized case (but I know of a few similar ones just without the media) with arab girls complaining and wanting compensation because their czech school insisted on them adhering to proper dress code for the physical education classes and for practical lessons in the hospital. Even catholic nuns working in a hospital obey the regulations and the girls just insisted on hijab. And those are just examples from a small and relatively unexposed country.
--The general population is therefore pressed between examples of individuals they dislike (of course the polite arabs without any problem aren't that noticeable) and the overly enforced political correctness that is a failing strategy in our civilization. Most people are frustrated (and angry and scared) when it comes to arabs, not eager to get to know them closer.

I hope I don't sound too critical and generalizing, I was just trying to explain why Arabic is not a popular language despite all the well writen reasons why it should be.

Yes, many countries already have a large minority from middle east but the not problematic part of it knows the local language of course, and those who don't learn it are usually not that much of a temptation to learn Arabic.

I think lots of these problems could be remedied quite easily, if the arabic countries considered it a good investment.
-A few more publishers to diversify the offer of learning material (really, I visit bookshops quite anywhere I travel and I have yet to see an european bookshop with Arabic learning shelf at least as full as that of an european language of medium popularity.
-There should an arabic version of the Goethe Institut, more propagation of the other parts of the culture than islam, libraries, language courses, all that.
-And the tourists and students/workers travelling abroad should learn to respect the culture of the host country, just like europeans are being taught when going to the middle east. (at least some education about hygienic norms in the country would be nice. And not talking about women in the country in general in an offensive way. Or not explaining people how islam is the most awesome way to live while drinking a third beer. Or choosing the school/job according to one's personal and religious values, so that the person won't need to complain about the norms in the workplace/school).

Edited by Cavesa on 08 July 2015 at 2:35am

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Senior Member
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 Message 5 of 75
08 July 2015 at 3:13am | IP Logged 
A lot of us here actually have tackled Arabic over the years. It's a hard language to

For me the fun parts of learning are the first few months (when everything is new and
cool and exotic) and the independent learning phase, when I can start enjoying books
and conversations and movies. But there's always a long dull slog in the middle.

After seven months of Italian I was able to start enjoying the language.
After seven months of Arabic I was still very much in the long slow slog through the
middle, with no end in site.

I agree with a lot of what Cavesa already wrote, so I'll just expand on her post:

Thinking of it, do the Arabic countries even have something like Alliance Francaise
or Instituto Cervantes to spread the language and interest among foreigners?

The only ones I found were very much focused on the Quran.

Another fault of "middle eastern PR" is lack of the culture's presentation.

I've read that 1000 years of Ottoman rule, European colonialism, and military
dictatorships have stifled the development of modern literature. There are a few
exceptions, of course, but it's nothing like what you find in most other major world
languages. You'd have to go back to the classic period to find a rich literary

This is a major impediment for me. I've learned through the Super Challenge how to
'level up' in languages through extensive reading. I don't know that there are 100
books in Arabic that I'm interested in reading, or 100 movies that I want to see.

The countries are just not as popular touristy destinations as France or Japan. It
is not only a matter of fear or prejudice of the last few years. I had visited Egypt
in summer 2001 (so, before the nowadays fear era started) and one of my impressions
was that the tourists were not usually coming to see much of the culture. They came
for the monuments, perhaps saw a touristy market and a few shops, and then the beach.
There was far smaller incentive for an Average Joe to dream "I will order a coffee in
a local restaurant in Arabic".

I tried to visit Egypt as an independent 'cultural tourist,' and it was the roughest
trip of my life. It was a daily, non-stop two-week battle with aggressive salespeople,
cops asking for baksheesh, con artists, touts, and gay hustlers (seriously ... I'd
have a dozen graphic proposals a day in the area around Aswan).   

I was able to connect with regular citizens in the Sinai. Jordan was lovely and easy
to meet people. The Arabic towns in SE Turkey were pleasant, but very far off any
tourist route. Syria and Lebanon both had great reputations, but the civil war has put
an end to that.

So all in all, this is another big one - the middle east doesn't have places that most
people will want to return to again and again.   Morocco is popular, but their Arabic
is really different from MSA or the common spoken Arabic of other countries.


I was really hoping that, with the Arabic Spring, these countries would open up. I
know people who still believe they have a chance. I hope so, but it doesn't look good
from the outside.

Edited by kanewai on 08 July 2015 at 5:02am

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 Message 6 of 75
08 July 2015 at 5:00am | IP Logged 
If you ask the question in a language learning forum, most answers you're bound to get
will be related to language learning (although I think Cavesa and kanewai raised good

The question is not technical: other languages are hard (harder?), but not plagued
with the Arab World's multiple problems.

