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Heritage Month: We Speak Arabic

posted on: Apr 22, 2016

Arab American Heritage Month

BY: Patrick Nahhas/Contributing Writer

The Arabic language is one of the oldest, most expressive, and well-preserved languages in world. The language comes from only two historical sources: the Quran and pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. Present day Arabs try as much as possible to keep the language sacred, which is part of the reason why words like telephone in Arabic is “telefone” instead of a new, original word. This preservation helps the language maintain its essence, but makes Arabic one of the most difficult languages to learn.

alif hamza

Arab Americans don’t speak Arabic nearly as much, or as fluently as, for example, Hispanic Americans speaking Spanish. Although Arab American culture values knowledge of the Arabic language, the inability to practice Arabic in public places slows the Arab Americans’ retention. Furthermore, those who do speak Arabic fluently, or near fluently, often times cannot tell you what an “alif” is (first letter in the Arabic alphabet), again due to cultural differences with a non-Latin alphabet.

Early Maronite church of West Virginia

To speak personally, I am a first generation Arab American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. I call Southwest Pennsylvania my home, where I live in a small town that is 95% white. If there was any place Arabic language and culture would forever go extinct, it would be in my town. But, in fact the opposite is the case. Scattered throughout the town are families with the last names: Williams and George, which are common Arab American last names. In that area of America, immigrants largely come from the village of Abdilleh in Lebanon.

These immigrants constructed the Maronite Church in my town almost 100 years ago. Today, the majority of the parishioners are only about a quarter Lebanese, yet, they will be the first ones to point out what waraq aareesh (grape leaves) are, as well as many other foods. Many of these third and fourth generation Arab Americans can correctly pronounce “hummus”, “habibi”, and many other words Arabs cannot live without.

Since the majority of Arab Americans are Christian, their churches are prominent and still give sermons, prayer, and lessons in Arabic, even though the later generations are often not fluent in the language. Muslim-Arab Americans, on the other hand, are more likely to ensure that their children know the language for religious and cultural reasons. Keeping the language in the culture after generations is something that has yet to completely end because, regardless of religion, Arab Americans won’t let it happen.

hqdefaultAdditionally, in institutes and schools, especially colleges and elementary schools, Arabic is becoming one of the most popular languages to learn due to the current political climate in the Arab World, which sparked interest to help out the region in ways the government often does not. There is an increasing number of young Arab Americans who are not only interested in speaking the language of their ancestors, but reading and writing it, too. The ever-growing desire to visit the homes of our parents and grandparents is also driving Arab Americans to learn Arabic. What’s interesting is that the teachers of Arabic in America are often people with neither Arab nor Muslim backgrounds, but those who posses a genuine love and interest for the language.

It is for certain that the Arabic language is making a strong comeback in the U.S. Arabic ranks second in the world in terms of the number of countries that have it as an official or de facto official language, ranking ahead of French and Spanish, and only behind English. The growth in non-Arab Americans interested in learning Arabic could make the U.S. the 23rd country on the list of Arabic-speaking countries.

See all articles about National Arab American Heritage Month here.