Bilingual education crucial for the UAE

Instruction should be given in both Arabic and English, and both languages should be learnt from a young age.

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Our globalised world has one overriding rule of communication: speak in English. In the cosmopolitan society of the UAE, English is often used in many aspects of daily life, and particularly in education and business.

That could give young people who are educated in this county a competitive edge, fluent in the language of globalisation. The cost, however, must be considered. Arabic – and indeed the Emirati dialect – are integral to the culture and tradition of the country. Many students are more comfortable speaking and writing English than Arabic. The loss of the mother tongue threatens an irreparable rupture with the national character and history.

As The National reports today, FNC members are calling for laws that would make instruction in Arabic compulsory for government universities. Jamal bin Huwaireb, cultural consultant for the Dubai Government, recently launched a similar Twitter campaign calling on authorities to use Arabic as the main medium of teaching, and the idea has caught fire.

These concerns are clearly present in society. Parents have repeatedly called on education authorities to give more attention to Arabic at every level of education. In a questionnaire sent out by the Abu Dhabi Education Council in 2011, 82 per cent of parents said they would prefer their children to learn maths and science in Arabic.

What would be the consequences for students who are seeking jobs after graduation? Most workplaces require employees to have competent English skills as one of the main criteria for hiring. And some subjects, including science and maths, have to be taught in English at advanced levels. Many secondary school graduates are held back a year – or more – because they have to take remedial English-language courses to catch up with their peers.

There should be courses available for students who want to pursue a higher education in an Arabic-language curriculum. But equally so, students should have the option of English-language courses to better prepare them for international careers in a fast-changing world. A ban on either form of instruction would only be an unnecessary barrier.

There is every reason for students to learn both languages. Real bilingual education starts with immersion as a child. The focus should be on nursery and primary schools, not universities.