How teaching in English divides the Arab world

I have a new piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the spread of English at universities in the middle east. This is a world-wide phenomenon, and the main reason for it is that working in English helps academics access the latest research and to publish (because most journals are in English). It also often helps students land better jobs after graduation. And there are other more ambiguous gains to English: access to Western culture generally, a different and often more open teaching style (since more professors might be foreign), and a general aura of "modernization." 

New private colleges that teach in English are popping up, while public universities have made English the language of instruction for certain fields — particularly scientific ones — or sometimes on the whole campus.

But the enthusiasm for English isn’t universal. Skeptics note that switching to English does not solve all the underlying problems of troubled educational systems. Some see the turn away from their native language as a threat to Arab identity. Others worry that English-language education exacerbates the divide between the haves and have-nots. For a small minority of graduates, like Mr. Hamdy, English is the gateway to the global economy. But millions more are left behind.

”English is a divider but also a dream,” says Deena Boraie, dean of the School of Continuing Education at the American University in Cairo.

The hopes and misgivings about the spread of English in the Arab world illustrate the tensions that surround the world’s most widespread lingua franca. Even universities in the United States have something to lose, says Rosemary C. Salomone, a professor of law at St. John’s University, in New York, who is writing a book about the spread of global English. The complacent belief that the whole world speaks English leads to less study of foreign languages and less curiosity about the rest of the world.

The English language is “washing over the world,” says Ms. Salomone. Many countries fear an “erasure of [their] culture and loss of global status.”

I reported in Qatar, Egypt and Morocco, and there are some big variations -- in the Gulf the concerns regarding English are tied up with anxieties about identity, being a minority in one's own country and the pace of change. In Egypt English has theoretically been part of the curriculum and a language of instruction for decades but the real problem is the abysmal quality of education, growing privatizations, and the gap between rich and poor (which foreign language universities and programs can exacerbate). In Morocco there is a growing interest in introducing English -- something that is somewhat surprising given that the country is already dealing with a very complicated post-colonial linguistic tangle, with the educational system divided between Arabic and French and with the place of darija (the local dialect) and Berber languages (recently recognized) to be ascertained. In all countries the feelings about languages taught and used at schools are of course passionate, because they are feelings about identity and the future opportunities of one's children. 

The piece is behind the paywall. For those interested (in this and other coverage of scholarship, ideas, academia, including my own reporting on the Arab world and the debate over rules on sexual conduct, feminism and freedom of speech on campus triggered by this essay), think about subscribing. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.