Children must know their mother tongue

Schol pupils practise writing in Arabic. Antonie Robertson / The National
Schol pupils practise writing in Arabic. Antonie Robertson / The National

Reports that Arabic is at risk of becoming a foreign language are both disturbing and a call to action. But the circumstances that have created this situation are many, so there will be no quick fix. Part of the problem is the unique situation of Emiratis being a minority in their own country. We grow up with English all around us – including from domestic staff in our homes, as well as on television and through video games and popular computer apps. By the time our children get to school, they may be approaching fluency in a language that is not their own. But this would be fine if they knew the language of their forebears.

Addressing the problem requires a multi-pronged approach that involves homes, schools and workplaces. As with most things to do with rearing children, it must start with the parents. The mother tongue must be the most commonly spoken language in the family home. Even if parents work and socialise in an English-language environment, they must take the time and make the effort to speak to their children in Arabic. They should also make sure that their children have access to good quality and appealing Arabic-language storybooks, games, websites and television programmes. And our children must have regular contact with grandparents and other fluent Arabic speakers.

Next, it is the responsibility of schools to emphasise written and spoken Arabic, particularly in the early learning stage. Studies by ­Unesco have shown that children who master their native tongue first achieve better academic results and are more easily able to learn, and study in, other languages in later life. There is no reason that our schools cannot ensure that teachers are primed to instruct in Arabic in a way that promotes a lifelong love of the language. Of course, for this they would need the appropriate teaching resources – from books to apps – and it goes without saying that these must be up-to-date, relevant and engaging. Last but not least, tertiary institutions and workplaces should also encourage the use of Arabic where possible.

While there is no doubt that proficiency in English is important, it should not come at the cost of Arabic. Language is a connection to culture. We have seen great change in our country over the past four decades and must be vigilant to ensure that Arabic is not swept aside in the rush to modernise and compete internationally.

Published: March 2, 2015 04:00 AM

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