Arabic must be the focus in pursuit of 'true' bilingualism
Recent articles in The National have discussed and debated the role of English in the UAE, and highlighted concerns with the place of Arabic in this diverse nation. Government officials say they hope to implement bilingual education earlier to help students improve their English language proficiency, and ease their transitions into universities where English is typically the language of instruction.
The idea of bilingual education is sound in principle. However, any language policy promoting bilingualism must be well thought out. It is important that language policies introducing bilingual education be done with an intensely balanced emphasis on both languages. True bilingualism can be achieved, but the method of instruction, and the attention and status each language receives in the classroom, matters. Simply introducing a new language earlier in a child's education is not necessarily the best way to attain a multilingual population.
No one disagrees that English is today's lingua franca; it is a global language that most people require in order to get ahead. Yet for children and students to gain a strong balance between their languages they must first have a very firm grasp of their mother tongue at an early age.
With Arabic in the UAE, this is not always the case.
Research has shown that students who are taught core subjects, like maths and sciences, in their native language understand the material better and become stronger communicators. Take the example of Finland, which has the highest literacy rate in Europe but whose children do not start learning English until they are seven or eight years old. English in Finland is taught as a foreign language, not a second language.
In the UAE there is the further notion that native speakers of English are best suited to teach the language. But there are many well-trained English language teachers here who are native speakers of Arabic and fluent in English. Unfortunately, they are often overlooked in favour of native speakers of English. This is an out-dated notion that has been discarded by most scholars.
When it is said that parents want their children to learn English, one has to ask how the parents were consulted. Do parents really have any option? The combination of the language policies of the country, the fact that English is the medium of instruction in higher education, and the fact that they see English as a pathway to success, all lead parents to seek out the best for their children.
One must also question if parents are aware of possible detrimental effects of English at such an early age. If students are over-exposed to English and its colourful books and exciting methodologies, their interest in Arabic can be diminished. Certainly, people will continue to speak Arabic, but fluent classical or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) will become a language of the past.
The book Global English and Arabic: Issues of Language, Culture and Identity marks the latest warning regarding the status of Arabic. Researchers from the Arab world and beyond report growing apprehension over the role of Arabic in the Arab world generally, and in the Gulf and UAE specifically.
To be sure, there will always be those who stand firm in their belief that classical Arabic will never be reduced or lost in the Arab world due to its central role in Islam and being the language of the Quran. However, no matter how hard they attempt to make their case it does not stand up to serious scrutiny. If we view language as a standard bearer of identity, then the gradual loss of Arabic in the UAE is a serious problem in need of immediate attention.
There is hope that the roots of Arab linguistic history can be salvaged. But language policy needs to be well thought out; linguists and specialists from the UAE and surrounding Arab nations need to be involved in crafting smarter ways of incorporating Arabic instruction into our classrooms . This is not a job for foreign consultants alone. Our pupils need to know as many languages as they can or desire, but it should not be at the expense of their mother tongue.
Much as identity characterises people, native languages are of great importance in defining people. For the Emirati identity to remain strong, Arabic proficiency must be maintained.
Ahmad Al-Issa is an associate professor of English and linguistics at the American University of Sharjah
Updated: February 9, 2012 04:00 AM