The UAE’s first dedicated Arabic language institute hopes to make the language more popular and be better understood by young Emiratis.
The facility – to be based at Zayed University’s Abu Dhabi and Dubai campuses – has the huge task of training the country’s Arabic teachers in more modern methods, to better inspire and motivate children and to look at what schools and universities should be teaching lessons in Arabic. The institute will also offer Arabic lessons to the community and masters-level study.
This cannot happen soon enough, said Dr Obaid Al Muhairi, head of the new institute, who believes language is central to the thorny issue of national identity. “With the need of English for work purposes, the use of the Arabic language has been downgraded,” he said.
The three federal universities teach almost all courses in English, which many believe has hurt students’ fluency in their mother tongue. “Our graduates don’t have a strong command of Arabic,” said Dr Al Muhairi. “They speak the dialect but they don’t read and write classical and modern Arabic.”
Dr Howard Reed, the head of Dubai Women’s College, part of the Higher Colleges of Technology, believes an overhaul of Arabic teaching methods is long overdue.
“We’d love to see them doing training for Arabic teachers because they are hard to find,” he said. “Most teach the way they would have taught 500 years ago and don’t use the benefits of all the research that has been done on making language fun and relevant. “Arab children need to be inspired. Right now they think Arabic is boring and they don’t enjoy it, like it is one of their punishments in life.”
The college recently added a compulsory Arabic component to its applied media degrees, which Dr Reed said was essential for its students’ job prospects. At the institute’s launch yesterday, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, said it was a response to ongoing complaints about the diminution of Arabic.
“Arabic was always the language of science and knowledge and now we want to renew this message and help Arabic become the common language once again.”
Dr Al Muhairi admitted the challenge was compounded in a country that lacks a culture of reading, and the only time most young people use formal Arabic is when they hear it on the radio or television. Parents must play their part, too. “It’s a challenge to get parents to be more involved in their children’s education, said Dr Al Muhairi. “There are programmes now that are trying to bring parents closer to schools.”
But there is a long way to go. A 2008 UN survey found that the average Arab in the Middle East reads about four pages of literature a year, while Americans read an average of 11 books a year and Britons eight. A 2010 literacy study ranked 15 year olds in Dubai 42nd of 65 countries.
Samer Mourad, an English teacher at a government school in Dubai, said his mostly Emirati pupils showed more enthusiasm for English than Arabic. “They find it easier to learn Arabic, but they enjoy English more, even though it’s harder,” he said.