But why can’t you speak Arabic? Dr Anne Monsour


A personal incentive

The idea for this paper came from an invitation in early January 2010 to be part of a special Australian episode of Kalam El Nas, a talk show, which is produced and presented by Marcel Ghanem (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International). The program focus was to be Lebanese in Australia from the first immigration to the present, and the intention was to have a panel of twenty people of different religious, age and occupational backgrounds. A Lebanese background was essential, and the preference was for the twenty panel members to speak in Arabic. I explained that I would not be able to do this. While I was happy to talk about my PhD topic, the history of Lebanese settlement in Australia from the 1880s to 1947, I would only be able to do this in English. The organiser agreed I could be interviewed in English but persisted in suggesting I try to speak in Arabic. After explaining several times that I would not be able to speak intelligently about my research in Arabic and faced with a repeated insistence that I do so no matter how badly, I suggested I decline to be involved. At the same time, I tried to explain that my limited Arabic was an important part of the Australian Lebanese story. In the end, I was interviewed in English but was left with the feeling of being an outsider not from Anglo or mainstream Australians but from Lebanese and Australian Lebanese Arabic-speakers.

The global context

Even a cursory look at the literature in the field of language maintenance, shift and loss, reveals both the complexity and the global nature of these issues. In 2003, Garcia noted that:

…there has been an overwhelming amount of new research that not only attempts to explain reasons for maintenance and shift to the language of the dominant society, as defined in terms of prestige, political or economic criteria, but also explores how educational institutions, the media, ethnic language literacy, family relationship networks can be employed to encourage maintenance and language revitalization.

The modern world has been characterised by the development of the nation state and an accompanying centralization of power, as well as by ‘an increasing mobility of people, goods, and information’, which has driven ‘a powerful trend toward cultural uniformity and extinction of local languages’. Arguably, these trends have been accelerated by contemporary globalisation and there is general agreement that ‘minority languages all over the world are giving way to more dominant languages such as English, Mandarin, and Spanish’.However, ‘in the face of that threat, groups of concerned professionals―linguists, educators, policy makers, and the like ― are doing what they can to counter language shift’. In 2002, for example, the second national Heritage Languages in America conference was organized by the Center for Applied Linguistics and the National Foreign Language Center. This conference ‘brought together language researchers, language teachers, and other language professionals concerned with preserving and maintaining these languages for future generations and as a resource for the nation’. Garland isolates three factors he considers essential for the survival of a language: it must be ‘the language of education for the young; the language of commerce and the language of official government’.If he is correct, it is easy to see why minority migrant languages may not survive past the second generation because, generally, they are excluded from all three categories.

According to Abu Laban:

Language has often been referred to as the greatest of social inventions. It facilitates communication and the establishment of common understanding, it serves as a vehicle for the transmission of the cultural heritage of the group and it provides a focus for cultural identity development.

Language preservation is considered important for many reasons including: the relationship of language to ethnic identity; the provision by language of a direct connection with a person’s heritage; and the improvement of international communication.Whenever languages come into contact, language maintenance, loss or shift occurs, so language survival has been an issue as long as humans have travelled the Earth. The outcome of this interaction varies and is dependent on the historical conditions of contact. When a people is colonised by another, for example, the occupier generally enforces its language as the dominant language. In settler societies, immigrants are usually expected to forgo their original language and adopt the official language of the host society.

The Australian context

Australia is both a colonial and settler society and with approximately 150 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages still in use and more than 100 languages other than English spoken by its immigrant population is linguistically diverse. However, a process of language shift whereby one or more languages become dominant at the expense of others is certainly the case in Australia where:

The language spoken by the original inhabitants of this country and those spoken by its immigrants have all lost out to English, and most of these languages are close to becoming extinct (in the case of aboriginal languages) or relegated to the status of foreign languages with no native speakers living in Australia.

In the case of immigrant languages a multiplicity of factors including age, gender, education, position in the family, density of group settlement and length of residence in the new homeland are identified as contributing to language maintenance or attrition in both first and subsequent generations. In this paper, I am concerned with the history of what happened to Arabic when it came into contact with Australia’s dominant language, English.

Arabic speakers in Australia

Although records show Arabic speaking immigrants arrived in Australia by the early 1880s, it is only recently that Arabic has been considered a significant community language. Migration has always been an important component of European settlement in Australia, but it was in the years immediately after World War Two that the greatest influx of non-English-speaking migrants arrived. However, according to Clyne and Kipp, significant numbers of Arabic speakers only arrived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Based on an analysis of language use from the Australian Censuses(1996 and 2001), Clyne and Kipp concluded that the use of European languages has declined while other languages, in particular those from Asia, have increased in importance; furthermore, languages ‘such as Vietnamese, Arabic, Cantonese, and Mandarin are becoming the growth languages in the younger generation’. These observations confirmed their 1997 prediction that without major immigration from ‘Australia’s traditional European source countries, Arabic, Cantonese, and Vietnamese will gradually displace Italian and Greek as the most widely used community languages’. In contemporary Australia, Arabic is not only a significant community language, it is also as a language with an ‘exceptional’ history of maintenance.

In twenty-first century Australia, the status of Arabic as a noteworthy community language characterised by low shift contrasts sharply with its fate in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia. In his study of three generations of Lebanese Christians in Australia, Jim McKay, found ‘fluency and use of Arabic’ was ‘almost totally confined to first generation migrants’, and while ‘a few second generation individuals reported they could speak Arabic, hardly any of them used it regularly’. While 2% of third generation respondents in McKay’s research sample were able to speak Arabic fluently, only ‘very few showed any interest in learning it’. Although they generally agreed the loss of Arabic was unfortunate, according to McKay, the majority of respondents were ‘resigned…to the fact that Arabic had been irretrievably lost’. In a case study of the descendants of early Lebanese immigrants (1880 to 1947) to Queensland, I found isolation from other Lebanese as a result of dispersed settlement patterns; the need to speak English to survive economically and socially and also to achieve citizenship; and an observed intolerance towards the use of any language other than English significantly contributed to the loss of Arabic as a viable language for the second and third generations. Taking into account the effectiveness of the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) which ended free immigration of Lebanese to Australia ensuring the number of Lebanese settlers was always small, and the characteristically dispersed settlement pattern of the early Lebanese immigrants in all the colonies/states, it is not surprising Arabic has only recently been considered a significant community language in Australia.

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