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How Teaching in English Divides the Arab World

This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle.

When Sameh Hamdy applied for his first job after college, with an Egyptian telecommunications company, he was interviewed in English.

Mr. Hamdy had graduated from a well-regarded engineering program at Cairo University that is taught largely in English. While he says he learned only technical expressions, they were enough to succeed in that first interview. Today he works as a senior network engineer for Cisco, in North Carolina.

“Learning Arabic, as an engineer, doesn’t add much,” says Mr. Hamdy. “But learning English adds a lot. To get into a good multinational company, for sure it’s useful.”

That sentiment is driving major changes in higher education in the Arab world. New private colleges that teach in English are popping up, while public universities have made English the language of instruction for certain fields — particularly scientific ones — or sometimes on the whole campus.

But the enthusiasm for English isn’t universal. Skeptics note that switching to English does not solve all the underlying problems of troubled educational systems. Some see the turn away from their native language as a threat to Arab identity. Others worry that English-language education exacerbates the divide between the haves and have-nots. For a small minority of graduates, like Mr. Hamdy, English is the gateway to the global economy. But millions more are left behind.

“English is a divider but also a dream,” says Deena Boraie, dean of the School of Continuing Education at the American University in Cairo.

The hopes and misgivings about the spread of English in the Arab world illustrate the tensions that surround the world’s most widespread lingua franca. Even universities in the United States have something to lose, says Rosemary C. Salomone, a professor of law at St. John’s University, in New York, who is writing a book about the spread of global English. The complacent belief that the whole world speaks English leads to less study of foreign languages and less curiosity about the rest of the world.

The English language is “washing over the world,” says Ms. Salomone. Many countries fear an “erasure of [their] culture and loss of global status.”

In the small, oil-wealthy emirates of the Persian Gulf, where most of the population is made up of expatriate workers, English is already the most commonly used language. But its predominance is a source of anxiety among locals. If English is the language of the future, they wonder, does that mean Arabic is already part of the past?

Governments in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have promoted teaching in English as part of their efforts to modernize. They subsidize branches of American universities and have made English the language of instruction at national universities. Such changes, however, can be contentious.

‘A Way of Thinking’

Qatar University is a prime example. Teaching in English was one of the reforms introduced here by Sheikha Abdulla Al Misnad, the institution’s president since 2003. “I look at English not as a language, but as a skill,” she says. “It’s like how you need to learn to use the computer, the Internet. But most people look at English as a whole mechanism, a system of values, a way of thinking.”

The conversion to English was not easy for many students, whose secondary-school education is in Arabic. To get into Qatar University, they had to pass an entrance examination or enroll in an English-foundation program. These hurdles have led to complaints, and to a debate over whether a national university should teach in a foreign language.

In 2012 the country’s Supreme Education Council unexpectedly decreed that Arabic would become Qatar University’s “official teaching language,” and that the faculties of law, international affairs, mass communication, and management would shift to teaching in Arabic. Other faculties, such as engineering, were allowed to continue to teach in English.

Ms. Al Misnad acknowledges that the English requirement was a barrier to some Qatari students. Enrollment at the university almost doubled, to over 10,000, after it was lifted. But Qataris must come to terms with English’s role in the world, she argues: “Just like when the Arab civilization was at its highest, Europeans used to come to learn Arabic because most knowledge, science, and human history was written in Arabic.”

The university still requires that students take several English-language classes to graduate, she notes.

“Ideally our students will be bilingual,” says Morgan Dollman, director of the university’s Student Learning Support Center. At the learning center, one tutor, Safia Zaroog, tells fellow students who complain about learning English, “You should learn it — even if not for university, you need it for life.”

But Dima Ali Alrawashdeh, another tutor, says the university’s switch back to Arabic makes sense: “Maybe English is the modern language, but at the end of the day Arabic is our language.”

A similar debate has taken place in the United Arab Emirates, where some officials at Zayed University have insisted that “Arabic has to come first,” says Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropologist who teaches there. For now the language of instruction at the national university is English.

“A lot of this back-and-forth on the language is a nod toward traditional ideas, conservatism,” she says. “Not everyone is happy with how fast these Gulf countries have developed. People don’t want to feel that there’s nothing left that’s purely Emirati.”

‘Promise of a Better Life’

In other parts of the Arab world, the concern is not that English threatens identity but that it deepens inequality. In Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, English has been part of the school curriculum for years. But the quality of public education is so poor that students don’t acquire any proficiency.

“Egyptians are dying to learn English,” says Ms. Boraie, who as head of continuing education at the American University in Cairo sees many students who want to enroll in English classes. “It’s a promise of a better life.”

At Egyptian universities, as in most Arab countries, Islamic studies, social sciences, and humanities are taught in Arabic. The sciences, medicine, and engineering — the most prized degrees — are taught in English.

In reality, the engineering classes that Mr. Hamdy attended at Cairo University, he says, were conducted in a mix of English and Arabic. “People were coming from all the schools in Egypt and were not very good in English. There were a hundred or more students in a lecture hall. The professors wanted to make sure that everyone understood.”

With public education unable to guarantee fluency in English, private schools and colleges have proliferated in Egypt, with one of their main selling points that they teach in English. But not many families can afford to send their children there. The schools cost $4,000 to $5,000 a year, in a country where the minimum wage is less than $200 a month.

Nour Youssef just graduated from one such college with a degree in journalism. For many young people in the Middle East, English represents a “cooler, better culture,” she says. “People ask, ‘What are you going to do with Arabic anyway? English is what matters, English is the future.’ ”

‘English Can be Elitist’

The devaluation of one’s native tongue — socially and on the job market — is bound to create resentment. Economic inequality and the lack of opportunities for young people was a primary factor behind the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in 2011. Today the country’s economy remains weak, and unemployment is particularly high among university graduates.

“English can be elitist,” Ms. Boraie says. “Those who can afford it will be able to learn it and get the better jobs. It’s a human-rights, an equity issue.”

While the spread of English has unsettled much of the region, there are Arab countries where it is embraced as a new way forward. Morocco went through debates on language and identity decades ago, upon gaining independence from France.

“It was a struggle between people calling for identity and authenticity and other people calling for modernity,” says Driss Ouaouicha, president of the University of Al Akhawayn, which was created by the Moroccan government and modeled on American liberal-arts colleges, with classes in English. The country’s educational system ended up split between Arabic and French, satisfying no one.

English seems to offer a fresh start, he says. “An advantage of English in our particular context is that it’s not associated with the colonizer,” says Mr. Ouaouicha. “We don’t have bitter memories. There’s no bad blood, bad history.”

Last fall Lahcen Daoudi, minister of higher education and scientific research, called for new faculty hires at Moroccan universities to be proficient in English. In January, the Supreme Council for Education recommended that English be adopted as the country’s first “strategic” teaching language after Arabic.

But such a major shift requires resources and preparation. Ms. Salomone, the professor writing about global English, warns universities not to be “too eager to move into English without laying the foundation for it.” She says too often universities that want to switch to English are “not mindful of what’s happening in the classroom: Faculty are struggling to teach in English, students are struggling to learn in it, and the conversation is reduced to the lowest common denominator.”

Despite calls for a more cautious embrace, however, the demand for English by students, universities, and governments will likely only grow, she admits.

Moncef Lahlou, director of the Language Centre at Al Akhawayn, doesn’t see that as entirely a bad thing. English is poised to be the world’s first universal language, he says, and it won’t be tied to one country or culture. “English,” he says, “doesn’t belong to you guys anymore.”


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