x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Bilingualism is not a zero-sum game

Arabic or English? Fortunately those are not the only choices; bilingual graduates with sound intercultural skills are the option that should be pursued.

Arabic, or English? That short question, being asked frequently in the UAE and across the region, is far from simple. Language is among the most basic elements of culture and identity, for individuals and for whole societies.

In this country, where only a minority of residents have Arabic as a first language, the question seems to some people to be increasingly acute. As The National reported last week, some academics are warning that foreign-based universities operating in the UAE are insufficiently focused on Arabic language and culture.

This is "intellectual imperialism", says Dr Eugenie Samier of the British University in Dubai. She and others warn that core values of Arabic culture are too often absent from university curricula, and warn that cultural security is endangered when local norms are sidelined.

It's a legitimate concern, echoed by many in a country that is at once Arab in origin and global in outlook and demography. But a full understanding of the issue begins by acknowledging that this is not what game theorists call a zero-sum game. That is, Arabic language and culture need not win or lose at the expense of English, or vice versa.

Dr Samier, first educated in Canada, has also worked and lectured at several academic institutions in northeastern Europe. In these parts of the world existential questions of language, nationality and culture are everyday issues. And in many such places, bilingualism and biculturalism have stimulated both social vitality and economic prosperity.

This is, in fact, already the reality in the UAE. One month ago The National reported that UAE employers prefer to hire Emiratis, and others, who have studied at universities abroad. And last week we reported on another study saying that the first attribute employers look for, when hiring graduates, is an intercultural skill set.

Still, there is a legitimate lingering concern, in many families, that Arabic language and culture will atrophy under the onslaught of English. The first line of defence here must be parents and grandparents: as the guardians of culture and as role models to their children, they are ideally positioned to inculcate respect for traditional culture. Schools, including universities, can do somewhat more to build a bridge between cultures. Finally, a requirement for truly fluent Arabic as a condition of government employment, with some exceptions, would be a powerful tool.