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Is Arabic a dying language?

Unlikely, but English has become the lingua franca of commerce, media and education in parts of the Arab world.

A fragment of a marble plaque with an Arabic inscription discovered in the Old City of Jerusalem, Feb. 17, 2010. According to Moshe Sharon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the inscription is characteristic of the first centuries of the Islamic period. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Last fall, only five new students enrolled in the Arabic language and literature program at the United Arab Emirates University, the lowest number in the school’s 34-year history.

The figure speaks volumes about one of the nation’s existential fears: that the Arabic language is slowly dying out in this corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

Arabic is no better than the third most-spoken language in the United Arab Emirates, behind English and Hindi. This is hardly surprising in a country where foreign workers make up more than 80 percent of the population. Emiratis live as a privileged minority in their oil-rich country, but their language — and with it, their sense of national identity — is in danger of being swamped by a relentless tide of Western-style consumerism.

Unlike some of the smaller European languages that are at risk of being overwhelmed by the universality of English — Dutch, for example, or the Scandinavian languages — there is little doubt that Arabic, with more than 300 million native speakers, will survive as one of the world’s major languages.

But what of places like the United Arab Emirates or Qatar, where English has become the lingua franca of commerce, media and education, or northern Iraq, where Kurdish is pushing aside Arabic?

“In these places, I think we have to look at Arabic as an endangered language,” said Kamal Abdel-Malek, a professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Dubai (AUD).

“This is a real crisis because language is a tool ... [that] is linked to culture. If the tool is defective, how can you produce anything worthwhile,” he asked.

In Dubai, the United Arab Emirates’ largest and most cosmopolitan city, Arabic shares equal billing with English on street signs and in shopping malls, but one has to strain to actually hear it spoken in daily discourse.

Instead, what is frequently heard is a kind of pidgin Arabic. This is especially true among local children who have apparently picked it up from their Pakistani or Filipina nannies.