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Beyond the alphabet

CAIRO: New in the country? Troubled by the fact that you still can’t put together an Arabic sentence? Don’t be too frustrated; most Egyptians can’t do it either. “There is no more than one percent of Egyptians who can put together a correct Arabic sentence, says Mohamed El Sawy, founder of the Zamalek-based El Sawy …


CAIRO: New in the country? Troubled by the fact that you still can’t put together an Arabic sentence? Don’t be too frustrated; most Egyptians can’t do it either.

“There is no more than one percent of Egyptians who can put together a correct Arabic sentence, says Mohamed El Sawy, founder of the Zamalek-based El Sawy Culture Wheel.

“The Arabic language in Egypt has literally become a foreign language. In this age, Egyptians don’t have any relation with the Arabic language except for limited hereditary items, continues El Sawy. “But language, in its profound meaning, its intellectual value and its cultural depth has vanished and has been replaced by a poor weak language.

This realization, which led the Culture Wheel to dedicate 2006 to the Arabic language, is not an isolated conclusion. “Anyone who still remembers the respect and esteem with which Egyptians regarded the Arabic language 40 or 50 years ago cannot help but be grieved by the treatment it receives today, wrote economist Galal Amin in his book Whatever happened to the Egyptians?

El Sawy refers to an example that Amin also explains in depth. El Sawy perceives it as a tragedy that many Arab political leaders make grammatical mistakes in their speeches, while journalists do the same in their writings.

“Far from deriving pride in good Arabic, the opposite seems to be the case, Amin wrote, referring to the way in which TV anchors, scholars, politicians and journalists deliberately drop foreign words into their speeches or writing to give a false impression of superior intellect or to indicate a foreign educational background.

But the problem is not in the introduction of foreign words to the Arabic language or replacing the Arabic ones with their foreign counterparts, according to Momen El Mohammady, the instructor of the two-month Arabic grammar courses the Culture Wheel offers free of charge. “The problem is in our understanding of the language and how we use it.

According to El Mohammady, only a few can easily read Naguib Mahfouz’s works. He says “the production of Arabic language – noting writings by Arab philosophers, scientists and poets – are blocked from the masses because of a lack of understanding of the language.

“We don’t say we want to eliminate colloquial language, nor are we saying that colloquial language is bad. On the contrary, it is a purely Egyptian language and it is beautiful, says El Sawy, who usually talks in simplified, understandable standard Arabic. “But at least when we write we should be able to write in a coherent, proper language that has the features of the true Arabic language, and when we read, we understand what we are reading.

“Without knowing the rules of the language, all texts sound mysterious and superficial.

Thus the first in the center’s efforts in reviving Arabic is teaching grammar use and, according to El Mohammady, anyone is eligible to attend. The teaching method, however, is different from those used in Egyptian schools. According to El Sawy, the “false accusation that Arabic is one of the most difficult languages in the world has been the result of dismal teaching methods that depend upon memorization rather than understanding. “For half a century or more the Egyptian has been concerned with nothing except for a certificate to hang on the wall, he adds.

Out of a belief that 99 percent of the language, the part that people use daily, isn’t complicated, El Sawy says that sentence structure should be simplified so that children can understand them. Once they understand the simple structures, they would consequently be able to venture into more complicated grammatical rules. The same goes for the adult attendees of the center’s courses. El Mohammady, who, for the past 10 years, has been teaching Arabic for foreigners, says that throughout his 10 years experience he has been required to simplify the rules and explain the logic behind them.

By doing just that and by using metaphors his students can understand, El Mohammady’s courses are attracting more students. El Sawy notes that the number of attendees is increasing. He anticipates a future similar to the center’s, which celebrates its third anniversary this month; there were fewer visitors at the beginning but as time passed and as the place gained credibility, visitors increased.

The students are as diverse as possible, El Mohammady notes. They include physicians with an interest in culture, journalists interested in bettering their writing and university students who want to understand the Arabic language more profoundly.

The courses, which started last month, are not solely the efforts of the center. According to El Sawy, there is a monthly competition designed to test the participants’ lingual skills. “The Arabic Tongue, is modeled along the same lines as Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The maximum monetary prize, however, is LE 3,000.

El Sawy hopes that his efforts will serve as an example for other Egyptian venues to follow and there are plans to transcend the country’s borders to unify the Arab tongue – with translation as one of his targets.

Topics: Aboul Fotouh

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