JCMC 7 (4) July 2002
Collab-U CMC Play E-Commerce Symposium Net Law InfoSpaces Usenet
NetStudy VEs VOs O-Journ HigherEd Conversation Cyberspace Web Commerce
Vol. 6 No. 1 Vol. 6 No. 2 Vol. 6 No. 3 Vol. 6 No. 4 Vol. 7 No. 1 Vol. 7 No. 2 Vol. 7 No. 3 Vol. 7 No. 4
Language Choice Online: Globalization and Identity in Egypt
University of California, Irvine, US
Ghada R. El Said
Brunel University, UK
Cairo Demographic Center, Egypt
- Language Context
- Technology Context
- About the Authors
AbstractThe dominance of English on the Internet in the medium's early years caused great consternation about a possible threat to local languages and cultures. Though the hegemony of English online has since weakened, there is still concern about how English and other languages interact online, but there has been almost no research on this issue. This paper combines linguistic analysis, a survey, and interviews to examine English and Arabic language use in online communications by a group of young professionals in Egypt. The study indicates that, among this group, English is used overwhelmingly in Web use and in formal e-mail communication, but that a Romanized version of Egyptian Arabic is used extensively in informal e-mail messages and online chats. This online use of English and Arabic is analyzed in relation to broader social trends of language, technology, globalization, and identity.
IntroductionAs a major new means of global communication, the Internet is bound to have a great impact on language use. Probably the most feared result, voiced most often in the Internet's early years, was that the Internet would encourage global use of English to such a degree that other languages would be crowded out. And indeed, in the mid-1990s, fully 80% of international Web sites were reported to be in English (Cyberspeech, 1997). Though no recent studies have been done on the number of Web sites in each language, the number of non-English Web sites is by all accounts growing quickly and is expected to overtake the number of English language Web sites shortly if it has not already done so (Crystal, 2001). 1
In spite of this change, English remains a dominant force within certain Internet realms. A study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (The Default Language, 1999) found that while some 78% of Web sites in OECD countries were in English, 91% of Web sites on "secure-servers" were in English, and a fully 96% of Web sites on secure servers in the .com domain were in English. This is significant because secure servers (and, especially those in .com) are used for e-commerce. Presumably then, while a growing number of non-commercial sites are in local languages, English remains the dominant language of commercial sites.
The strong presence of English online has caused consternation in many parts of the world. Local opposition to English Internet use has sprung up in many places, most notably France, where a 1994 law mandates that all advertising must be conducted in the French language (Online, 1998) and where the Finance Minister reportedly banned the use in his ministry of English-derived terms such as e-mail or start-up in favor of French terms such as courier electronique or jeune pousse. In other countries, concerns about English use online have sparked new efforts to improve English language instruction (Takahashi, 2000).
Of course the Internet is not only a boon to English but potentially to many other languages as well, especially minority languages that bridge geographically dispersed speakers or which have insufficient resources to make use of more expensive media. There are numerous examples of technology use for indigenous language revitalization (see Warschauer, 1998). The Internet has also proven to be a vehicle for written communication in dialects and languages that previously were used principally for oral communication (see, for example, Warschauer, 2001).
In spite of the concern about the competition between English and other languages online, very little research has been done on the topic, with the notable exception of two studies by Paolillo on language use in a Usenet group (1996) and an IRC channel (2001). These studies highlighted, among other things, the role of code-switching between two languages within a particular group of interlocutors.
This paper goes beyond a particular channel to look more broadly at language choice online by a group of Egyptian Internet users, examining in what circumstances, and why, this group uses English and Arabic in their computer-mediated communication. In the remainder of this paper, we will first provide some background information on language use and Internet use in Egypt, then introduce and discuss the study, and finally analyze the results in terms of broader global trends of language, identity, and globalization.
Language ContextLanguage use in Egypt is considered as a classic example of diglossia, that is, a situation in which one dialect or language is used in formal or written realms and a second dialect or language is used largely in informal or spoken realms (Ferguson, 1972, p. 244). Diglossia can refer either to the use of two different languages (for example, English and Tagalog in the Philippines) or to the use of two different varieties or dialects of the same language (for example, Standard German and Swiss German in parts of Switzerland).
