Monday, 23 February 2015

A language away from home

Arabic: A Language Away From Home

If a language is such a vital part of a country or community - of its culture, its traditions, its personality - what happens when a language finds itself away from home? Immigration is an ever-increasing, controversial issue in today's constantly-moving world - and of course, when people move, their language moves with them. It becomes an Immigrant language; a language that has been taken away from its home and into a new, host country, where it will come into contact with new cultures, new traditions and of course new languages. It becomes vulnerable, changeable and, very often unprotected.

Even a language with as much power and status as Arabic, the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, can struggle when taken into a new environment. Arabic is France’s largest immigrant language, with over one million speakers. Most of these originate from the Maghreb, a region of North Africa encompassing the three countries of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. They are therefore speakers of Maghrebine Arabic, one of the vernacular (or colloquial) varieties of Arabic found throughout the Maghreb region. France’s historic relationship with this language dates back to the colonization of North Africa, lasting from 1830 until the 1960s. During this time, young men from these countries were recruited to fight alongside the French in World War I.Many others were brought over to France to provide relief and manpower to replace French workers serving in the Army.

By the 1970s, following a second wave of immigration after World War II , Maghreb communities were present in most major French cities, often on the outskirts in the banelieus, forming small ‘language islands’. With no intention of staying permanently, these immigrant workers acquired a minimal level of French to manage in the work domain, whilst maintaining Arabic separately for use in the home. In this way, their native Maghrebine Arabic remained largely safe from French interference for some time. 

Despite their initial aims to return to North Africa, many Maghrébins decided to settle in France permanently, deterred the poor job prospects in their origin countries. Today, Maghrébins remain the largest immigrant group in France; people of Algerian, Moroccan or Tunisian decent account for about 30% of all immigrants

However, despite these large numbers of Maghrébins in France, their language is declining. Why?

Although Modern Standard Arabic is hugely powerful and dominant as a language of global communication, the Maghrebine dialect that is spoken within immigrant communities in France is stigmatized as an inferior language of low prestige. This negative attitude is one of the factors impacting language maintenance and shift within these communities in France. First generation immigrants do on the whole remain loyal to their native language, promoting its use at home and within their community. For them, Maghrebine Arabic remains an important part of their culture and ethnic identity. Second generation immigrants show less affiliation towards their mother tongue, for whom its function has become rather obsolete. French, the dominant majority language, has replaced Arabic in all domains as the primary means of conversation. The historic attitude of ‘assimilation’ in the French education system is another contributing factor. It seems that, although French, with its power and prestige, has overtaken as the primary language for communication, Arabic will continue to retain its symbolic function as a means of identification with and expression of ethnic roots within Maghrebi communities in France.

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