Arabic or English?

Should it be Arabic or English? This is the conundrum that the Gulf educators are grappling with in the debate surrounding the medium of instruction in classrooms. While those arguing in favour of English suggest that students would be better prepared for the largely English-speaking global marketplace, those rooting for Arabic underline the need for strengthening culture and national identity.

By Dr N. Janardhan

Published: Mon 7 Dec 2009, 9:32 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:48 AM

In the UAE, for example, after about 50 special Madares Al Ghad or Schools of the Future were started more than two years ago, with maths and science being taught in English, a recent survey revealed that 73 per cent of pupils in these schools deemed the new curriculum “difficult and incomprehensible”.

Some schools also received poor ratings in official inspections, reportedly because of inadequate Arabic instruction, which led the Federal National Council — the country’s parliament — to brand the pilot programme’s failure to properly teach the language as a “breach of the Constitution”.

It was also revealed that only 13 per cent of applicants to federal universities scored enough in their English exams to bypass remedial courses, resulting in the UAE Ministry of Higher Education estimating that 30 per cent of the university education budget is used for remedial English courses, which would not be very different in the other Gulf countries too.

These illustrations reinforce the fact that the power of language in education is decisive. As the region intensifies its quest to reform the education sector and arrive at the best model that could give a shot in the arm to its ambitious plan of developing a knowledge economy, it may be prudent to study and learn from the experiences of other countries that attempted similar experiments. Singapore, which took more than a decade to introduce deep-seated change in its school system, is now recognised as having one of the best performing education systems in the world.

However, long before the education system was revamped, it went through a period of intense and sensitive debate surrounding the medium of instruction in school — Chinese versus English.

Attributing part of the city-state’s success to education in the English medium, the architect of modern Singapore, Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew, said: “What we did was to switch the education from native languages to English and keep native languages as a second language. It was a very difficult thing to do, emotionally. If it was done by legislation, we would have had riots. Instead we let the market decide who got the better jobs. Parents then began to shift their children into English language schools with the mother tongue as the second language. Forty years later, we are connected with the world because the modern world is in English.” English is now so important for Singapore that it intends to make even foreigners pass an English test to get a skilled worker permit from 2010.

In another example, despite English being a crucial bridging factor in India’s recent phenomenal rise to prominence and increased national wealth, a recent report revealed that further growth is contingent on more youth taking to and improving English.

Though a majority do not speak this ‘foreign’ language, there are few doubters about India’s ‘demographic dividend’ turning into a ‘demographic disaster’ if English-language education is not available to one of the world’s largest youth brigade, especially in an increasingly information technology-driven world. However, the English experiment appears to have failed in Malaysia. Though this is viewed as being motivated by political considerations, the Gulf countries would be better off revisiting this reversal in order to avoid unforeseen pitfalls in future.

Malaysia announced in July this year that it has decided to abandon the experiment of using English in state schools to teach maths and science from 2012.

Six years after the plan was launched with the aim of producing a new generation of global communicators, the government changed tack because “the dominance of English in the curriculum risked undermining students’ grasp of their first language,” and had resulted in a shortage of indigenous teachers capable of delivering classes in English.

The education minister said: “The government is convinced that science and maths need to be taught in a language that will be easily understood by students, which is Bahasa Malay in national schools, Mandarin in Chinese schools and Tamil in Tamil schools.”

As much as this was cheered on by Malay nationalists, critics of the new move complained that “you cannot really convey the scientific concepts to the students in Bahasa Malaysia at a very high level. We have to face the fact that science knowledge is in English” and the private sector is most receptive to English language skills.

These views not withstanding, there are encouraging trends in China, Japan and South Korea, which have bucked the trend of English being viewed as the passport to success in the pursuit of a knowledge-based economy. But, there is a caveat. Though all these countries have laid emphasis on the local language, they have also consistently pursued parallel programmes, wherein scientific and other hi-tech knowledge has been imparted through a meticulous English translation system. This has been such an integral part of their systems that some believe that English is the “de facto language of scientific culture” in these countries.

This trend is seen to be spreading to social sciences as well. While the world strives to learn Mandarin to understand and interact with China, the Chinese are said to be pursuing English not only to understand the world better, but also to communicate their thoughts and ideas more forcefully. While all these underscore the power of language in education, there is another component that is equally, if not more, important — the need to drive home the importance of education as a vital tool of survival and inculcate the ‘desire to succeed’ among the region’s youth. This becomes imperative in the context of the future scenario that is going to make public sector jobs for nationals difficult and increase the competitive nature of the work environment in the private sector for nationals.

Dr N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst. For feedback, write to

More news from OPINION