x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Balance Arabic and English curriculum

There is common sense of both sides of the debate about the language of instruction in science and maths in the UAE.

Maths, so the expression runs, is the universal language. But in whose language should students be taught this universal one? The question is pertinent because, as The National reports today, 82 per cent of parents surveyed want their children to be taught maths and science in Arabic. Since 2010, public schools in Abu Dhabi have taught these subjects in English, citing the importance of preparing students for university.

There are two important components to this. The first is the preparedness of students for higher education. A great deal of scientific literature is published in English and those who seek higher education abroad will need to understand the language at a high standard.

The second component is bilingualism. It is important that students whose mother tongue is Arabic learn English from an early age. For better or for worse, English is the international language.

There is a lively debate on the issue in the Arab world. When the University of Hadhramout, one of the Yemen's leading science and technology institutions, changed its teaching language from English to Arabic last year, it sparked disagreements. Graduates who studied in English were more employable by international companies, but the university felt the identity of students would be better served by studying in Arabic.

This is also the view in Syria, where all public schools and universities teach exclusively in Arabic. But there is a downside to this attempt to hold on to Arabic as a major scientific language: today, when young Syrian refugees find themselves in Lebanon, they are unable to follow the classes taught in English or French.

The importance of Arab scholarship in the sciences and mathematics cannot be overestimated: without the decimal fractions and algebra that Arab intellectuals developed, modern science would be impossible. Yet education must also prepare students for the real world.

Schools should consider Arabic-language maths and science classes at an early age so pupils can grasp the fundamentals, but this must be accompanied by strong English-language tuition.

For younger pupils who are more fluent in Arabic, lessons in that language will help to impart the essential basic lessons that everyone needs to know. Not everyone will be a mathmetician or a scientist - but those who have that aspiration will have to study in English at higher levels.