Sunday Salon: “The English Language: Hero or Villain?”

April 7, 2013

On the weekend of March 7-9, I went to quite a few sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Today, I’m going to write about what I heard (and learned) at a session called “The English Language: Hero or Villain?”.

For many decades and for many people, the English language has been considered the passport to education, diplomacy, business success, political aspiration and cultural cool. But beneath the obvious advantages of this alleged lingua franca, is English actually the villain of the piece? Does it disadvantage and inhibit the bloom and strength of other languages?

Chairing the discussion is Arabist and interpreter Leslie McLoughlin who is joined by historian and author of The Arabs: A History, Eugene Rogan, and Abdulla Al-Dabbagh, professor of English Literature at UAE University and author of Literary Intellectuals: East and West.

This was probably the session that I was most looking forward to on LitFest weekend. Zaid was supposed to meet me after work to attend, but unfortunately didn’t manage to make it, so I was there alone. It was my first experience with the three men who made up the panel, though I heard them all speak at least once more during the weekend. I have to be honest: the introduction was quite long and a bit rambly.

The panel started out with the question: is English responsible for the problems with national language in the UAE? (For those of you who might not know, there is an ongoing debate in the UAE – and, indeed, in many other countries including in the Arab world – about the loss of traditional languages as this generation learns English instead.)

Al-Dabbagh responded by asking, instead, what it means to be a world or universal language. He pointed out that we have had this problem before: in the Renaissance, Latin was the common language and was threatened by modern languages. He commented that we are now in a similar situation with regards to languages in the world, and wondered what English would eventually be replaced by.

Rogan said that English is threatening the languages of just about every country in the world, not just the UAE. He said that English is growing by about 8500 words a day, and McLoughlin added that the way language changes is very fluid, and that you cannot pin down vocabulary. Rogan gave the examples of Irish and Welsh as essentially dead languages that are struggling against English. Most importantly, he said that the “English problem” is part of a much bigger issue in the UAE, as many students aren’t really fluent in Arabic or English.

Al-Dabbagh raised the question of the supremacy of English. In the 1970s, the key words in higher education in the Middle East were “Arabic” and “Arabization”. Schools tried to teach all subjects in Arabic. In the last 10-15 years, there has been a radical shift to teach everything in English as it was thought to be the best preparation for students. Now, the focus is on both languages. He said that, as long as there is not one clear common language, people will really need to learn more than one language; in the meantime, mono-lingual speakers (including those of English) will be at a disadvantage.

Rogan went on to an important point, which is that students all over the world are unmotivated to learn other languages. He spoke about the “impoverishment of intellectual enterprise when we don’t expect people to speak more languages than just English”, giving examples of history students who can’t read basic primary texts because they’re in German, French, or other languages that university students used to be expected to understand. He also pointed out that the best window through which to appreciated another culture is through their language. The most important point, in my opinion, was when he said that “the more the English-speaking world becomes dominant, the more vulnerable it will be because it doesn’t have a clue how the rest of the world sees it”.

What do you think? Was there anything in this talk you’d like to discuss?

I really agree that there should be efforts to maintain traditional languages even when students are being taught English. I wish that I spoke more than one language fluently. I didn’t feel the problem as much when I was living in Canada, but now that I live elsewhere, and have travelled to quite a few other countries, I definitely feel like I miss out on a lot because I’m not able to speak anything except English.

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