Educated Illiterates? [Archives:2006/913/Community]

January 19 2006

By: Najwan Al-Junaid
Illiteracy in the Arab world is one of the biggest and complicated challenges facing Arab youth. According to UNESCO, 40 percent of adults in the Arab world are illiterate. There are many reasons for illiteracy, but probably the sweeping poverty in the Arab world is the biggest hindrance. Reading is a privilege for those with money and time. Since the habit of reading is not grounded in 40 percent of Adults, not many will pass such a habit to their children: the Arab youth.

Illiteracy is not the only challenge

When compared to their French or English-speaking peers, many Arab youth lack the ability to express their thoughts and ideas. Why? There is a big gap between classical and colloquial Arabic. In formal occasions, Arabs are required to use grand language. In everyday life, Arabs use their casual, colloquial dialects. And since many do not read much of classical literature and Arabic poetry, it is hard for these youth to express themselves in classical Arabic or even simplified standard Arabic. The spoken language is not the language of thought and expression.

For Arabs, the language of thought is far more complicated than the language of slang. The complexity of the language makes it rich and deep; however, it is a double-edged sword. For instance, there is no literal translation for the word “sandwich.” Although Sandwich was a man who invented the idea of the sandwich, this idea does not have an Arabic equivalent. When translated literally, a sandwich turned to be, “a divider and divided thing together with something fresh inside.” The language's complexity and the incompatible educational systems do not help Arab youth to grasp the language and consequently, express themselves clearly in classical Arabic.

In my opinion, it is even questionable if the hundreds or thousands who finish eight years of schooling are literate. The rift between classical and colloquial Arabic is becoming bigger. Classical Arabic is isolated in schools and excluded among intellectuals and writers. Once average Arab youth leave school, the classical language is barely used in their daily lives hence their lack of self-expression in standard or proper Arabic.


Najwan Al-Junaid is an editor for ShababYemeni. ShababYemeni is an initiative by a group of inspired Yemeni Youth made specifically for the Yemeni Youth. SY could be contacted at

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