Dr. ElSaid Badawi: Not Your Regular Arabic Professor

PHOTO BY AMIRA GABR

BY MASOOMA KADHEM

Dr. ElSaid Mohamed Badawi is a professor of Arabic Language and Linguistics at the American University in Cairo. Having studied at Al-Azhar University, Cairo University, and the University of London, Dr. Badawi came to AUC in 1969 and founded the highly acclaimed Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language (TAFL) master’s program. He also helped establish the Arabic Language Institute (ALI) at AUC.

Badawi is also the author of two prominent Egyptian publications, Mustawayat Al-Arabiyya Al-Mu’asira fi Misr (Levels of the Contemporary Arabic Language in Egypt) and A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic: Arabic-English.

Q. In your work you have divided Arabic into levels of Colloquial and Modern Standard, can you explain why?

The question of the division of Arabic into five levels goes back to the social stratification of the country. Language is a reflection and expression of society. Linguistics argue that each person has a quality of language called ‘personal language’ because each one of us has a history and biography that reflects that language. Thus, language goes hand in hand with an individual.

Egypt is a country of classes and the differences between these classes are extremely vast. Although they might be due to income, these differences essentially go back to language.

A child speaks colloquial at home after birth, but learns modern standard Arabic in school. However, [the child] does not learn proper modern standard Arabic so he speaks a mixture of colloquial and standard Arabic known as the intellectual’s colloquial (ammiya al-muthaqafeen). The child who does not go to school doesn’t learn standard Arabic and speaks the illiterate’s colloquial (ammiya al-ummiyin).

Therefore, standard Arabic is developed in school. Not all students complete their education, and some take different career paths that differ in the use of language. The language of the elders, for example, differs from the language of writers and intellectuals.

This division doesn’t apply only to Egypt, but to different Arab countries because it’s a position between standard and colloquial Arabic.

Q. Does the nature of language change with social and political transformations, or as a result of phenomena such as globalization, for example?

A. That’s definitely true, as language has gained the term ‘globalization’ in its dictionary, for instance. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution caused a social movement, allowing everybody to go to schools. Electricity and radio entered villages. I remember, for instance, that our village had only one radio and people didn’t hear standard Arabic except during Friday sermons. There were no newspapers reaching those villages.

However, this was also a malicious political game, as the spread of radio in homes allowed Abdel Nasser to reach out to the poorer classes and mobilize their support. Any social movement is reflected in language; if not, then the movement doesn’t exist.

Q. After September 11, the number of people who wanted to learn Arabic significantly increased. Do you expect the same to happen as the Arab Spring progresses?

A. Before Jan. 25, [Arabic] newspapers were moving in a direction farther away from modern standard Arabic and more towards colloquial Arabic, blending the two together. The prestigious newspaper Al-Ahram’s education page was no exception. A strange thing happened after Jan. 25. Overnight, most newspapers began writing entirely in standard Arabic.

Disappointingly, the Ministry of Education doesn’t have a correct educational policy to teach the country. The country cannot develop without a clearly defined linguistic policy or a language plan. A country that isn’t proficient in its language simply cannot develop. How do people communicate if there isn’t a common language to read and write in?

Q. Whose role is it to preserve the stable image of the Arabic language?

A. The school has to maintain a stable image of Arabic. In Egypt, we have a number of foreign universities—American, Canadian, Russian, German, English, etc. However, this only means that a young Egyptian’s mentality will be formulated in different ways. How will [these students] deal with each other? Going back to schools, [it is the] same story.

Whoever [becomes president] will change this. This is for the country’s interest and future. The country must coordinate how it will teach its children, not divide them.