TEDxDubai: English language threatens Arabic!

I was away in Scotland this weekend and read this article in the Gulf News (whilst it rained for the whole day and night, you know what I was wishing for some Gulf sun!) and now that I am back I thought it is important to share this with my readers. What a claim, what a title and I can hear both supporter and critics screaming for and against these 4 words! What type of threat and why? Who says so and how? I’d like to hear what the readers think about this claim.

I am hoping to have some ‘free’ time in the next few weeks and post up a specific study of the situation of Arabic in the UAE. On that note, a while back I mentioned that I was writing a book chapter, well it’s out (this month)  and you can see the contents page & the introduction to the book here.  I discuss the sociolinguistic situation of Arabic in the Gulf countries based on experiences and opinions of Gulf students themselves. I also discuss some of the problems and reasons why Arabic language is seen to be under threat and I offer some solutions. I will not spoil the rest for you, if you do get the chance then get the book and read my chapter and those written by others in the book. This topic of Arabic being lost is a topic that intrigues many and causes concern for some, it is difficult to predict precisely what the fate of the Arabic language amongst its speakers will be. In this Gulf News article, the person making the claim has hands-on experience with what the state of Arabic is in the Middle East through her 30 years of teaching. 

I have pasted it below here, for you to read without editing: ————–

Dubai: English is taking over the world, says English teacher Patricia Ryan Abu Wardeh. And its status as a global language comes at the expense of other languages, she argues.After 30 years of teaching her native language in the Gulf, Abu Wardeh has come to the conclusion that while English is an important language, its status as a global language is overshadowing other languages, including Arabic.

These sentiments have built up over the years she has been teaching, but she has never made them public until given the opportunity by Technology, Entertainment, Design’s, (TED) Dubai affiliate, TEDxDubai.Abu Wardeh, who works at a university in the UAE, presented her ideas at a Dubai TEDx event. Her presentation is one of the few such talks in Dubai that has been posted on the global TED website.Her views gave way to a debate. Most people welcomed them but there was some strong opposition.

“The idea evolved over several years of teaching English and doing specialised assessments. I’ve seen so much change in that it has become an absolute must to have a high standard of general English to be able to enter any decent university,” she said.As she cited in her talk, the number of languages in the world is expected to fall from 6,000 today to 600 in 90 years. She attributes this to the dominant status of English.

Testing programme

She singled out English testing programmes for denying students from non-English speaking backgrounds the opportunity to study at the best universities in the world, which happen to be in English-speaking countries.”Who am I to say to this [non-English speaker]: thou shalt not continue on this path. Go back and try again,” she said, adding that she once worked for such a testing programme but decided to quit for ethical reasons.

It horrifies her that English teachers are allowed to make doctor-like decisions that can determine the fate of a student’s career. “It’s ridiculous,” she says.A system in which an English teacher can have the authority to turn down a “potentially brilliant” physicist, is deeply flawed, she notes. “It’s a very expensive process anyway, so you already dismiss two-thirds of the world’s population.”

While the testing entities say they are non-profit-making, Abu Wardeh claims language testing is nevertheless an industry.”They are making a lot of money for a lot of people,” she said. A global language that everyone can speak would be nice, she says, but the language is likely to be that of dominant powers and cultures, and will come at the expense of some of the endangered languages of the world.

This trend towards English at the expense of native languages is particularly worrying in the UAE. Abu Wardeh says she regularly asks her Emirati students what language they speak at home, and is often surprised to learn that it is English.”These people will speak to their own children in English. It only takes one generation [to lose a language],” she says.

No real gain

In other instances, she has found English teachers telling parents to speak to their children in English at home. Some of those parents are therefore forced to speak to their children in the broken English they know, resulting in a loss in Arabic skills and no real gain in English skills.

Dubai is exceptional in terms of the weakening status of Arabic in homes, she says, attributing the trend to the demographic make-up of the city.She places some of the responsibility on government authorities too. Most of the higher education institutions in the UAE use English as a language of instruction, which has led some to complain about the disappearance of Arabic from higher education.

