Language appropriates culture, too

A few days ago, I overheard a couple of students talking about why they’re learning Arabic and how useful it is for government jobs. They also said that Arabic sounds like “gibberish.” As someone whose native language is Arabic, it angered me to hear my language being called “gibberish” by the same people who hope to one day profit off their studies of it.

We hear a lot about cultural appropriation and how it relates to personal style and fashion, but hardly ever do we think of how people sometimes appropriate languages. I define cultural appropriation as using aspects of a culture for personal, economic or political gains while disrespecting and dismissing the origins of said culture and its people.

This also applies to languages, especially the languages of disadvantaged groups. For example, Arabic and Arabic speakers never really attracted much interest from college students until the war against terrorism and the West’s increased engagement in the Middle East and North Africa, meaning people aren’t actually interested in the Middle Eastern and African cultures, but are interested in the jobs and opportunities generated by the government’s involvement in those regions.

Involvement in the Middle East and Africa often includes installing and supporting puppet dictatorships, depleting the region of its resources, conducting military strikes that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and creating a racist and orientalist image of the people of that part of the world. But learning Arabic can also help the CIA and National Security Agency spy on Arab and Muslim-American citizens, infringing upon their rights and reinforcing racial stereotypes.

The media also engages in perpetuating racial stereotypes when it comes to appropriating Arabic. I remember watching a scene from “Iron Man” that was supposed to take place in Afghanistan, yet the characters, who were terrorists, spoke Egyptian Arabic. I guess the director didn’t pay any attention to the fact that Afghans aren’t Arabic speakers, and they especially wouldn’t be speaking it in an African dialect. Yet, Arabic was the language used by the terrorists in the movie because, to the world, Arabic is used only in terms of terrorism and doesn’t exist outside the context of war.

Language learning can be a very beautiful thing that can take us beyond our own horizons, teaching us about the cultures of fellow human beings. However, this need-based approach to learning Arabic, or any other language for that matter, is disrespectful to its native speakers. It shows that rather than being interested in a certain language, you’re just learning it to exploit its people and the geographical region where it’s spoken. Interest in Arabic and Arabic-speaking people has generally not benefited Arabs, neither has it increased people’s understanding of the Arab culture. Rather, it’s been used in the context of war and racial stereotyping.

So if you decide to learn a language, ask yourself the reasons behind your interest. Ask yourself how you view the native speakers of that language and if you’ll be using your knowledge to exploit them, spy on them or gain better control of their politics.

Will learning a certain language be a tool you use against its native speakers? If the answer is yes, then please rethink your reasons. I respect and appreciate my heritage and my culture enough to be sickened by the exploitation of my background.

Nahla Aboutabl

Nahla Aboutabl is a senior political science and international affairs double major. Contact Nahla at aboutanm@dukes.jmu.edu

October 18, 2015

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