ABU DHABI // Teaching Arab pupils in English does not undermine the child's national identity and culture, according to more than 80 per cent of parents surveyed in the capital.
The study, carried out by Dr Hanan Khalifa of the University of Cambridge, involved 260 Grade 4 pupils and 116 parents.
Eighty-two of the parents said English did not impact upon their child's Arabic skills.
Dr Khalifa said: "A very nice comment that I can recollect is from a parent who said it did not matter what language they spoke, it would never weaken their national identity."
The survey showed that 86 parents noticed an improvement in their child's English-language proficiency, and revealed that the majority of the students enjoyed learning in English.
The students' progress and proficiency in their mother tongue and English was also assessed through classroom observations at eight government schools operated by the British education trust, CfBT, under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) programme.
“The responses indicated that many students are beginning to operate in a rich bilingual environment and feel comfortable undertaking substantial activities in both languages,” said Dr Khalifa.
Parents and principals were asked if the teaching of science and mathematics in English adversely affected the students’ progress in Arabic, or their national identity. The majority said they were not connected.
The Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) began introducing bilingual education in public schools with the PPP programme in 2006, with the pilot project gradually expanding until 2009. The students surveyed had been learning in English from three to five years.
In September, the council introduced the New School Model, an initiative that teaches primary school pupils Arabic and English simultaneously. The aim was to better prepare students for university, where courses were taught in English.
The monolingual approach to education has proven to be damaging, with more than 95 per cent of students enrolling for remedial foundation programmes that take up to two years after high school.
When education reform began in Abu Dhabi, there were doubts whether these changes were compatible with Arab culture, said Michael Gibbs, the programme director for CfBT-operated public schools in the capital.
“At that time we had to explain to parents and educators that these initiatives promoted best practices and that teaching in a certain way and language had nothing to do with the culture,” he said.
More than 90 per cent of students in the study said they read Arabic literature, while 80 per cent said they had begun reading English books frequently.
And although both English and Arabic are used after school, the survey found the native language still dominated the home setting.
“Also in the rural areas, English is not used too much,” said Dr Khalifa.
The transition from teaching subjects like maths and science in Arabic to English, which was only being taught to students as a second language, did not come easy, said Reem Alhashimi, a Grade 7 maths teacher at the Al Yarmook School.
“It was tough for the students and for some it still is,” she said. “But for the ones who have difficulty we translate it into Arabic first, and once they understand the concepts we then start introducing them to English.”
Ms Alhashimi, who used games and other devices to teach students mental maths, said teaching in Arabic also had limitations.
“There were very few Arabic resources to teach with, and now we can have more puzzles and games,” she said.
Maryam Beljfla, an Emirati mother whose daughter attends a public school and is taught science in English, said both languages were equally important.
“English is necessary for academics and profession but one cannot ignore the Arabic language,” she said. “It does not have to be a choice either.
“While the school needs to prepare students for careers, it is the parents responsibility to ensure the heritage and culture is maintained.”
The family communicated in Arabic at home and watched regional shows together.
“My mother also appointed a tutor to improve our classical Arabic,” said Mrs Beljfla’s teenage daughter, Hind. “So they do ensure we are connected to our roots.”