In Egypt, the two varieties used are both varieties of Arabic rather than different languages. The two varieties used in Egypt are referred to as Classical Arabic and Egyptian Arabic (Haeri, 1997). Actual usage of Classical or Egyptian Arabic in Egypt falls along a continuum, rather than in complete bipolar opposition (Bentahila, 1991; Parkinson, 1992), but since most uses tend toward one pole or the other these two are considered as the main Arabic dialects of Egypt. Classical Arabic is the literary dialect which is used in the Qu'ran; in most print publications including books, magazines, and newspapers; and in formal spoken discourse, including prayer, television news broadcasts, and formal prepared speeches. It is used with relatively little variation throughout the Arab world; Moroccans, Egyptians, Iraqis, and Saudis who know Classical Arabic will be mutually comprehensible in writing or speech.
Egyptian Arabic, also referred to as Egyptian colloquial Arabic (see, for example, Al-Tonis, 1980), is the spoken dialect of the Egyptian people and is used in conversation, songs, films, and television soap operas. As for written forms, it is used in comic strips and, occasionally, in novels and short stories (similarly to how non-standard English dialects might be occasionally used either as a literary device or specifically for the reporting of dialogue and conversation). Both Classical Arabic and Egyptian Arabic use the same Arabic script. Egyptian Arabic is spoken only in Egypt (or by Egyptians elsewhere), but it is understood widely in the Arab world due to the popularity of Egyptian films and songs.
Both Classical Arabic and Egyptian Arabic have their own powerful symbolism for Egyptians. Classical Arabic, as the language of the Qu'ran and the common language of the Arab nation, is central to their identity as members of that nation and of the broader Islamic community. Egyptian Arabic, as the language of daily communication, jokes, song, and cinema, is central to their identity as Egyptians. While virtually all Egyptians are competent speakers of Egyptian, only about half of adults in the country can read and write Classical Arabic (Fandy, 2000). The country's low rate of adult literacy— 52.7% according to the United Nations Development Programme (2000)—stems in part from the difficulty that Egyptian children have in mastering a written language that is at large variance from their spoken variety.
Beyond this diglossia of Classical and Egyptian Arabic, many other languages are used in Egypt, including the ancient Coptic language that is sometimes used in Coptic Christian church services (Takla, 2002), African languages are used by refugees, and European languages are used in business and tourism. The use of European languages in Egypt has a long history dating back to periods of French and British colonialism, and the Egyptian elite often preferred to be educated in French or English rather than Arabic (Haeri, 1997). Most recently, though, the use of English has far surpassed that of French and other foreign languages within Egypt. According to a recent study by Schaub (2000), English plays a dual role in Egypt. On the one hand it is the principle foreign language of the general population. English is the first and only mandatory foreign language taught in schools, with obligatory English language instruction starting in fourth grade. Hotel workers, shopkeepers, and street salespeople use English to communicate with foreign visitors and residents, especially in major cities and tourist destinations (Schaub, 2000; Stevens, 1994).
Beyond that though, English serves as a second language of additional communication for a large swath of Egypt's elite. The majority of private schools are considered English language schools, which means that English language instruction begins in kindergarten and that English is a medium of instruction of other specified subjects (i.e., mathematics and science). Recently, the Ministry of Education has also launched experimental language schools within the public school system, and 79 of the 80 launched so far are English medium, with one being French medium (personal interview with Reda Fadel, former Councilor of English, Egyptian Ministry of Education, April 2000). The elite usually continue their post-secondary education in English, studying either abroad (e.g., in the United States or England), at an English-medium university in Egypt (the most established being the American University in Cairo), or in an English-medium department of an Egyptian public university. Medicine, dentistry, veterinary studies, engineering, the natural sciences, and computer sciences all use English as a main medium of instruction, and other disciplines, such as commerce and law, have special English-medium sections which are considered more prestigious and difficult to enter. Graduates from these universities and programs often enter careers in which English continues to be used as a daily medium of communication, such as international business or computer science. Professionals in other elite fields, such as medicine, continue to use English as an additional language through frequent contact with foreigners and through professional activities; for example, the conferences of doctors, dentists, and nurses in Egypt are conducted in English, even without foreigners present, and professional publications of these groups are published in English (see discussion of English as an second language of the Egyptian elite in Haeri, 1997, and in Schaub, 2000).
