Do the French Speak Arabic?
Updated: Sep 30
In France, in 2020 I was accused of being radicalized because I started speaking more Arabic to my family and my daughters at home. Coming from Sweden, I was not aware of the complicated relationship that the ‘’country of lights’’ had with the Arabic language and culture. As a polyglot who is fluent in five languages, I was aware of the importance of learning a difficult language such as Arabic from an early age. The sooner I would speak Arabic with my toddlers, the easier it would be for them to learn it. Besides, I wanted my daughters to learn more about their roots and to be able to communicate easily with their grandparents in my mother tongue. I wanted them to have a solid identity that embraces the two cultures they belong to, the Arabic and the European equally.
Having lived in France for a few years now, I notice that there are many parents with non-European backgrounds who choose not to pass on their mother tongues to their children. Be it for fear that speaking more than one language would confuse their children and has a negative impact on their French skills, or trying to avoid stigma and social pressure because speaking a non-European language makes you less French and a target to social racism and stigma. Disowning your native-language can unfortunately have detrimental consequences for your offspring’s linguistic skills and identity formation.
A mother/father/parent tongue is a language that a person has been exposed to from birth. In many countries around the world multilingualism is a reality for their populations, not an exception. India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Africa are just a few examples of countries where children are exposed to several languages at home and outside on a native level.
Countries ranking amongst the best in education, such as Finland and Sweden, prioritize mother tongue teaching in school from a young age. Arabic included. Sweden’s Ministry of Education stats clearly on its official website the importance of teaching the mother tongue (or modersmål in Swedish) to students at school as ‘’it allows the student to develop her knowledge in and about her first language”. According to the Ministry, “the mother tongue is highly significant for the development of the child’s language, identity, personality, and thinking patterns. A well-developed mastery of the mother tongue provides good conditions for learning Swedish, other languages, and subjects in general.’’ Herein, for instance, a child living in Sweden whose one or both parents speak Arabic at home has the right to demand free tuition of the language at school. No eyebrows would be raised at such a demand, and this would not be interpreted as a sign of ‘’separatism’’ or deviation from the Swedish society.
Meanwhile in France, where the largest Muslim population in Europe resides, the panorama is totally different. French politics is feeding off Muslim bashing and islamophobia, often to score points and attract votes but also to deviate the debate from more important issues such as unemployment, economy, and workers’ rights in the country.
While using Islamophobic or Arabophobic reasoning provides a high return and low risk political positioning in French politics, for ordinary French Muslim citizens this means daily discrimination in schools, work places, public pools, and on the street.
Speaking of schools: the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015, Ahmed – an 8 year old child, was asked by his teacher ‘’are you Charlie?’’. Ahmed responded by saying ‘’No, because they caricatured the prophet. Me, I am with the terrorists’’. The teacher immediately reported the incident to the principle who, in turn, reported it to the police. When Ahmed was asked whether he knew what terrorism meant, his answer was a NO. Similar incidents took place in other schools of the Republic when children used Arabic words such ‘’Allahu Akbar’’ (God is Great) or ‘’Bismellah’’ (In the name of Allah) before eating at the school restaurant. While in most cases, children and their parents do not suffer legal consequences, the trauma lasts forever. Children grow up believing that using Arabic is dangerous, that the Arabic language is not welcome in France, and that it’s a language that is only used by criminal terrorists. In other words, an integral part of their heritage and of who they are is not compatible with their home country, La France.
As France’s presidential election looms, candidates across the political spectrum start flirting with racist ideas against Islam and Arabs living in France for political gains. Eric Zemmour, for example, whom the French President Macron asked for a summary of his immigration plan, is reportedly opposing Arabic tuition in France as “it would lead to an Islamization of the society and to religious radicalization”. Eric Zemmour, who is ironically descendent of a Jewish Algerian family, has been convicted on several occasions for racial defamation and incitement to racial hatred mainly against French Arab and black populations. This has not deterred him from appearing on some of the biggest mainstream talk-shows in the country.
Zemour’s bigotry aside, let’s examine his hypothesis that Arabic tuition leads to extremism. Let’s do the math and have a closer look at statistics in Finland, where Arabic tuition at school is a right, and in France where Arabic is not welcome. In 2021, Finland whose population is 5.5 million, had 390 suspected radical Islamists ; while France, with a population of 67,4 million people, had 8000 suspected radicals. That makes for a roughly 0,007 % of Finland’s population that is radicalized as opposed to a 0.012 % of France’s population.
In other words, Finland had half the number of radicalized people, despite teaching Arabic in its schools, as compared to France.
If France is serious about creating more opportunities for its minorities in hope of applying its motto ‘’egalité’’ to real life, it should help French Muslims become more integrated by feeling home and welcome, not despite of their roots but thanks to connecting with their heritage and their culture. Diversity should be celebrated and viewed as strength for the the nation, not a weakness. Furthermore, we should not forget that Arabic and Islam constitute an important part of French history and language whether we like it or not. Supporting French Arabs in their endeavors to build a healthy and stable identity as citizens will lead to more social cohesion and will create more economic and cultural opportunities in France and beyond thanks to its proud bi-cultural ambassadors. After all, let’s not forget how cool Arabic is, it’s the mother tongue of PSG’s president and Qatari owners.