“It’s purely pragmatic [to switch to English in the region] because they want to get on in the world and be global; I see that, but you shouldn’t lose what you’ve got,” she said.Abu Wardeh is one of the few people who spoke in Dubai and is featured on the TED website.

Others include her son Jameel, who brought the Axis of Evil comedy tour to Middle Eastern television screens, and Naif Al Mutawa, the Kuwaiti creator of the Islamic inspired The 99 comic book series that has now developed into an animated television series. Both Al Mutawa and the younger Abu Wardeh debuted with TED talks in Dubai.


It is a natural course for languages to change and gain new vocabularies and concepts as the world advances. But to lose a language is so very sad, and as discussed previously on this blog there are efforts in place to document these dying languages. Abu Wardeh makes many good points in her speech and I think language planners and researchers into Arabic language need to take note of what she says, and perhaps it might be an idea to read more on her claims because here they are brief.

source: http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/education/english-language-threatens-arabic-1.810984

6 thoughts on “TEDxDubai: English language threatens Arabic!

  1. Ayyoosh

    It’s really not that complicated. Look at Europe it is very common for each European to speak a minimum of 3 languages. That what has made that continent and those countries thrive.

    As a Muslim this is the imperative: Muslims need to learn two Formal Arabic and English, as well as their local dialect — Ammiya! This is obligatory on our community and as individuals from a cultural, religious and connectedness to the broader world.

    The view presented by Patricia is the lets preserve a language and lets have the developments take place in that language–reality is that we’d need 200 years of development and we would still be behind because the power balance would have shifted. I say lets deal with the realities and the realities are that we need to create strong individuals that can navigate both languages with competency. It’s not an ‘either or’ scenario but one of necessity of both.

    At the core though you have develop human potential and the problem with the Gulf is the problem of a laziness and over-consumption which has set from all the opiate of wealth.

    Here’s the spanner in the works though: China and India the dawning of the new world’s economic powerhouses. Shouldn’t we be adding Mandarin/Cantonese/Urdu/Hindi to the mix?

    1. Hi Ayyoosh,

      Thanks for an enlightening comment and yes I agree with all the points you have made- it seems you really understand the situation on the ground. It is true given the current situation in some Arab countries, time is needed to ‘preserve’ what has been (is being) lost and I think your 200 years idea is quite generous!

      Sure for most Arabs they ‘should’ learn both forms of Arabic and their ammiyya too, which can complicate things if the language of development is not their own, i.e., English. I think there is no incentive for them to learn the classic/formal/ proper (whatever one chooses to call it) and the education system has made it that, Arabic is only used in literature and religion. But the sciences and arts are taught in English and all the excellent schools teach in English so how would the next generation see the value in Arabic? On the one hand, yes, it is not that complicated and on the other it is- quite complicated because there are so many variables in play that contribute to the situation.

      Comparing the Arab world to Europe is something I do not take a liking to, because their two histories are so different and the making of Europe was not an overnight thing. It was in the making for centuries and yes today they thrive and can master 2-3 languages at once. Even we here in England look to the European students and admire their abilities to speak not only the formal languages of their countries, their own dialects, but also English, maybe French/German or Italian etc…. It shows that they are so competant in their mother tongue and thier educational institutions have made sure to make thier languages useful that they can quite literally afford to learn other languages.

      Well I am not sure about the Indian situation, though I know that they have something like 250 languages but that their education system is in English- or what some researchers refer to as Indian English- amazingly they preserved their language and culture. China is another situation that might be a model for the Arab world, they teach in Chinese and use English at a later stage in education according to my colleagues from China . They love their culture and language and at the same time are so advanced (I would like it if any reader could add here or correct me as I hate to write about what I am not fully sure about) in science and technology etc…

      My intention was not to make this reply so long, but as usual I can’t help it. Anyway this is one topic that will come up again and again, and I am sure we will get to the bottom of this. Arabic is a language that will always stir up emotions in Arabs and non-Arabs alike and the complicated sociolinguistic situation at play currently will ensure Arabic language is always discussed.


  2. Laura Niagon

    I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

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