A multilingual nation, where Arabic is not the victim
Casual onlookers may have failed to notice that some recent National Day displays featured English greetings more prominently than Arabic messages. In many ways that's not surprising. We are getting used to the idea that the UAE is bilingual, and that English is the lingua franca that unites us to a much greater extent than Arabic does.
The rise of English in health care, business and education has been astounding. But at times, colleges and schools are sacrificing content mastery in different topics so that instruction can be conducted in English, even in situations where students and teachers don't have the necessary language proficiency or interest in language instruction.
Education administrators want to maximise the number of opportunities that students have to develop their English, but Arabic proficiency is suffering as a result.
There is an upside: English is spoken today more than ever. Secondary students in Abu Dhabi take English for two periods per day. And of course, many expatriates are pleased with these developments and feel more at home in a place where English is so widely used.
However, this trend also has a downside: Arabic is playing an increasingly smaller role in social, cultural, economic and political communication. In truth, while English-only speakers are eligible to lead major companies and institutions in the UAE, Arabic monolinguals risk being stereotyped as uneducated. Which would you rather be?
The incessant but uneven spread of English as a second language was accurately described last year in a report by Education First, called the English Proficiency Index. The Education First company offered free online tests to more than 2 million adults worldwide and used those results to calculate a score for the overall level of English proficiency.
Not surprisingly, the countries that have had the greatest success in English have been those with high levels of development, education and business. In particular, the countries between Holland and Finland stood out because they attained superior English skills without losing their competence in native or regional languages.
Saudi Arabia was the only Arab country which had a sufficient number of adults volunteering to take the test. While such sampling methods are inherently not very scientific, valuable data can gleaned.
As a whole, Saudi Arabia achieved a rating of "Low Proficiency" but their overall score put them level with Taiwan, Spain and Italy. English has gained a secure foothold in Saudi Arabia but it hasn't threatened the use of Arabic as it has here. When I visited Saudi Arabia two years ago, I actually felt that my limited Arabic was a disadvantage, something I've never experienced in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
The Education First report wisely noted that policy changes in education take decades to bear fruit in general social discourse, and starting English in first grade is not a guarantee of high levels of ultimate achievement. Local educators may be tempted to take credit for gradual improvements in the level of English here, but global trends might be equally responsible.
In the end, embracing bilingualism requires more inclusive policies than we currently find in local institutions. If trends continue, Arabic could become endangered in this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, despite its enviable distinction as being one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
Many nations have learned to celebrate their multilingualism in ways that affirm native tongues rather than suppress them. Unfortunately, our eagerness to boost English locally has created systems and networks which have devalued Arabic in ways that could have serious long-term consequences for linguistic and cultural diversity.
The role of Arabic in social discourse deserves to be secured before the forces of globalisation threaten it further. Without more support, Arabic could become merely a language of religion, history and folklore.
Europe's lessons in multilingualism prove that two or three national languages can be supported without disadvantaging those who would rather not use the lingua franca.
Christopher Morrow is an Assistant Professor of English Language Education at UAE University in Al Ain
Updated: January 9, 2012 04:00 AM