Is English-language Education with Foreign Experts Really Best?

Instead of a (deserved) celebration of the newly released longlist for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, I found two pieces about Emirati education policy out today: From The National, “Being taught in English ‘undermines local identity‘” and, from Gulf News, “Emphasis on foreign languages does not contradict UAE policies.”

The debate has implications not just for the Emirates, but for much of the Arabic-speaking world. As Shaymaa el-Gammal notes in this blog post about Al-Balsam Bookstore:

“… التي تصر ‘بلسم’ أن تكون لها الأولوية في المكتبة حتى أنها خصصت لها الدور الاكبر بأكمله وذلك بعد أن لاحظت أن المدارس الدولية أصبحت تهمل اللغة العربية وتفتخر بتعليم اللغات الأجنبية فقط.”

The Egyptian government is not likely to put foreign experts in charge of public schools any time soon (although the system does bear the marks of British rule). But the private sector, rife with language schools, mostly ignores Arabic instruction in favor of English and French. And, at the upper echelons, with teachers and administrators imported from Britain, France, Canada, and the U.S.

According to Gulf News, Minister of Higher Education Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan said that the emphasis given foreign languages in UAE schools “does not contradict with our universities and colleges being genuine national institutions.”

One can debate the idea of “national.” (Language is always changing; India and Nigeria have their own “national Englishes”; and so on.) What interests me most is not nationalism, but what will give all children the best education for the development of both themselves and their communities.

Neither would I want education to be “free from foreign influence,” as some have suggested in the debate. If it were possible for nations to become completely insular, it would be a dull world indeed, filled with (even more) misunderstandings.

But I do agree with Dr Mariam Sultan Lootah, assistant professor of political science at the UAE University, that “development cannot be imported from abroad.”

Indeed, the last hundred years or so of “development” has shown us that pretty convincingly.

The arguments evinced by surgeon Atul Gawande in his second book, Better, apply here. When do health situations improve? Not when an outside solution is imposed, even if it’s the “right” one (i.e., all doctors should wash their hands). Instead, it’s when the nurses or mothers or doctors who need to change their behaviors are asked what they think and are allowed time and space to develop a plan.

Indeed, the piece in The National notes:

Vision 2020…reforms had to be scrapped because it did not resonate with the local teachers, who felt they were being forced into accepting methods created by foreigners.

You could say those teachers were being conservative and stubborn. But maybe those teachers were also right.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mariam argues: “…the native language Arabic should be given priority as a medium of instruction and not just the language of heritage and culture.”

The UAE’s case is interesting, because potentially all students could learn in English, turning Arabic into a “heritage” language.  I am not Emirati, and these choices are not my choices. But certainly, I believe that if Arabic is no longer a language of instruction then it will no longer be a language of culture, either.

Tomorrow, back to books!

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