Maya Sabti’s children were born and raised in Lebanon but they speak only broken Arabic and cringe when presented with an Arabic book to read.
"I try to get them interested, but I don’t blame them that they’re not," said Sabti, whose children are 8 and 10. "Mobile phones, Facebook, movies — all that’s important to them is in English."
In Lebanon, where everyday conversations have long been sprinkled with French and English, many fear the new generation is losing its connection to the country’s official language: Arabic. The issue has raised enough concern for some civil groups to take action.
"Young people are increasingly moving away from Arabic, and this is a major source of concern for us," says Suzanne Talhouk, 33, a Lebanese poet who heads "Feil Amer," an organization launched last year to promote Arabic.
"The absence of a common language between individuals of the same country means losing the common identity and cause," Talhouk said. In a nod both to its members’ sense of urgency and their language fixation, the group’s name is the Arabic grammatical term for an imperative verb.
Arabic is believed to be spoken as a first language by more than 280 million people, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. The classical, written form of the language is shared by all Arabic-speaking countries but spoken dialects differ among countries — and fluency in speaking doesn’t necessarily mean fluency in reading and writing.
While Arabic is the official language of Lebanon, a tiny Arab country of 4 million on the Mediterranean, many Lebanese pride themselves on being fluent in French — a legacy of French colonial rule — and English. Conversations often include a mix of all three, so much so that "Hi kifak, ca va?" — with the English "hi" and the Arabic and French phrases for "how are you?" — has become a typical greeting, even appearing on T-shirts and mugs sold in souvenir shops.
Most schools in Lebanon teach three languages from an early age, and many parents send their children to French- or American-curriculum schools where Arabic comes second or third. It has become very common for young people, particularly when using Facebook and text messages, to write Arabic using Latin characters.
Even politicians are not immune. Last year, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, 40, stumbled through a speech in parliament, having obvious difficulty with the classical Arabic — raising laughter from lawmakers and from the many who watched video of the address posted on YouTube.
The concerns are not unique to Lebanon. Neighboring Syria requires that at least 60 percent of the space on signs for shops, restaurants and cafes should be in Arabic.
But Lebanon is a special case because of its more open society, said Mounira Al-Nahed, assistant secretary general of the Beirut-based Arab Thought Foundation.
Lebanon’s sectarian and ethnic diversity have always made it open to foreign influences. Moreover, it has a huge diaspora with an estimated 8 million people of Lebanese descent living in countries as distant as Brazil and Australia — many of whom come regularly to Lebanon for visits and often don’t speak much Arabic.
Al-Nahed blames parents in part for speaking to their children in French or English at home, thinking they will pick up Arabic anyway. But this has had the adverse effect, making Arabic come at a distant third.
"It has reached a stage where you see young people in Lebanon feel it’s a shame to speak Arabic. This is not the case in the Gulf or other Arab countries," she said.
Al-Nahed also blames teaching techniques that often do not encourage children to speak Arabic and make the language seem dull and complex to learn.
Talhouk and her group have been lobbying to change that.
Her group visited Lebanese universities in an effort to gauge attitudes toward Arabic. Dozens of students were asked to recite the Arabic alphabet. Most of them were unable to go beyond the first five letters.
"Not only do they not know their Arabic ABCs, but they also wondered why they should bother learning it and how it would help them," Talhouk said.
In an attempt to draw attention to the problem, her group recently organized an all-day Arabic language festival entitled "We Are Our Language" in Beirut. The festival included a book exhibition, music and literature readings, as well as posters urging, "Do not kill your language" and "Teach your son to speak Arabic."
Sabti, a housewife who brought her children to the festival, hoped it would help change their perspective. "We need more activities like this. I hope this helps young people know we have a beautiful language that we should protect."
But for Youssef Dakhil, a student in his 20s, the problem is all about the lack of a Lebanese national identity.
"Unfortunately, we like everything that’s imported, including foreign languages," he said.