Shock at youngsters’ neglect of Arabic in UAE

Popularity of English even among Arabs talking among themselves and education methods are big issues for Arabic, teacher says.

A primary school student reads an Arabic text. Experts fear such skills are being lost to younger generations. Silvia Razgova/The National
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DUBAI // Young Arabs have been warned to “use it or lose it” if they want to become fluent in their native tongue.

The director of Arabic at Jumeira Baccalaureate School warned that many young Arabs in Dubai lack even the most basic skills in the language.

Young children are not being given enough exposure to the language, coupled with outdated ways it has traditionally been taught in schools.

“It was a shock when I first came to this school and noticed that the majority of the native Arabic-speaking children talk to each other and even their parents in English,” said Imad Nasr, of JBS.

“It’s not just the students here but I would say in general in Dubai Arabs do not converse in their native language and you see them talking among one another in English.”

Mr Nasr is now in his second year in his post and he said it was vital for parents and schools to work together to improve the standard.

“I would estimate about 70 per cent of our native Arabic-speaking pupils don’t use their first language outside of class,” he said.

“I also noticed that even the parents usually spoke to their children in English when they were dropping them off at school.”

With children watching English language films, playing English language computer games and, in many cases, being looked after by English-speaking nannies, they have very little contact with Arabic, he said.

Many parents also had a misguided notion that English was an advantage in getting jobs when, in fact, people who speak more than one language are far more attractive to potential employers, he said.

“One of the first things I did was to get the children to speak Arabic among one another while they were at school and with their parents,” Mr Nasr said.

“It’s very important that they speak the language as much as possible because it really is a case of use it or lose it.”

The syllabus has also been shifted to involve more focus on writing and speaking.

During his tenure, the improvement in pupils’ Arabic has been reflected in the latest KHDA report.

Last year, the school got one good rating in the 16 areas examined, with the rest rated as satisfactory in Arabic A category for native speakers.

But the most recent report highlighted a significant improvement, with 12 good ratings across all age groups.

This can be put down to a shift to a more western style of teaching Arabic.

“Arabic is a difficult language to learn and the old-fashioned way I and many others were taught was the teacher basically giving a lecture,” Mr Nasr said.

“The western method is better because it engages and excites pupils into learning, so I followed that way, and now when the children come to Arabic classes it fits in with the way they are being taught other subjects, so they find it easier.”

It is a method that has benefited many pupils at the school.

Emirati Ahmed Al Mahmood, 15, spent eight years in Germany before returning to Dubai two years ago and admitted there were difficulties in relearning Arabic.

“My dad was the ambassador there so I can speak fluent German and English, and although I did speak Arabic with my parents I very rarely used it in public,” he said.

“It’s improved a lot since I got back but I still struggle a little with classical Arabic.”

Fellow Emirati Tareq Abbasi, 16, agreed that many young Arabs predominantly spoke English among each another.

“I speak Arabic with my friends but I have noticed others that do not,” he said.

“It’s very important to continue to use Arabic as a language otherwise it will be lost.”

Hessa Al Qassim, 16, agreed and said it was vital for younger Arabs to continue using their language.

“It’s very easy to speak English because that is the dominant language around the world, and even in Dubai,” said the Emirati.

“That’s why I think it’s important the older generation continues to encourage children to speak it.”