Technology ContextThe other main contextual factor framing this study is the use of the Internet in Egypt. The Internet was first introduced to Egypt in 1993, when a small university network was established (Information technology in Egypt, 1998). Commercial Internet use began three years later and has developed with more government support and less censorship than in many other Mideast countries, reaching a total of some 440,000 Internet users by 2000 (Dabbagh Information Technology Group, 2000), representing 0.7% of the population. Though the growth of the Internet in Egypt is constrained by economic (i.e., high expense in relation to average income) and infrastructure factors (i.e., low teledensity), the impact of the Internet extends beyond its current limited reach. The Egyptian government is placing great emphasis on information and communication technologies, and Egypt is said to have one of the fastest growing ICT markets in the world. Initiatives to expand Internet access and use abound in the educational system, the business community, and the non-profit sector. Furthermore, those who are already connected disproportionately represent the economic elite, so their influence extends far beyond their somewhat limited numbers, especially in major population centers such as Cairo and Alexandria (Warschauer, 2003).
With this context as a background, an exploratory study was conducted of a group of Internet users in Egypt. The study sought to find out which languages this group of people used in online communications and why.
The study was carried out among 43 young professionals in Cairo known to be Internet users. The category of "young professionals" was chosen because it represents the first generation of Internet users in Egypt. Young professionals are of course not representative of the overall Egyptian population or even of current Internet users, but they do include among them many of the early adopters of the Internet in Egypt. The young professionals in this study were selected through personal contacts; the subjects may not be representative of all young professionals in Cairo.
"Young professionals" were defined for the purpose of the study as people between the ages of 24 and 36 engaged in introductory or middle level professional and management positions. All 43 of the people in the sample had at least a bachelor's degree and 30 of the group (70%) had a master's or doctorate. Areas of study ranged broadly and included engineering, economics, computer science, and medicine. The sample was fairly evenly balanced for gender, with 23 men and 20 women. A total of 23 of the people in the sample worked in the information technology industry, and included computer engineers, information technology specialists, system engineers, and managers. The remaining 20 worked for a variety of business and research industries and included an environmental researcher, librarians, statisticians, and doctors. Almost all had part of their education in English and part in Arabic.
A written survey was developed that inquired about people's language and literacy practices online (see appendix A). The survey included six questions about personal information (e.g., what is your profession?), four general questions about computer and Internet access and use (e.g., how long have you been using the Internet), eight questions about language use online (e.g., what language[s] do you use in online "real-time" chatting with Egyptians or other Arabic speakers), and eight questions about print literacy practices (e.g., what kind of things do you write regularly and in what language?) The survey was first pilot tested among a small group of people who were not in the final survey, and then finalized and distributed by e-mail to 50 people. Recipients were also asked to include voluntarily examples of any e-mail messages or online chats that illustrated the points covered in the survey.
A total of 43 out of 50 people returned the survey. Eight of the 43 included examples of e-mail messages or online chats, and some of these are included within the analysis.
The survey was non-anonymous, so that the researchers could conduct follow-up interviews. People were asked their name and e-mail address and whether they agreed to be contacted for a follow-up interview. A total of 31 people volunteered to be interviewed.
Four people were selected for interviews who, judging by their survey answers, represented a cross-section of language use patterns found in formal and informal Internet communications. Two of the four came in together; the other two came in alone. The interviews were conducted using a semi-structured approach, that is, a set of interview questions were planned ahead of time related to language and literacy practices online (see Appendix B), but the interviews diverged as appropriate to explore interesting points that came up. The interviews lasted from 60 to 90 minutes and were tape recorded with the consent of the subjects.
Survey data was tallied to allow the examination of various types of online communication by language, dialect, and script. In addition, after the use of Egyptian Arabic was identified as occurring in online communication, a two-tailed Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) was performed to investigate which factors were correlated with online use of Egyptian Arabic (with alpha established at .05).
The interviews were transcribed and the written transcripts were examined by the researchers to identify patterns and illustrative examples of when and why the participants used a particular language, dialect, and script online.
