Imagine being surrounded by people speaking a language you can hardly comprehend. They laugh, joke and ask you the occasional question. In response you just politely nod and allow an ambiguous expression to dance across your confused face – a grimace that could equally mean yes, no or maybe. The people surrounding you are not strangers or visitors from a foreign land, they are your blood relatives, your kith and kin, your extended family. Your mother tongue, however, has deserted you.
The idea that Arabic language proficiency has been declining among a certain section of Emirati youth has been widely reported in recent years. The proposed causes are many, one being the increased emphasis on English within the education system. Another is the increased dependence on non-Arabic speaking domestic workers, giving rise to the urban legend of Emirati infants unable to speak Arabic, but fluent in Tagalog or Malayalam.
This situation has encouraged to well-intentioned initiatives aimed at identifying root causes and proposing solutions. A conference in Abu Dhabi in 2012 called Challenges in Learning Arabic Language in the 21st Century posed the following question: why do Arab students grow up and graduate with poor knowledge of their own mother tongue? The short answer was: because of poor Arabic language curricula and poor Arabic-language teaching. The proposed solutions called for better training for Arabic teachers, and the modernisation and reinvigoration of curricular materials and teaching methods.
Another remedial initiative was the Watani summer camp that focused on Arabic language, Islamic heritage and UAE history. These camps began in 2005 as part of a broader strategic plan to establish the UAE as a global centre of excellence for the Arabic language. The Watani programme made a clear link between national identity and the Arabic language, viewing the latter as a tool to ensure future generations can connect with the UAE’s heritage and values.
In addition to heritage and values, however, our own recent research, published in 2016 in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, suggests that the preservation and promotion of Arabic among young Emiratis might actually also help protect against the development of psychological disorders.
Our research (several studies) has shown that low levels of Arabic language proficiency, relative to English, are associated with decreased self-esteem, higher levels of paranoia (persecutory ideation), greater eating-disorder symptoms and lower levels of psychological well-being in general. So, is English bad for you? Of course not.
Language is often the foundation stone of cultural identity. Whether I’m accepted or rejected as a member of the in-crowd might come down to something as simple as my dialect or accent.
Research in social psychology has repeatedly shown that having a sense of belonging to a group that one views positively, seems to protect people from low self-esteem.
Many of us will know people whose identities and self-esteem are tightly tied to group memberships, whether it is being an “Oxford man”, working for Google or being the citizen of a particular nation.
The groups we feel we belong to often give us a protective sense of self-worth. However, when others, or we ourselves, begin to doubt or question our group membership, it can be particularly painful.
The preservation and promotion of Arabic can contribute to the promotion of psychological well-being in the UAE, especially if it walks hand-in-hand with tolerance and an appreciation of diversity.
Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University
On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas