How South Sudan is exercising its linguistic right: A lesson for Arabic?

It is of no surprise or astonishment that South Sudan has taken the decision to phase out Arabic from the daily lives of its speakers after breaking away from North Sudan. For the new state perhaps Arabic represents a bitter and painful past and so in fulfilling and accomplishing their true freedom it has decided to articulate its nation’s hopes and aspirations in a new tongue. A sign of a better tomorrow and perhaps they are giving themselves”legitimacy” (in the Bourdieuan sense) through English as in Arabic they have always felt subordinated to the Northern Sudanese- who knows?  Language is more than a code, more than a tool for communication which is which is what I always say here on Aabizi, and I think the Southern Sudanese case has a lesson for Arabic speakers to take.

Whilst it is true that others are astonished perhaps even upset at this decision, I look at it as exercising of a people’s linguistic rights, if they feel that their future is in English so let it be. They are not teaching in Arabic and continuing to use Arabic and then complaining about their wish to master English and use it for their state. They are phasing out (notice the word ‘phase out’) Arabic and gradually introducing English, it is planned, well-thought out (at least it seems that way from the article I pasted below) and there is an aim, an outcome. they know for their older students it might be too late to use the new books in school but they have a way they will support them to master English.

But in the Arabic case most of the time speakers, educators, commentators and researchers (like myself) complain at the demise or possible loss of Arabic and yet the schools continue to use English as a medium of instruction. There is no plan (at least not to my knowledge or it is not as open as this S.Sudan case) to come up with a possible idea, system or policy to support both Arabic and English in schools, universities and colleges. It is true new initiatives are being implemented, and these are to be applauded however text-book like they may sound, but there is not that independent, autonomous, self-motivated zeal to implement the changes and avoid losing Arabic to its speakers whilst still ensuring a high level of education. I think those wishing to reinforce the importance and use of Arabic in its native lands need to look and watch closely the Sudanese case as it evolves over the next few years, I am sure there is much to be learned about speaker rights, linguistic autonomy and development (not just linguistic).


Sudan: Govt Says ‘Bye Bye’ to Arabic


Juba — When South Sudan broke away from Sudan in July last year it didn’t only say goodbye to its former rulers in Khartoum, but it also stopped using Arabic as its first language. But phasing out Arabic to make way for English proves to be a lengthy process.

“Good morning sir!” Sixty primary school children shout as teacher Santos Okot (31) walks into his classroom. He tells them to take their seats. “Thank you sir!”

The school year has just started at the St. Joseph Catholic School, in the city centre of Juba. South Sudanese schools operate between late April and the end of December. The rest of the year – the dry months – they are closed for holiday. “At home these children speak Arabic. They hear it in the streets and in the market. So it is not easy to teach them English,” says Okot.

English has become the teacher’s first language. “During the war in South Sudan I stayed in Uganda and I also studied there,” he says. In the Anglophone country he learned how to master the language. “I also speak Arabic but I cannot read or write it.” Tens of thousands of South Sudanese were educated in refugee camps in Uganda during the 22-year Sudanese conflict.

New curriculum

Although South Sudan only became independent last year, the introduction of an English curriculum started already seven years ago. In January 2005 Southern rebels and the Sudanese government ended the long war with a peace agreement. South Sudan was granted autonomy and one of the agreements in the peace deal was that English would become the prime language of the South.

“In 2006 all pupils in Primary One received new, English textbooks,” says John Wani, headmaster of the St. Joseph School. “By the next school year, in 2007, they started using the new books for Primary Two. This means that by next year all primary school pupils will be using the new curriculum.” 2012 is the last year in which some students in South Sudan are working with the old, Arabic, books.

Teaching the teachers

Adopting the English language will probably be not all that easy for many South Sudanese, due to the low level of education in the world’s newest country. Only 27 percent of the adults in South Sudan know how to read and write; for women this percentage stands at 18.

“Learning a language is very difficult for adults,” says Wani. “But it is important to connect with East Africa. [In countries like Kenya and Tanzania English is an official language]. Six out of our 27 teachers don’t speak any English. They are on training but they go slow. Maybe I should send them to Uganda or Kenya to speed things up.”

Teacher Santos Okot says South Sudanese are eager to learn. “In the weekends people come to me and ask if I can teach them. I give them private English lessons outside school hours. Sometimes they pay me for it.”


You might be thinking, “this is English surely to implement Arabic will be a reverse idea since current developments and advances take place in English”?! I agree, they do and English is the language of advancement and development. But the issue here is linguistic rights, and the ability to balance your language with the most developed one, it is about mastering Arabic and not being ashamed to do so, and still being able to communicate with the world. It is giving Arabic speakers their right to master Arabic their language, through publicly excellent centres with the state backing and then working to use English for advancement. Not only will a nation be more intelligent (as we’ve now come to know that bilingual/multilingual speakers are more intelligent than monolinguals) because they have mastered two languages formally (it’s not enough to know it, you have to study the language(s)) but they will be able to exercise their right to use which language when and where. Giving speakers that right makes them feel legitimate, empowered and that they can contribute something to the world, this can be seen in many of the works and research on language preservation and maintenance. But as usual these are my thoughts who knows the whole truth in the matter? This is a good case to follow and if I can I’ll keep you guys updated on it.

Thanks for all the comments for recent posts, sorry if I am slow in answering emails, welcome to new readers and fellow WordPress bloggers :)…and finally comments, ideas and thoughts are particularly welcome on this post.


Bourdieu,P (1991) ” Language and Symbolic Power” Havard university Press