x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bilingualism is an advantage to be embraced

'The conception of Arab identity as being primarily linguistic lends itself to several criticisms.' This observation may seem self-evident, given the many elements that make up nationhood, from the social and cultural, to the ethnic and geographic.

'The conception of Arab identity as being primarily linguistic lends itself to several criticisms." This observation, made by the Georgetown University sociologist Dr Halim Barakat in 1993, may seem self-evident, given the many elements that make up nationhood - from the social and cultural, to the ethnic and geographic.

And yet, debates over language's place in shaping the Arab self are often laden with emotion. Nowhere is this debate more heated than over the English language's growing role in the Arab world. As The National has reported with increasing regularity, many hold a concern that the creep of English into UAE life is eroding the identity of Emirati youth.

But the perception may be changing. As we reported this week, a recent survey of hundreds of pupils and their parents found that a majority do not believe that teaching English to Arab students undermines a child's national identity. "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," said Dr Hanan Khalifa of the University of Cambridge, who conducted the study.

As Dr Barakat noted, it's simplistic to suggest that Arab identity is shaped by language alone. But more significantly, those who argue against teaching Arab students further in English are turning their backs to a strong global shift. English remains the most international of languages and integral to success in fields from engineering to business.

Students in the Middle East may "think and dream in English", as one Egyptian student said not long ago. But offering an international education doesn't have to come at the expense of culture and history. Rather, increasing the number of students with a command of both languages is proof of a country's progress.

A genuinely bilingual student stands to gain significant advantages over contemporaries in education and later in the employment field. Also, Emiratis continue to hold on to their identity through varied means, such as national dress and religion. To suggest this ability is undermined by an education complete with strong English instruction is to miss a key element of progress.

Perhaps the bigger challenge for the UAE going forward is ensuring that expatriates share in the progress of Emirati students, spending as much time with Arabic students and striving to learn the local language and culture.

The prevalence of western culture, television programmes and increasing reliance by parents on foreign nannies, have variously been blamed for the dilution of the Arabic language and, by extension, culture. Education, as ever, can redress the balance.