By Muhumed Mohamed Muhumed (Khadar)
How it feels when someone identifies you as a Somali and then speaks Arabic with you? We always reply that we can speak less or no Arabic at all. But this response is usually a surprise to many Arabs because they were taught at school that Somalis are Arabs or have Arab Ancestries and speak Arabic. If we cannot speak Arabic why do we take it as a subject in our entire 12 years at school?
Somalis are considered to be religious and one concrete evidence of this claim is that children as young as three to four years old are sent to Islamic schools “Madrasas” where they learn Quran before commencing school at the age of six and beyond. Intuitively, one should learn how to read and write Arabic in order to easily learn or memorize Quran as the Quran manuscript is written in Arabic. As a result of this tradition, most of the Somalis including me learned Arabic alphabets before any other language. That’s to say even before our native Somali language. This practice is plausible and almost all Somalis unanimously accept to teach their children Quran before sending them to school. A worthwhile mentioning point is that this practice is not that popular anymore in the contemporary communities due to the emergence of nursery schools or kindergartens.
However, what I and many others do not understand is why Arabic is taken throughout the entire 12 years of schooling. Before proceeding, I have a disclaimer here. Throughout the article Arabic is referred either as a foreign language or as a subject of study and has nothing to do with Islam. There is no religious perspective or hatred against any group. Furthermore, the article mainly examines the national curriculum of Somaliland because that is the one I studied, the one I know best.
Given that Arabic is taken from grade one of elementary school to grade four of high school, which adds up to 12 years of education, few of us can speak standard/literary Arabic “Fus-ha”. During the school, Arabic is regarded as an inferior subject where small number of the class either attend or actively participate. In addition, one can hardly find students who list Arabic among their favorite subjects. Apart from those who regularly study schools whereby Arabic is the medium language of study, Arabic is barely spoken among the students as well as the entire population. Given the fact that majority of the people do not care about Arabic, even the syllabus is not that effective to spontaneously give certain people the ability to speak.
Some may argue that the intention of learning Arabic at school was not to speak it but to understand Islam. Seriously? I have learned reading and writing Arabic before going to school and my intention was to learn Quran, but at school no. As mentioned above Arabic at school was ineffective and meagre to provide the ability to comprehend Quran or other fields of Islamic studies. Frankly speaking even most of the teachers did not have that capability. I say this knowing the level of Arabic literature required to deeply learn and comprehend Quran and other areas of studies. On the contrary learning a language to speak it is reasonable aim but other than that purpose is not plausible. Hence, proponents of this argument need to provide concrete evidences in supporting their argument.
Declaring Arabic as an official language in the constitution of Somaliland has something to do with this issue. However that was inherited from the collapsed Somali Republic which at some extent affirmed Arabic as an official language to justify its membership in the Arab League. Even though Somaliland is neither a member of the Arab League separately nor have a good relationship with the organization as a whole and certain dominant member-states such as Egypt in particular, Arabic is sometimes applauded higher than the Somali language. For instance, the ministry of education few years back enacted a policy which exempted Somali from the social major third and fourth year high school classes while Arabic and English were reserved as compulsories. This arbitrary decision kind of proved the irrationality of our policy makers and even the high school teachers and principals across the country who were supposed to implement the policy could not figure out the motivation behind it. It is conceivable that English is taken as an obligatory because students are expected to enroll English-medium higher education institutions but how can one persuasively justify the reservation of Arabic?
Somalis are not good at any Language. This sounds like slander statement and many may consider it as an offense, but it is undeniably visible among us. We all learn Somali, English and Arabic but hardly any of us can speak or write them clearly, cogently as well as knowledgably. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As long as we have mosques, madrasas and other Arabic colleges providing Arabic courses we do not need to take unrewarding Arabic at school. For other languages – Somali and English – effective curriculum is necessary. Stating Arabic as a second language in the constitution also needs to be reviewed as it has nothing to do with the reality on the ground. Since English overtook Arabic, that statement is nothing but on paper. Even decrees and announcements from the presidency are sometimes disseminated in English nowadays.