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A "crisis" in the Arabic language is acting as a barrier to science communication in the Arab world, says a report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published this week.

The most recent Arab Human Development Report says that ‘classical Arabic’ — the version of the language taught in schools and used in government communications — lacks words and phrases to describe developments in modern science.

The report, entitled Building a Knowledge Society, says this is because there is very little translation from other languages into Arabic and because almost all university-level science teaching and all research is in English or French. 

 "The arabicisation of university education has become vital in order to enable young minds to develop firm critical and creative faculties in their own language and to assimilate the rising volume of scientific knowledge," it says. "Failure to arabicise science creates obstacles to communication between different scientific disciplines and slows knowledge exchange."

The report shows that Arabic-speaking countries produced less than five translated books per million people between 1980 and 1985. By comparison, Hungary produced 519 and Spain published 920 in the same period.

"There needs to be a heavy effort in translation to allow scientists and students to be able to think in their own language," says Abdalla Al Najjar, president of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation and one of the report’s authors.

"We have lost confidence in the ability of our language to absorb new ideas and concepts," he says. "But if Hebrew, Japanese and Russian can become languages of science, there is no reason for Arabic not to."

However, more translations are unlikely to appear, the report says, unless Arab governments relax strict censorship laws. The report quotes Fathi Khalid el-Biss, vice president of the Arab Publishers Union, who says that authors and publishers are "forced to submit to the moods and instructions of 22 Arab censors and this prevents a book from moving freely and easily between its natural markets."

Another obstacle, the report’s authors argue, is reconciling written and spoken Arabic, which are effectively two different languages. Whereas written Arabic has stood still over time, spoken Arabic has assimilated words and phrases from different countries and cultures. This means that writers of Arabic no longer have a ready toolkit of words and phrases with which to transfer their thoughts onto paper.

The report’s overall theme — bridging the knowledge gap by opening up Arab countries to ideas from outside — was echoed in a summit meeting of the 57 heads of state of Muslim countries that ended in Malaysia earlier this month.

In his address to the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s outgoing president, blamed the current intellectual 'desert' in Muslim countries on generations of opinion-formers who interpreted Islam’s emphasis on acquiring knowledge as meaning knowledge of religious texts.

"We are enjoined to read, to acquire knowledge," he said. "Early Muslims took this to mean translating and studying the works of the Greeks and other scholars before Islam. But halfway through the building of the great Islamic civilisation came new interpreters of Islam who taught that acquisition of knowledge meant only the study of Islamic theology. The study of science and medicine was discouraged. Intellectually, the Muslims began to regress."

The UNDP report also adds its voice for a pan-Arab research and development fund to help raise science spending in Arab countries — currently an average of 0.2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). This idea has most recently been championed by Atta ur Rahman, Pakistan’s science minister and Coordinator-General of Comstech, the science cooperation body attached to the OIC.

However, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait jointly stalled such a move at the Malaysia meeting, arguing that they already invested substantially in science and that any new fund should be voluntary, not mandatory.