World Arabic Language Day

Arabic Qur'anic verses carved in red sandstone on Qutb Minar, Delhi an emblem of India's rich multilingual heritage © Harriet Paintin

World Arabic Language Day (WALD) is celebrated on 18 December each year.

Arabic language is believed to have its origins among nomadic tribes in the Arabian Peninsula dating back to the Iron Age. At that time, it was predominantly a spoken language, and it was not until the 7th century CE before it began to become more widely disseminated as a written language. However, some texts dating back as far as the 8th century BCE, record an ancient form of Arabian script.

Nowadays, Arabic is spoken by over 420 million people, and is the lingua franca of the Arab world and one of the official languages of the United Nations.

WALD is an opportunity to promote the cultural understanding of the Arabic language and to encourage dialogue among people who speak different languages. Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO recognised WALD 2016 as a chance to highlight the importance of multilingualism in an increasingly globalised world, and raised the challenge to schools and universities to make Arabic language learning more widely available with a view to the development of scientific research and artistic creativity.

SOAS offers many opportunities to study Arabic language, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels and also on short vocational courses via its Language Centre.

Profile: Rabia Barkatulla

SOAS alumna, Rabia Barkatulla, completed an MA Arabic Literature in 2014. She now works as an Arabic Language Specialist for an educational publisher.

Rabia discusses some of her early influences:

“I have always loved literature, and spent a lot of time in libraries as a child. I am bilingual, my mother tongue being Urdu, and from an early age I found that translation between cultures was a delicate art. I wrote and directed plays at school and my form tutor nicknamed me ‘the Bard’. At SOAS, I met other scribblers, and I started an online magazine called ‘The Brutalists’, where we discussed literature. My favourite feature was a top-10 of children’s books, which adults ought to read.”

Studying Arabic

“I first studied BA Arabic Cultural Studies at SOAS, and this exposed me to some of the most fascinating academic writing on the Middle East. SOAS is at the cutting-edge of this field, and the teaching faculty are dedicated to their discipline. I met other students who went on the Year Abroad programme, which inspired me to go on to study at the University of Damascus in Syria. Here I continued to wrestle with Arabic, and learnt enough to return to SOAS for an MA in Arabic Literature.

“I found the most difficult aspect of learning Arabic was marrying together the grammar with the living spoken dialects. My most rewarding experience using Arabic has been when staying with the Bedouin at Wadi Rum in southern Jordan: conversing with them; cooking and eating with them, was an experience like no other, and was made all the richer because of being able to share a common language.”

Arabic Language in the Workplace

Rabia uses her Arabic language knowledge every day in her work. She outlines a typical working day:

“My career is in academic publishing, which is a difficult industry to get into. After graduating, I undertook an editorial internship at I. B. Tauris in London to gain some valuable experience. I now work at Cengage Gale Digital Referencing. My working day begins with responding to queries from our vendor companies in Jordan or Egypt (in Arabic by email) and then attending a stand-up Early Arabic Books team meeting.”

“This is a project we are working on, involving digitising the Arabic Books collection for the British Library.”

“I undertake quality assurance of the Machine Readable Cataloguing Records from the project: a bibliographic record interpreted for computers, which contains Arabic script needing transliteration. We follow transliteration and romanisation rules of the Library of Congress Authorities. A typical day’s work also involves translating subject terms for ‘Look-ups’ in the online application from English to Arabic. I also conduct research into unicodes for Arabic diacritics, or transliteration rules for Persian. Occasionally, the marketing team will want some material translated for the Dubai office or for a sales conference in the Middle East.”

With the continued importance of the Middle East in international affairs and the growing integration of the Arab world into the global economy, there is an increased demand for Arabic language speakers in the workplace, and yet it still remains a language, which relatively few Westerners ever venture to learn. Students who learn Arabic find careers in a wide variety of fields, including journalism, finance and banking, intelligence, translation, education, the diplomatic service, business and industry.

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