Arabic language dilemma mounts in the UAE education sector

02 November 2010

As the education system in the region adapts to the demands of the modern economy, the debate over the use of Arabic as the main teaching language in the UAE is heating up

Key UAE education fact

Huge efforts were made to reshape education in the 1990s; from 2000 onwards, the focus was on the labour market’s needs

Source: MEED

When a country grows as fast as the UAE has been in recent years, public services come under intense pressure to expand and adapt to evolving needs – and in few sectors is this challenge greater than in education.

Schools, colleges and universities must provide ever more student places, while simultaneously responding to the sometimes conflicting cultural and economic demands of a society experiencing rapid and massive change. These dilemmas are epitomised by the increasingly vocal debate over the use or non-use of Arabic in schools and universities.

If the rumour to cancel Arabic is right, this will create havoc. Nobody would buy it. I think it would be a crisis

Jamal Sanad al-Suwaidi, ECSSR

“We need to use our Arabic language as the main language; English should be a supporting language and the main focus of education policy should be local,” Hessa Abdullah Lootah of the UAE University told the first annual conference on education organised by the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) in Abu Dhabi in October.

Arabic-language teaching in the UAE

It is now official policy to teach all courses at the UAE University in Al-Ain in English. But some Emirati academics question the value of the policy. They feel that in subjects that deal with ideas or cultural nuances this impedes students’ ability to fully comprehend and debate.

Karima Mattar al-Mazroui, from the education college at the UAE University, uses the example of Switzerland, Israel and Canada, where pupils study two languages throughout their academic careers and bilingualism works well.

She argues that the spreading use of English in schools – sometimes even in kindergarten – can leave children with a poor command of Arabic because they only use the language in informal situations.

Moreover, when students study in their own language they have a better understanding of the subject, particularly once they reach secondary level and have to tackle abstract concepts.

“Studies show that students that use their native language have lower drop out rates and do better in academic terms,” Al-Mazroui told the conference. “Are teachers supposed to be teaching English or the content of the course? Are the teachers qualified to teach in languages other than their own?”

The issue arouses strong feelings. “If the rumour to cancel Arabic is right, this will create havoc. Nobody would buy it; I think it would be a crisis,” says Jamal Sanad al-Suwaidi, ECSSR director general. “But this is only a rumour, I think. Abu Dhabi and Dubai have a responsibility to go to the media and explain what they are doing.”

Sheikh Nahyan Mubarak al-Nahyan, UAE Minister for Higher Education, supports the promotion of English at university level to equip Emiratis for a competitive jobs market.

“We will not go back to making university more Arabic,” he tells MEED.

But the issue is a sensitive one because it touches on wider concerns among many Emiratis that the drive to adapt their education system to the demands of the modern economy could jeopardise its core relationship with indigenous culture.

“Our problem with the new generation actually is that globalisation has entered our nations, has been imported, without being well prepared,” says Abdullah al-Suwaiji, chairman of the Sharjah Education Council.

The UAE’s education policy has moved from the post-independence focus on essentials such as literacy, first to a stronger emphasis on Arab and Islamic identity, and then to meeting the needs of the modern labour market. “In the 1990s, huge efforts were made to reshape education and from 2000 onwards the labour market focus became even stronger,” said Lootah. “But this meant that students did not focus on their identity and the meaning of the nation.”

Formulating education policy in the UAE

Lootah does not deny the value of outside skills, but is concerned about the degree to which education policy is shaped by foreign experts rather than locals, whose self-confidence is thus undermined. “We can build from within – learning from external experiences,” she says.

Some educationalists also worry that the current focus on teaching for the technical demands of the workplace could leave the UAE with a narrowly focused pool of talent.

Private universities tend to concentrate on courses that meet short-term job market demand, leaving a small number of public universities to shoulder the burden of teaching arts and pure science subjects.

It is against the background of these cultural debates that planners must wrestle with the intensely practical demands of day-to-day curriculum design and school provision.

But while the challenges faced by the UAE are complex, the country also has strong assets in its favour. It has the financial resources to invest in facilities, technology, staffing and outside expertise. Its federal system creates a convenient framework for testing out new approaches in individual emirates.

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