The Dirty (Little) Secret of Arabic Children’s Literature

Well, I suppose secret is an overstatement, as it’s widespread practice: Parents “read” a book in standard Arabic to their young children by translating the text into 3meya, or colloquial. (You may deny it, but I’ve heard you!)

A friend has said that her five-year-old son will not stand for books read aloud in standard fos’ha Arabic, not even his beloved Mickey comics.

Blogger Elias Muhanna has put it thus:

Here’s the basic problem. To a child’s ear, MSA sounds like what it is: a formal language that people don’t use in everyday speech. It is a language that has to be learned in school, not like the mother tongue that kids grow up speaking. As a result, children’s books written in fus’hā have a way of sounding antiquated at best, when read aloud. The immediacy, vividness, and general “at-home” quality that one feels in one’s own mother tongue is, to a large part, lost in MSA, unless one has devoted years to reading, writing, and developing fluency within it.

Muhanna said that, once he began translating books into Lebanese 3meya for his daughter, “A light seemed to go on and she was instantly interested in the plot and characters.”

The clear downside is that when a parent “translates” a book on the fly, the repetitive and rhyming aspects are usually lost, and these are necessary for a child developing her pre-reading skills.

I have thought that, if I read to my two-year-old primarily in fos’ha Arabic (and to a lesser extent in English) from a very early age, then he will grow accustomed to it and maybe even prefer books in fos’ha.

So, my dirty little secret:

My two-year-old does enjoy age-appropriate, simplified-fos’ha books like صندوق فيزو,   ,نمنم يرسم الدينية and هل للكانجرو ايضا ام? But his favorite book is one I made with Microsoft Publisher from the children’s ditty بابا جي أمتي.

Not every scholar disapproves of my secret. Professor Leila Ahmed, in her book Border Passage, called for preserving and celebrating local 3meyas. You can read the longer statement here, but it ends:

European nationalists have devastated their own local languages — Welsh, Scots, Breton — languages now struggling to make a comeback. Let us avoid that history. Let us find a way to celebrate, and rejoice in, this wealth and diversity that is ours, instead of setting out to suppress it.

I still think that books with simplified fos’ha (with perhaps some dialogue in an 3ameya) are the best way to go. I appreciate the importance and beauty of a standard Arabic, and I don’t want to fall too far afoul of my fos’ha-loving husband. But, even with my horrible clip-art illustrations, my two-year-old cannot get enough of بابا جي أمتي — and that can’t be all bad, can it?

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