Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Spread of English in the Gulf

People who have never been to this region would be surprised to learn just how widespread English is. In Qatar, Kuwait, UAE and Bahrain signs are in both English and Arabic, and most shopkeepers speak it. In Qatar you can even deal with Government offices in English, and IDs and drivers’ licenses are in both languages.

While historically dealing with the British and Americans (and their oil companies that set up in the Gulf) certainly helped I think the main reason for the spread of English was all of the expats that came to the Gulf to work in the service sector or construction jobs. Millions of people in the Gulf are from places like India, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, countries where Arabic is not spoken. English, even if it’s only a few dozen words, will be spoken by most people from these areas, which allowed them to speak with each other. A Sri Lankan is unlikely to know Tagalog but if he can speak some English he shouldn’t have much trouble talking to a Filipino here. Over time locals learned English just so that it was easier to communicate with shopkeepers, waiters, servants and so forth.

As the GCC economies grow, and more and more non-Arabic expats move in, there have been growing concerns about Arabs losing their language, and English becoming their primary language. The concerns have been going on for years in Qatar but recently criticism of “cultural erosion” has been growing stronger, and the Government is now drafting laws to ensure Arabic is used in Government offices.

One of my Arab friends is so concerned about it he’s been making sure his children learn only Arabic (including not putting them in English-language schools), allowing them to learn English once they get older and are fluent in Arabic. Naturally they learn some English as they grow up in Qatar, it’s hard not to, but they don’t have formal schooling in it until they are teenagers.

So is that a bit overboard? Is it really such as issue? Well, I just recently got back from a business trip in the UAE and there I met some Emiratis who were at the seminar that I was attending. So I tried speaking to them in Arabic (classical Arabic of course, not the local dialect) when one turned to the other and, laughingly, said,

“Hey, his Arabic is better then yours.”

That confused me. I am by no means fluent, in fact I struggle to have even basic conversations, and if anyone speaks in regional dialects I have no clue what they are saying. But over the course of our conversation I was told by him that, indeed, he was not fluent in Arabic. Now it turns out that his mother was not an Arab so it’s unlikely she would speak to him in Arabic. He mentioned how he went to English-language schools, and in Dubai almost no one uses Arabic for everyday conversation, so he never became fluent in it. I’m sure his friend was joking that my Arabic was better than his, just needling him a bit about his lack of fluency.

Was this a one-in-a-million occurrence? When I mentioned it to my friends they were a bit surprised so I am assuming it is rare for a Gulf Arab to not be fluent in Arabic, but none-the-less it did serve as an example for why citizens of the Gulf are becoming increasingly concerned about losing Arabic. Over the years I’ve heard rumours and tales of other Arabs, raised by foreign nannies and going to English-speaking schools, who essentially had English as their first language. I’m not sure how true it is or how widespread the issue is becoming though.

I would recommend to anyone planning on staying in the Gulf for a while to try to learn some rudimentary Arabic. Arabic speakers really do appreciate it when foreigners have a basic knowledge of the language, not because they expect you’ll be fluent but they like that you at least made an effort to learn some of the language. It’s not an easy language but give it a try, maybe with lessons at Fanar to start.


Anonymous said...

It's true, Qatar is struggling with this issue..
The elementary government schools shifted to an all English education
with the exception of Arabic and Islamic Studies a few years ago and recently
shifted to all Arabic education, same with advertisements, Arabic must be the primary language, I'm Qatari and i think English is definitely my first language and Arabic second,
due to education, me and all my Qatari relatives grew up speaking English to each other as well etc...

Ramadan Kareem

Glen McKay said...

Thanks for your comment, it appears to reinforce why the Qatari Government has become increasingly concerned about erosion of cultural identity through loss of language.