A goal of one nation, two tongues

Zayed University is establishing a centre to study bilingualism amid concerns that young Emiratis are becoming more proficient in English than in Arabic.

United Arab Emmirates - Abu Dhabi - Jan. 07 - 2009 : ( From left to right)  Mohamed al Saqqaf, Sameer al Jaberi and Abdullah al Obaidli chat in a corridor of the men's College in Abu Dhabi. ( Jaime Puebla / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JP01 Men's College.jpg
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Arabic has been spoken in the lands that now constitute the UAE for more than a millennium. These days, however, it is as likely - if not more so - to hear English, the language of globalisation, in the corridors of commerce or the halls of education. Federal universities have long conducted classes in English and fewer government secondary schools are teaching science and mathematics in Arabic. Many Emirati parents have taken their children out of the state school system and placed them in private schools that teach almost exclusively in English, believing that they will receive a better education.

It is not greatly surprising then that some young Emiratis struggle with Arabic, which has, in turn, led to widespread concern among government officials and others, since language is an integral part of identity. One response of the Government was to declare last year the "year of national identity". During a conference on the topic in April, some officials warned that the country's very character could be threatened if foreign influences became any stronger.

It is against this backdrop that Zayed University is setting up a centre to study bilingualism and bilingual education in the Arab world. One of its missions is to examine the state of Arabic in the modern world. The institute, which is to open in September, plans to address the problem from a novel perspective. "This is a response to the anxieties," says Dr Jeffrey Belnap, Zayed University's associate provost and director of the Abu Dhabi campus.

"It's easy to see this as an either/or situation - that English is swamping Arabic, or that Arabic has to be learnt before anything else. "But a premise of this centre is that multilingualism is the name of the game in the 21st century. We see the languages not as alternatives, but things that need to be thought of together. Arabic can be strengthened as English is strengthened. "People can have an intimate knowledge of Arabic for everyday life, while English is necessary as the language of international communication."

The centre's director, Dr Ingrid Piller, a German researcher who was recently director of a centre in Australia that looked into ways to help immigrants improve their English skills, says it will reinforce the idea that "one language doesn't need to push the other out". "There is a belief that languages take up brain space, but that's not how it works. Instead, it creates additional language synapses. Bilinguals have a number of advantages with languages. It makes it easier to learn other languages. We want to promote some of the benefits of bilingualism and deal with some of the negative metaphors about one language killing another."

One of the centre's first tasks will be to compile a review of language use in the UAE, identifying when and by whom different languages are used and what levels of fluency are required for different purposes. It will also study bilingual people to learn the keys to achieving fluency in more than one language. "We want to find out how people become bilingual, what makes it a smooth process so they can read and write at a sophisticated technical level," Dr Piller says. "What can a school do to generate more of them?"

Researchers will study parts of the world such as Switzerland, Singapore and French-speaking areas of Canada where bilingualism or multilingualism works well. They will also look at places such as Hong Kong and Indonesia where bilingualism is not as well established. "There are lots of universities, such as many of the Indian universities, and multinational corporations around the world that are multilingual," Dr Piller says. "We want to learn from their successes and their mistakes. If you look globally, it's monolingual societies that are the exception.

"Most people speak one language at home, learn a different one at school and another at university. In many countries this is completely natural. Bilingualism is not necessarily a problem." She cautions, however, that multilingual societies sometimes create the potential for exclusion. In Mozambique, for example, where the courts use Portuguese, some believe it is more difficult to get a fair trial because only a fifth of the population speaks the language. Similar issues could arise in the UAE.

"In a society like the UAE, Arabic and English are important in public life. English is important to gain access to all kinds of services and privileges and in some jobs you really need to be proficient in these two languages," Dr Piller says. "Not being proficient can result in exclusion. People can find it hard to get a job or they may not understand what their teacher is saying." Abdullah al Obaidli, 20, an Emirati communication technology student at Abu Dhabi Men's College, says that is a legitimate concern, since there is considerable pressure to speak English.

"In public situations you cannot speak Arabic and when you have employees from different countries you need to speak English." His classmate, Sameer al Jaberi, also 20, is fluent in both languages, but notes that many of his friends are not. He says Emiratis educated at private schools where most lessons are taught in English are the ones most likely to have lost their fluency in Arabic. But Mr al Jaberi says that even some of those who, like him, attended government institutions are sometimes less adept in Arabic than may be expected.

"We don't have many activities that make us practise in Arabic," he says. "It's more on paper. And here in college we don't use Arabic at all, except in our Arabic classes." The centre, which is being funded by the National Research Foundation, hopes its findings will be useful across the Arab world. It will be based at Zayed University's Abu Dhabi campus and will employ multilingual researchers as well as visiting scholars.

Postgraduate and undergraduate students from the university are also expected to take part in research. It plans to set up, at an early stage, an international conference on bilingualism after forging links with researchers at institutes in other countries. Dr Annie Brown, an official at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and one of the centre's two principal investigators, says that through such collaboration, it will be possible to create "a body of research about Arabic in general.

"It would be great if parallel research projects developed elsewhere." dbardsley@thenational.ae