Finally, it is important to point out the limitations of this study. The sample size is small and was selected through personal contacts of the researchers, and is thus non-random. The facts that the subjects were personally known by the researchers and that the survey was non-anonymous (to allow for follow-up contact) may have affected people's responses. The survey was not formally tested for reliability. Only 4 of the 43 participants were interviewed, and the interview transcripts were examined for patterns and illustrative examples rather than systematically coded; furthermore, this examination process was not checked for inter-rater reliability. In addition, no systematic attempt was made to assess participants' fluency in English, Classical Arabic, or Egyptian Arabic. For all of these reasons, the results of the study cannot be assumed to be generalizable to other populations beyond this group of subjects. Rather, this study should be considered an exploratory investigation that had the goal of identifying possible issues and trends for further research.
ResultsThe most interesting results of the survey were in the area of language use online. Basically, Classical Arabic in Arabic Script, the most common form of writing in Egypt, was seldom used by any of the 43 participants in their Internet communications. Rather, online communications featured a new and unusual diglossia-between a foreign language, English, and a Romanized, predominately colloquial form of Arabic that had very limited use for these informants prior to the development of the Internet.
Classical Arabic (Arabic Script)
Egyptian Arabic (Arabic Script)
Egyptian Arabic (Roman Script)
Total Number of Participants Using this Feature
Numbers exceed 100% because some people use more than one script.
Table 1: Language and script use.
Table 1 shows the number of people who indicated that they used English, Classical Arabic (in either Arabic script or Romanized script), and Egyptian Arabic (in either Arabic script or Romanized script in their formal e-mail messages, informal e-mail messages, and online chats.2 English and Romanized Egyptian Arabic are the two main language forms used and will be discussed in turn below.
Table 2 indicates the number of people who used English, Classical Arabic (in either Arabic or Romanized script), and Egyptian Arabic (in either Arabic or Romanized script) in their online communications. Table 3 displays a simple comparison between English and any form of Arabic (or English and Arabic combined). Both sets of data indicate that English is the dominant language used in online communication among this group of Egyptian young professionals.
Total Number of Participants Using this Feature
Numbers exceed 100% because some people use more than one language or dialect.
Table 2: Language and dialect use.
English and Arabic*
Total Number of Participants Using this Feature
*Includes Egyptian Arabic, Classical Arabic, or both.
Table 3: English vs. Arabic*
The dominance of English is particularly strong in formal e-mail communication, with 82.5% of the participants using only English in that medium (see Table 3). In informal e-mail communication, the situation is more balanced, with a slight majority of the participants code switching between English and Arabic (principally Egyptian Arabic, see Tables 2 and 3). In online chats, the majority also code-switch, with smaller and equal numbers using English or Arabic only (see Table 3). An examination of e-mail messages and online chat transcripts that were submitted indicated that, when English and Arabic were combined in a single message, there tended to be more use of English. In addition, each person who was interviewed indicated that the majority of their Web page reading was also done in English.
The interviews and survey data made it clear that the prominence of English in Internet communication stems from a variety of social, economic, and technological factors that are closely related to the more general role of English in Egyptian society. The following points were stressed by interviewees as to why they use English predominately in online communication:
General dominance of English in the professional milieu. Most of the formal online communication carried out by the young professionals in this study was done within broader environments that strongly emphasized English. For example, one information technology professional explained most of his professional contacts are with software or hardware firms that are branches of international companies. Therefore, even if he is contacting a local branch office in Egypt, he is aware that that branch functions in a broader English language milieu, and he thus directs his professional communications in English. The study indicated that some 75% of the participants do most of their professional writing in English. It is thus certainly not a surprise that their formal e-mail communication is also in English. Similarly, most of the types of business and technical information sought by these young professionals are available on the World Wide Web in English, so they naturally search the Web in that language.
Lack of Arabic software standards. A second reason for a dominance of English is the lack of a common Arabic software standard. The reasons for this are part technical, as computing throughout the world is easier in the "ASCII" code that supports unmodified Roman letters. The larger reason, however, is socio-economic. Countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and Israel have been able to develop common standards for non-Roman computing and telecommunications due to the prominence of a national bourgeoisie within a particular country. Computing leadership within the Arabic world is spread over a number of countries, and the business community in each of these countries—especially in the information and communications technology field—is largely dominated by foreign companies and managers. This is especially true in the oil-rich Gulf countries, which employ huge numbers of foreign managers and technicians. The lack of a single common standard for Arabic language computing, together with the large presence of foreign nationals in the business community, hinders Arabic language computing. For example, one of the participants in the survey had started an online sales business targeted to consumers in Egypt. Though the majority of his customers were Egyptians, information on his pages was available only in English. He explained that most of his customers accessed the Web at their jobs, and they often worked at foreign companies that had not upgraded to Arabic language operating systems (due, in part, to the desire to use a single standard throughout their companies, the headquarters of which were based outside the Arab world). This budding entrepreneur felt that his best chance of building an audience in Egypt would thus be to market his product in English.
Computer and Internet use learned in English environments. Most of the participants stressed that they first learned to use computers and the Internet in English environments, either in their English-medium coursework or in English-dominant work environments. For this reason, they were not experienced typists in Arabic, either using Arabic script or Roman script. Several mentioned that they thus wrote principally in English and only used Arabic where there was a special feeling or sentiment that was difficult to say in English.
Early adopters' fluency in English. The majority of the people in this survey were educated in English and can write English as well as or better than Arabic. This, together with the other reasons listed above, provides another disincentive to switch to Arabic in online communications, especially for formal interaction.
Use of Egyptian Arabic
The other interesting result of the study was the considerable amount of Romanized Egyptian Arabic used by the participants. Romanized Egyptian Arabic was widely used in both informal e-mail communications and online chatting, with many people engaging in code-switching (between English and Egyptian Arabic) and some writing exclusively in Egyptian Arabic.
The emergence of Romanized Egyptian Arabic is especially interesting because it was previously not a widely used language form. As discussed earlier, Egyptian Arabic is principally a means of oral communication. Though it has been written in certain realms, such as comic books, prior to the Internet it appeared mainly in Arabic script, with several unofficial Romanized versions existing principally for the benefit of foreigners (for example, in language instruction books and dictionaries). Broader written uses of Egyptian Arabic in areas such as business, scholarship, and religion are frowned upon by society and by various educational and religious authorities. The use of Egyptian Arabic in online communications represents a major expansion of its written use, especially in a Romanized form, in a new realm in which informality is considered acceptable and in which no authority has stepped forward to discourage its use.
One of the interesting features of this adaptation is the widespread use of the numbers 2, 3, and 7 to represent phonemes that are not easily rendered in the Roman alphabet. The uses of these numbers arose among Internet users and have spread spontaneously and are now widely recognized. The use of two of these numbers is seen in the following informal e-mail, which also provides a good example of code-switching:
7amdellah 3ala el-salama ya Gameel. we alf mabrouk 3alal el-shahada el-kebeera ..
Keep in touch .. I really hope to see you all Soooooooooooooon (Maybe in Ramadan).
Kol Sana Wentom Tayyebeen.
Waiting to hear from you...
Thank God for the safe return, my sweet. Congratulations for the big certificate [sarcastic]. Keep in touch…I really hope to see you all Soooooooooooooon (Maybe in Ramadan)
Waiting to hear from you….
Participants in the study who engaged in code-switching indicated that they most frequently used Egyptian Arabic to express highly personal content that they can't express well in English. Several interviewees explained that they start off in English and switch over to Egyptian Arabic when they feel they need to. Analysis of sample messages indicated that, in bilingual messages, Egyptian Arabic was most often found in greetings, humorous or sarcastic expressions, expressions related to food and holidays, and religious expressions (see Figure 1).
Ezayek [How are you?]
Akhbarek eih, [What's new?]
Ya Fandem !! [Sir (sarcastic)]
Rabena yg3al fe weshek el2obol :) [Let God make it easy for us (sarcastic)]
Food and Holidays
Kahek el Eid [Egyptian sweet only, usually to be eaten after Ramadan]
Fanousse Ramadan [Ramadan Lantern]
Agazet noss el sanna [Mid term vacation]
In shaa Allah [God willing]
El hamdoulellah [Thank God]
Besm Allah el Rahman el Raheem [In the name of God the merciful and most compassionate]
As-Salamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allahi wa barakatu [May God give you peace, his mercy and blessing]
Figure 1: Representative expressions in Romanized Egyptian Arabic
Finally, a means test (using a two-tailed ANOVA) was carried out to investigate further the online use of Egyptian Arabic. Two factors correlated significantly (p < .05) with increased use of Egyptian Arabic in online chatting: (1) years of experience using the Internet and (2) working in an information technology profession. The latter is of interest because information technologies professionals in Egypt, in addition to being proficient with computers, are also known for being highly proficient in English (see discussion in Schaub, 2000), a characteristic which extends to this particular group as well, based on the researchers' evaluation following extensive personal communication with the subjects. This suggests that there are other explanations for use of Egyptian Arabic rather than lack of familiarity with English or computers. One possible, though untested, explanation is that the familiarity of the information technology professionals with computers and the Internet has led them to want to experiment more, especially in online chatting. At least within this group of young professionals, use of Egyptian Arabic does not appear to be a crutch used by those with less background in computers and English, but rather an additional communicative tool selected by those with expertise and experience with computers and English.
