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Arabic is precious, but the English language is essential

While preserving their own heritage, Emiratis must be able to communicate in the world's language.

Recently, I was thinking back to the early days of the UAE's development and I remembered something my father told me about it being his dream, and the dream of his colleagues, to gain proficiency in English.

This was the language of success, he would say; the language that would open the doors of opportunity to a place where possibilities were endless, and a future of prosperity could be created.

Fast-forward to 2013 and things have not changed much. If you want to be successful in the United Arab Emirates, or pretty much anywhere in the world for that matter, you must have a solid working knowledge of the English language.

To hook success on the ability to speak a specific language rather than intellectual capability is just plain wrong, but this is the reality of the world we live in. And this is why I have several concerns about the call from the Federal National Council for Arabic to be the primary language of education in UAE schools.

Now, let me state a few things from the get-go. Do I believe Arabic is critical to the UAE as a country? Absolutely. Do I believe that it should be a major part of children's education? Definitely.

The Arabic language is the tool we use to communicate across time and generations; it is how we read about our history; how we understand the intellectual virtuosity of our ancestors; and how we open our hearts to the vast array of arts and poetry that infuse the Islamic and Arabic world.

Having said that, do I believe that Arabic education should come at the expense of the English language? No. Well, at least not yet.

My primary reason for this is the fact that the current higher education and employment ecosystem within the UAE would not be able to incorporate students who speak only Arabic.

When you take a look at nearly every major university across the UAE, the admission processes all require some form of standardised test which is given in English. There is also a mandatory test to ensure proficiency in English, usually in the form of a TOEFL or IELTS examination.

Meeting these requirements is a daunting task for graduates of government high schools who have only taken Arabic, or have very little English.

When these students do make it to university, they struggle in their first year, and the university has to implement foundation programmes to bring all students up to the standards required for academic proficiency.

This could easily be viewed as a waste of time and resources for students, faculty and the universities. It creates a bottleneck in the academic system, where if the students had been better prepared for the English requirements they would have breezed through their college careers.

The alternative is to also mandate that universities switch to a full Arabic curriculum to ensure compliancy with article 7 of the constitution as argued by the FNC.

If we do that, would the job market, public and private alike, be able to place Arabic speakers alongside people with no working knowledge of the Arabic language? I highly doubt it. Every government investment and business-related entity requires an English test during the recruitment process. The private sector requires English speakers because English is their language of operation.

So what are those who speak only Arabic to do? There are government and media roles that implement the Arabic language absolutely, but the government can only employ so many people.

With the push to incorporate more Emiratis into the private sector, English will still be a priority.

The Arabic language is precious, and with globalisation, we must hold on to it. Our children must learn it thoroughly, as it is one of the factors that differentiates us from the rest of the world, that allows us to remember who we are and shape who we will be going forward.

However, if we are to continue to empower the citizens of the UAE, it must be through the English language.

English is a global language that cuts across cultural barriers, and we need that now more than ever. Even though brilliance speaks every language in the world, the world speaks only one.


Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati social commentator

On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri

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