x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How early language education can colour your vision of the world

Childhood immersion in another language can lead to seeing life, and your own country, from a different perspective.

I had a head start on my education, in the early Eighties. My father moved our then very small family from Abu Dhabi to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he settled to study to be a general surgeon. I remember being led through an ordinary primary school with my parents and the teacher - Mrs Cameron - introducing me to the concept of a dot as some children were painting shapes.

Back then, I knew little English. Fast forward a bit and my paternal grandmother had joined us. We would sit at lunch and chat and I had to race to the kitchen to ask my mother to translate my answers into Arabic, which I then raced back to pronounce. "You asked your mother, didn't you?" she would say.

When the internet was still in its infancy - way back in 1995 - I was an anime-obsessed youngster. I used to print out summaries of my favourite shows - all in English, naturally - and sit with a worn, black English-Arabic dictionary that was printed in the Seventies. I would circle words I didn't know (I distinctly remember "acquaintance") and then look them up and scribble the Arabic words accordingly.

This provided endless educational entertainment. English was the language of the internet and I wanted to make the most of it, especially once I'd returned to live in the UAE. I would take a break from studying and relax when the double days of English exams were scheduled, given my proficiency.

Obviously, not everyone in the Emirates has had my head start, and that includes my son, who will turn four in June. We have scoured endless private schools in which to enrol him, with little luck. The schools are full and the mostly British staff seemed a tad sceptical when this hugely pregnant woman in an abaya and sheila walked in with her khandura-and-ghutra-wearing husband. As we were told registrations were closed and we would be put on the waiting list, we couldn't help but wonder if "closed registration" was code for turning away a student they might perceive as "difficult", not knowing he was being raised by bilingual parents. I felt I should speak up and surprise the school administrators with my "elite" command of English. Perhaps they would take me more seriously then. But no. I mostly kept silent while my husband did the talking because I hate to think I need to resort to that kind of desperation in my own country.

My mother told me recently that she used to feel self-conscious because she was not college-educated. These feelings were shared by an acquaintance of hers who felt she couldn't leave her house for lack of self-confidence. Does this mostly happen to Emirati and/or Arab women? Of course not. You need only to do a few internet searches to see how ubiquitous the issue of self-esteem is for the modern woman in general, all over the world.

It's a strange time to be Emirati when even the language of communication here is often not Arabic. Perhaps identity stabilisation is just a pipe dream because culture is an ever-changing thing, liquidising itself generation after generation. Being a minority in our own country, we Emiratis are struggling with our identity, and this is a hot topic on internet forums.

Still, while I want my son to be able to integrate into a rich and multicultural society, I also want for him to be able to identify proudly as an Emirati citizen and keep his head high whatever the future brings.

Iman Ali is an Emirati graduate in English Literature from Zayed University. Raised in Scotland, she again lives in Abu Dhabi, where she is writing The Great Emirati Novel.