Reaching for a New Concept of Language

The need to preserve languages and dialects are a priority
Realizing dialects are not being acknowledged as official languages and are not recognized as endangered, their fate is to die silently without notice which will result in losing part of our history.

The Living Arabic Project started as a list of words on my desktop when I decided to teach myself “proper” Arabic as an adult. My interest in language started after learning a Bantu language, Shangaan or Xitsonga, while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, by living among the people and integrating with them rather than simply through text books. The language became beautiful and fun because of how I saw it embodied in people, and I wanted the chance to see Arabic in the same light: full of life.

What started out as what I thought would be a simple self-education project quickly grew. I found that after a couple years of studying I had about 20,000 words in my files — 10,000 in al-Fusha and 10,000 in colloquial — and I decided to upload them in a way that users could compare the two. It became a challenge to rethink Arabic: it wasn’t just al-Fusha, and it wasn’t just my Lebanese dialect; rather al-Fusha and all the dialects seemed to me to be a huge constellation of languages. Instead of seeing the world through a monolingual framework, how could I see Arabic as a multilingual system? It took me several tries to expand the database structure enough to work properly with multiple dialects, but now the website does what it was meant to do: allow users to search in multiple dialects simultaneously and compare usages.

The project was kicked into high gear in 2015 and 2016, when a Syrian friend whom I worked with in Turkey offered to help with the coding side of the project so I could work on the language side more. He introduced me to a couple other Syrian refugees who are gifted programmers, and every year I try to raise enough money to pay them to upgrade the website and mobile apps.

Not working with dialects is also hurting our ability to pass on our language to our children. Some dialects may even disappear in the near future.

As I worked on collecting words and phrases, I realized that not only were dialects not well documented, but that not doing so was hurting us. The impact on literacy of not acknowledging dialects and helping children bridge from how they speak at home to learning al-Fusha is mind blowing