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

8 thoughts on “How South Sudan is exercising its linguistic right: A lesson for Arabic?

  1. Djamal.D

    Hello! Can I just congratulate you on the great post once again, your take on the South Sudan issue is a breath of fresh air. Many people in North Africa are disgusted at this decision but yes you are correct when you say it is up to them, and we the Arabs are worried about Arabic but we are not brave to make such a decisions as these ones. I think there is too much fear of the people falling behind, and it will be too much work to work out a program to make both languages same, so it is easier to speak English and cry crocodile tears over Arabic. This is very sad reality of our Arabic, having grown up in France I think my love for the Arabic is much more? I make sure I study the language and use it well and now my job is better because I can offer good Arabic sometimes better than my friends who grow up in Arabic countries. I like your point very much when people have choice they feel better and can make good contribution to the world and for humanity. Thanks for always being excited about language and what it means for speakers of course here in the case of the Arabic. We are enjoying the posts bravo 3alykee :)…Djamal.

    1. Thanks for stopping by glad you agree with the points, it’s a complicated issue to make Arabic as important as English but perhaps as time passes things will get better. You are right it’s hard work to have a system and I think that this is what most linguists are calling for, theory is one thing and being on the ground is another and the two need to be synchronised- that will take time. Pleased that the posts are enjoyable thanks once again.

  2. Lira

    Yes, thank you Sudanse from south have rights, thanks for telling the world and not being biased becoz you love arabic. we are people who can do what we like and english is better for me in my educatsion and future for a good person of this life. thank you

  3. RgF

    Thanks for raising important stories about language, it does not always have to be Arabic etc….it can also be about people moving away from Arabic and becoming autonomous in their linguistic lives, excellent choice and well balanced keep it up!

  4. Jen.FGordon

    This post is awesome great angle with which you approached the subject, not in a defensive way for Arabic but showing that people can have their rights well done cheers! I love the blog 🙂

  5. Pingback: Language, expectations, and the realm of possibility « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  6. Klaten

    Thanks for the article. There is a common problem in Africa, that African nations tend to speak the language of the nation that occupied them. Making English an official language in South Sudan is a best example of that. The South Sudanese people have their own distinct language, which is Juba Arabi, unfortunately, the government wants to phase out this centuries old culture and identity of South Sudan rather than strengthen it. This is the worst way a culture is preserved.

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