For instance, Japanese is hard, but Japan is safe and trendy; its culture has a
special appeal (Zen Buddhism, Bushido, martial arts, ikebana, origami, sushi, etc.);
its people is highly literate, extremely polite and obsessed with hygiene; and the
country is organised, safe and tourist-friendly (albeit expensive). You are drawn into
learning the language.

The Arabs are, as a whole, among the most hospitable peoples on Earth, period. They
descend from the people that invented writing (and, as a consequence, civilisation).
Later on, they developed one of the most advanced cultures the World has ever seen.

But now, they face very difficult challenges, which they'll have to sort out for
themselves. When (not if, I hope) that happens, they'll be in a position to set up a
strategy for the divulgation of their beautiful language.
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Senior Member
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 Message 7 of 75
08 July 2015 at 6:26am | IP Logged 
To add to what Cavesa said, the lack of that Instituto Cervantes/Alliance
Française/Götheinstitut/Istituto Dante Aligheri type of divulgation of the language,
as well as the internal problems in many of the countries there, there are surely
other non-linguistic problems. Anglophones or Hispanophones, for example, or any IE-
native speaker already tend to find Russian and Greek harder in terms of the alphabet
compared to for example, German, Italian, and French.

Then the cultural differences--if for example, my mother, a rather secular/laic and
Westernised person, wanted to learn Arabic and the culture in the country, she already
told me (not that I just asked her) in the past during a random discussion that her
main problem is that things like living in those countries for a woman are not the
same as living in Spain or Italy. And it is not like she openly would want to
disrespect the domestic culture of the place where she visits.

My mother does not serve as an example for all women on this forum, but she did say
that weiring veils, not drinking alcohol, strict religious laws, etc., amongst other
things that languages from a wide array of differences do not have, is a significant
disadvantage--think about Japanese (Japan), Italian (Italy), Mongolian (Mongolia),
Mandarin (PRC/Taiwan), Shona (Zimbabwe), Spanish/Quechua (Peru), Dutch (Netherlands),
and Russian (Russia/former USSR states). All are
different, but she can basically act the same as she does in her home countries. She
is not forced to submit to religious laws or anything. For example, when we go to
Spain or Italy, despite her not being Catholic, she does not have to follow any of the
customs of the Catholic Church, she wears what she wants and can drink (which is kind
of required for any holiday, even more for what could be a language immesion trip).
The last time that she attended a church service was in the early 1970s, and 15 years
ago went into the Basilica in Vatican City with me, without really having to do the
religious customs that other Catholic visitors do. She just went to look at it from a
tourist's point of view. Although we went just for holiday, she did get to practise
the Italian that she was studying. Not sure if she can enter the mosque in Mecca to
just look around.

Do not want to generalise either, she did say that Lebanon is the only country that
she would be interested if she ever learnt Arabic (although French and English are
kind of lingua franca there given the histor). I have some friends from Lebanon that
gave me the highest interest in Arabic (although it still is not on my learning list),
but it was kind of helped that their culture is closer to that of Western Europe than,
compared to for example, Algeria or Saudi Arabia. I had a classmate from Beirut who
studied in Manchester that said that nightclubs in Manchester are tame--in Beirut not
only does he drink more, but the clubs have tiers (i.e multi-dance floors). So I think
that other factors do influence whether the language becomes popular or not.

Edited by 1e4e6 on 08 July 2015 at 7:02am

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 Message 8 of 75
08 July 2015 at 6:45am | IP Logged 
Yes, that is very true, it is an important factor, many language learners happen to be women (wild guess: half the learners). I can just go and travel/study/work/live in another European country (most of them, true) without much fear, the risks are similar to my home city, some criminality is everywhere but nothing too dramatic. The same applies to Japan. Latin America is perhaps a bit more risky but still many people go, enjoy it, safely come back, I would still consider it, it is a very tempting destination. I seriously consider moving abroad at least for a few years after university. But there is no way I'd consider an arabic country, not even the ones safe from the current wars. I value the freedom a few generations of women fought hard for and payed for me too much.

Of course, for example the japanese society doesn't give women the european equality either, I recommend reading blogs of immigrants or people with a japanese partner, or some of the articles concerning the japanese demographic troubles and their roots. But it is still totally different. You may have a huge cultural shock, you may not fit in the country, you may be unhappy, but you are just as likely to experience all that whether you are a man or a woman.

It might be true the Lebanese are probably the closest to the european mentality. We had a larger group here at our faculty a few years ago on an exchange and the were all really nice people, totally different from those disrespectful tourists in the spa town. Even the guys were different to talk to compared to our classmates from different arabic countries. However, they advised us not to visit their country now despite all the beauties, it is simply not safe. And when I joked about possibly getting stuck in an ancient elevator in the student dorms, they replied with real experience with getting stuck in an elevator for hours when the electricity suddenly doesn't work. Well, many people learn languages for travelling and that is now being a huge problem.

Edited by Cavesa on 08 July 2015 at 6:47am

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