Other factors, such as gender or amount of education, were not found to correlate with whether people used Egyptian Arabic in online communication.
DiscussionTwo interesting findings have emerged from this study: first, that English is the dominant language used online among a particular group of early Internet adopters in Egypt, and secondly, that a previously little used written form of Romanized Egyptian Arabic is also widely used in informal communication by this group. We believe that the possible meaning of these findings is better understood when examined in a broader context of language, technology, and society in Egypt and internationally.
Sociologists have pointed to the current era as marked by a contradiction between global networks and local identities (Barber, 1995; Castells, 1996/2000; Castells, 1997). On the one hand, global flows of capital, finance, markets and media increasingly impinge on our lives, weakening traditional pillars of authority such as the nation-state, the permanent job, and the family (Castells, 1996/2000). On the other hand, this breakdown of traditional authority has caused a reaction as people attempt to defend their cultures and identity from an amorphous globalized control. Thus, we witness the increased power of transnational corporations, international media, and multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, and also witness the rise of religious fundamentalists, anarchist groups, and identity movements. Within this matrix, language is a potential medium of both global networks and local identities (Warschauer, 2000a, 2000b). Economic and social globalization, pushed along by the rapid diffusion of the Internet, creates a strong demand for an international lingua franca, thus furthering English's presence as a global language (Crystal, 1997). On the other hand, the same dynamics that gave rise to globalization, and global English, also give rise to a backlash against both, and that gets expressed, in one form, through a strengthened attachment to local dialects and languages. This tension—between Internet-led globalization and an increased need for local culture and language—has pushed Singaporeans to cling closely to their own highly colloquial dialect (Singlish) even as the government pushes them to adapt standard English in order to market their goods more effectively (Warschauer, 2001). It has also given a push to movements in defense of other languages, such as French (Online, 1998). And the Internet can be a convenient medium for both sides of this dynamic. It is not only a medium for global interaction in English, but it also allows for new forms of communication and interaction in local languages. Eritreans living in Italy or the US can chat in their native language and read online newspapers. Hawaiians can produce curricular materials in their indigenous language that would have previously been unaffordable (Warschauer & Donaghy, 1997). And, as seen by the use of numbers to represent Arabic phonemes discussed above, new written forms of language can emerge.
In this context, then it is not surprising that we witness expanded use of both English and Arabic online among this group of Egyptians, that is, the instrumental use of a global language and the more intimate and personal use of a local one. What is interesting, though, and worthy of further analysis is how the main literacy language of Egypt, Classical Arabic, may be getting squeezed from both above and below by this dynamic.
