Considering Arabic is the official language of the United Arab Emirates and the mother tongue of the nationals of the country, why do international students, expats, and other migrants in the UAE not learn the language to a level where they are comfortable speaking and understanding Arabic?
There are some national initiatives that aim to promote the development of the Arabic language in the country. These initiatives
include educational reading and speaking programs, the development of an Arabic language charter that outlines laws and policies directed at private schools, and initiatives aimed at improving Arabic curriculums, teacher preparation and training, among others. However, these efforts are not enough to cultivate sustainable nation-wide Arabic-speaking communities.
At NYUAD, only a limited number of students acquire an advanced proficiency in Arabic by graduation. By the end of 2021, NYUAD took pride in having over 1800 students from over 120 countries
. Every year, the majority of students from the incoming class are new to the Arabic language. A few students of every incoming class end up learning Arabic as an additional language and only a handful of these students continue to advanced Arabic classes. For example, as a teaching assistant for the Arabic program, I found out that, this year, less than 10 senior students completed advanced courses in a pool of over 400 seniors.
Efforts to promote Arabic language education among all students are overdue. Many students graduate without having interacted with Arabic to a level that encourages any acquisition of the language. There are many factors behind the lack of Arabic education in academic institutions in the UAE, and more specifically, at NYUAD. These challenges include the lack of minimum requirements to learn the language, the lack of institutional and contextual academic resources necessary to effectively teach the language, and the low prestige imposed on Arabic globally.
Making Arabic compulsory
Generally, NYUAD students, and study away students at NYUAD, are not required to take Arabic. In contrast, students are required to take the language classes at their study away sites, with French in Paris, Spanish in Buenos Aires, Mandarin in Shanghai, and Twi in Ghana being mandatory. Additionally, whereas all students at NYU Shanghai are required to “be proficient in Mandarin Chinese up to the Intermediate two level by graduation,”
there is no requirement for NYUAD students to take any Arabic courses.
The fact that students are not required to take Arabic at NYUAD, whereas students at NYUSH are required to learn Mandarin to an intermediate level indicates a lack of emphasis on acquiring the Arabic language. This language differentiation between Mandarin and Arabic, created and maintained institutionally, makes Arabic proficiency seem unnecessary. In effect, most students have no need to learn the language and to explore its complexities and avenues, when they are not required to.
Institutional efforts to place reasonable Arabic language learning requirements for all students at NYUAD are necessary to promote overall Arabic education. Such efforts could involve requiring students to complete Arabic Intermediate level 2 by graduation, including a dialect. It is important to note that this would be the first of a much larger process of reworking the curriculum at NYUAD, that it would integrate Arabic language courses for all students. There needs to be a sufficient support system provided by the institution especially for students with tight four-year course schedules for the purpose of encouraging students to study Arabic with more intentionality.
Developing necessary resources to meet the teaching of Arabic to all students
NYUAD lacks the faculty to teach Arabic to all students on campus. As of Spring 2023, there are only eight faculty members who teach Arabic at the institution
. Many of these faculty members may teach more than one Arabic class per semester with a number of students ranging from four to 12 or more students. The same professors also rotate between the level of Arabic they teach every semester. It is necessary to increase the number of Arabic language faculty members if a minimum level of Arabic will be instituted. Furthermore, to achieve a smooth system of teaching Arabic for all students, there will need to be a careful distribution of students into classes so that Arabic classes will not be overbooked and so that the model of effective small-group teaching does not get disturbed.
Existing Arabic learning resources are overused and insufficient to contextually teach Arabic on campus. There are only a handful of comprehensive books to teach Arabic as an additional language and many of these books may not teach useful vocabulary or grammar. This applies beyond the NYUAD campus. Some books may also be too complicated and others are not enough. On campus, where Arabic language education is open to faculty, staff, and students, there should be more investments in the creation of more contextual and engaging Arabic learning resources.
Increasing the Prestige of Arabic
Arabic has a lower prestige compared to English, globally and in the UAE. Language prestige is the social value given to one language in a community over another
. Many would argue that English is encroaching upon the standing of Arabic
, especially in Arab countries. Additionally, the hegemony of English is not separate from the colonial past of the language. Today, English is considered the language of science, modernity, and higher education to the extent that other languages, including Arabic, have become less valuable
in the minds of many. Some Arab families may disregard their children’s learning of Arabic in favor of learning English, in hopes of giving their children greater economic opportunities globally. The scale of this hegemony has disseminated from the macro-level, globally, to the micro-level, the family, indicating the magnitude of this challenge.
NYUAD has fallen into the trap of maintaining the hegemony of the English language by not promoting the learning and use of Arabic. Neglect of Arabic reduces the social value of Arabic for NYUAD community members. This perhaps stems from neo-colonial influences that are characterized by English language hegemony.
Therefore, institutional efforts to raise the importance placed on Arabic are overdue. NYUAD could more frequently host bi or multilingual talks in all departments. Furthermore, more work at the institution could be conducted and published in the Arabic language. The institution could also create functional breathing spaces when only Arabic is spoken. The importance of raising the prestige of Arabic comes hand in hand with the first two potential ways to promote Arabic education at the institution and might even come as a result of the first two points.
The purpose of this article is to foster institutional efforts to promote Arabic education for all students and not to put pressure on students. NYUAD should be at the forefront of promoting the learning of Arabic among students, raising the prestige of the language, and developing better resources to make the learning of the language possible, contextual and engaging. Perhaps, one day, these increases in institutional efforts to promote Arabic education among all students can get students to a level where they can speak Arabic at a proficiency level they are comfortable with.
Mohammed Muqbel is a Contributing Writer. Email him at email@example.com