Niloofar Haeri, a sociolinguist who has written broadly on language and power in Egypt (e.g., Haeri, 1996), argues that the ties of the Egyptian elite to Classical Arabic are not particularly strong (Haeri, 1997). This stems, in her eyes, from a number of factors, including the elite's immersion in private, foreign language education; elite involvement in occupations demanding use of English (e.g., international banking, medicine, and research) or Egyptian Arabic (e.g., movie and stage acting) rather than Classical Arabic (e.g., government clerk positions); and the elite's distance from Islamic fundamentalist movements (which try to defend Classical Arabic as a religious language). It has also been pointed out that the links between the poor and written Classical Arabic as a language of scholarship are weak, since the majority of the poor are illiterate (see discussion in Fandy, 2000). In this context, it is not unlikely that the advent of the Internet could be one factor, together with other socioeconomic changes (e.g., globalization), that contributes toward a shift from the traditional diglossia in Egypt to increased multilingualism, with both English (from "above") and Egyptian Arabic (from "below") encroaching on the traditional dominance of Classical Arabic in written communication. If this were the case, it could be one expression of a strengthening of global (English-language dominant) networks in Egypt, as well as local (Egyptian) identities, with a corresponding weakening of more "traditional" sources of identity, such as (Arab) nationalism. The long-term consequences of such a trend, if it continues, is unclear. On the one hand, the participants in this study made quite clear that their use of English does not signify an embrace of Western culture or an abandonment of Egyptian identity. In contrast, they tended to describe their use of English in terms of Egypt's long and proud history of being able to absorb the best from a broad array of cultures and make it its own. And they also made clear that their own local language, Egyptian Arabic, is a particularly powerful vehicle for expressing their most personal thoughts and feelings. Their use of Egyptian Arabic online thus represents the appropriation of technology toward a people's own communicative purposes.
On the other hand, the continued encroachment of English on the prestigious realms of language use, in business, commerce, and academia—bolstered now by online communications—could be viewed as a threat to the national language and values. While the informants in this particular study, most of whom have been immersed in an English language environment for years, did not express this concern, press reports indicate that many other Egyptians are worried about the future status of Classical Arabic vis-à-vis English (e.g., Fawzy, 1999; Hassan, 1999; Howeidy, 1999). This could portend a class split, suggested by Haeri (1997), with the elite continuing to gravitate toward English as their prestige language, while the lower-middle class excels in Classical Arabic.
ConclusionAs an important new medium of human communication, the Internet is bound to have an important long-term effect on language use. It is too early to tell what that impact will be. The trends discussed in this paper could prove to be temporary, if, for example, the development and diffusion of Arabic language software and operating systems bolsters the use of Classical Arabic and stems the tide of online communication in English or in Romanized Arabic dialects. However, language use online, in Egypt and elsewhere, will be shaped not just by the technical capacities that technology enables, but also by the social systems that technology encompasses. And, as Castells (1996; 1997) and others (Barber, 1995; Friedman, 1999) have pointed out, the major social dynamic shaping international media and communication in this age of information is the contradiction between global networks and local identities. In that light, it is worthwhile to consider whether the online use of English and Egyptian Arabic by this small group of Egyptian professionals might reflect broader and more enduring social and linguistic shifts.
AcknowledgmentsAn earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Association of Applied Linguistics annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada in March 2000.
1. The claim, however, of a recent advertising campaign that Chinese will be the dominant language of the Internet by 2007 lacks empirical support.
2. "Formal e-mail messages" refers to those sent for professional or business purposes. "Informal e-mail messages" refers to those sent between friends and acquaintances for personal reasons. Online chat refers to synchronous communication using programs such as ICQ and Yahoo Messenger. The numbers in this figure do not add up to 43 because some people indicated they use more than one language, and others indicated no languages used (if, for example, they never engage in a particular feature, such as online chat).
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About the AuthorsMark Warschauer (http://www.gse.uci.edu/markw) is Vice Chair of the Department of Education at the University of California, Irvine, and Assistant Professor of Education and of Information & Computer Science. He is the editor of Language Learning & Technology journal and the author or editor of seven books on the social, educational, and linguistic aspects of new technologies, including, most recently, Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide (MIT Press, 2003).
Address: Dept. of Education, UC Irvine, 2001 Berkeley Place, Irvine, California, 92697-5500, USA. Phone (949) 824-2526. Fax (949) 824-2965. Ghada R. El Said is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Information Systems and Computing, Brunel University, UK. Her research focuses on information systems usability and human computer interaction. She has worked the last eight years in the fields of information technology and data base management, and she is currently the Information Systems Unit Manager on an international development project in Egypt.
Address: 48 Mokattam Street, Mokattam City, Cairo, Egypt, 11585. Phone (202) 5081449. Fax (202) 3384780.
Ayman G. Zohry, PhD. is a Lecturer of Demography at the Cairo Demographic Center. His research focuses on social surveys and statistical methods. He has worked the last twenty years in the fields of population and development, social surveys, monitoring and evaluation, and population policies.
Address: PO. Box 30, El-malek El-Saleh 911559, Cairo, Egypt. Phone (2012) 2635074.
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