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Slipping off the mother tongue - Daily News Egypt

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Slipping off the mother tongue

CAIRO: In an Arabic-speaking country, it is not uncommon to hear friends, families or coworkers communicating in foreign languages. Multilingualism is widespread among Egypt’s middle and upper class communities, with most opting to perfect their English or French rather than their own mother tongue. The number of foreign schools in Egypt is increasing to meet …


CAIRO: In an Arabic-speaking country, it is not uncommon to hear friends, families or coworkers communicating in foreign languages. Multilingualism is widespread among Egypt’s middle and upper class communities, with most opting to perfect their English or French rather than their own mother tongue.

The number of foreign schools in Egypt is increasing to meet the rising demand. Many experts argue that the growing trend among Egyptians to use foreign languages in their everyday life has turned into a worrying social phenomenon that raises many red flags regarding the country’s cultural identity.

“I think and dream in English, says Sarah El-Meshad, a 27-year-old mother of two. Despite being born to Egyptian parents, El-Meshad studied in international schools throughout her life, having spent part of her childhood abroad.

El-Meshad, who speaks to her children in both Arabic and English, believes that cultural identity is not only about language.

“Unfortunately, I use English in my everyday life quite often, says Heba Marawan, a 24-year-old graduate of the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Despite not being happy about it, Marawan admits that in certain situations, she cannot express herself except in English.

Lingual identity

What kind of role does language play in the process of shaping one s identity?

“Language plays a very essential role in the process of identity formation because it is the vehicle through which we define ourselves, says Sami Omar, an emeritus professor of sociology at AUC.

Omar explains how people from different cultures use language to keep insiders in and outsiders out, arguing that “language carries all the cultural baggage.

Language has also been an important element in the development of the concept of a nation.

Donald Cole, an emeritus professor of anthropology at AUC believes that “language plus a territory plus a sense of shared history have been the building blocks of national identities in modern Europe, the US and elsewhere.

Jehan Allam, director of the Arabic Language Institute at AUC, believes that being multilingual enriches one’s personality on the condition that national and cultural identities are cherished.

“Speaking foreign languages is not a problem in itself, but it is important to know when and where to use them, she told Daily News Egypt.

Foreign education

In the 19th century, Islamic Scholar Mohamed Abdu called on parents not to send their children to foreign schools that “tend to change their habits and religious faith. And in 1938, Arabic scholarTaha Hussein wrote his book “The Future of Culture in Egypt, in which he advocated doing away with all teaching of foreign languages in the primary stage in state schools.

However, in the globalized age, such arguments seem to be outdated as the number of language and international schools in Egypt is growing considerably.

According to Hala Hosni, deputy head of New Generation International School, the number of international schools in Egypt has reached 115 from around 12 a few years ago.

“Nowadays, good education and international schooling are synonyms, she says, explaining how receiving a foreign education has become a trend that no parents want their children to miss out on.

For many families, the proficiency in foreign languages offered by international schools is the key to success and upward socio-economic mobility for their children. Speaking at least one foreign language, particularly English, has become a prerequisite for almost all prestigious jobs in Egypt.

“Even illiterate parents want to enroll their children in reputable international schools to offer them the best education possible, Hosni told Daily News Egypt.

Observers, however, attribute the trend to a deep distrust of national schools, which do not meet many families’ standards of proper education.

“National Arabic schools lack not only the ability to teach foreign languages, but also the proper character-building techniques, Marawan told Daily News Egypt, explaining that she would probably send her child to an international school that pays enough attention to the Arabic language.

Responding to parents’ demands, an increasing number of international schools are integrating Arabic and religious studies into their curricula.

El-Meshad believes that foreign education is one thing and using a foreign language as the primary teaching language is another.

“My child attends an international school that combines early language learning with preserving the students’ cultural identity, she says.

El-Meshad believes that using English as the main teaching language is an asset, arguing that some of the children who attend national schools live even more Westernized lifestyles than their counterparts who attend international schools.

New Generation’s website states that the school offers its students an American Diploma, but stresses how its curricula include Arabic and religious studies and respect cultural codes.

Hosni explains how the kind of education they offer creates an open-minded character that is “a blend of cultures.

International schools in Egypt teach their own curricula, without abiding by the government-approved syllabi. Although such freedom gives much room for creativity, some people consider it a double-edged sword.

“Using a foreign language as the main teaching language definitely affects children’s command of Arabic negatively, says Omar. He argues that by restricting a child to speaking a foreign language at school, we are not raising a person who can use his/her own language properly.

Cole expressed a similar view, adding that “Arabic has been eroded as a language of higher learning in most fields other than Islamic subjects and Arabic literature.

However, Malcolm Edwards, professor of applied linguistics at Birkbeck University of London, argues that the influence of such schools is probably minimal.

“As access to such schools is invariably limited, and pupils generally come from families with an ‘international’ or cosmopolitan inclination, their impact on the wider population is limited, he says.

Hosni, on the other hand, blames the dwindling cultural and national belonging among young Egyptians on families rather than schools.

Inferiority complex?

In a country where a good command of foreign languages is a career asset and a source of prestige, by speaking English or French, one can be sending messages about one’s social and economic class.

“Some people automatically look down upon women who wear niqab (face veil) like me, but their attitude totally shifts when they realize that I speak English fluently, El-Meshad says.

A growing number of middle and upper class parents use foreign languages – particularly English – to communicate with their children, or at least insert foreign words and expressions into their everyday conversations, either because it has become the norm or to convey a certain impression about their social and educational backgrounds.

As such, among many urban-raised children and youngsters, Arabic is increasingly considered inferior.

“Egyptians are ready to pay a fortune for anything coming from abroad, says Hosni, attributing it to an inferiority complex.

In the Egyptian context, English, for instance, is not simply a lingua franca; rather, it has turned to an elitist expression of social and economic superiority, particularly when it is spoken among native Egyptians.

Omar attributes the positive connotations of speaking foreign languages to the relic of the colonial era. Traditionally, the elite spoke foreign languages to communicate with the colonizers, which granted them prestige as well as high-ranking jobs.

Allam believes that the excessive use of foreign languages, chiefly English, in Egyptians’ everyday life is a symptom rather than a disease.

“We shy away from our cultural identity, and that’s the real problem, she explains.

Although some people argue that Egyptian society is facing an identity crisis, Cole believes that this is an overestimate of the situation, desc
ribing the influence of foreign languages and the cultures they convey as rather “a cause for concern.

According to Edwards, the idea of the Egyptian identity being threatened by the pursuit of foreign languages “may be something more feared than real.

Still, he says, “the use of English is likely to represent an escape for some, and an abandonment of traditional or national identity for others.

Ironically, the deepening social malady has proved to be highly contagious.

“Today, all people, including those from modest social backgrounds, use a mix of Arabic and English in their conversations, Hosni told Daily News Egypt.

International phenomenon?

Some experts argue that the “globalization of English is an international rather than an Egyptian phenomenon. According to some estimates, the ratio of non-native speakers to native speakers of English is between 2 to 1 and 4 to 1.

However, the growing phenomenon is increasingly regarded as a menace to local languages.

“Hundreds, even thousands of languages have disappeared or almost disappeared in the past 200 years due to colonialism and, more recently, globalization, Cole says.

But he adds: “Arabic has not been eroded too much. That is in part because Arabic is the language of the Quran and thus of Islam and also because of efforts made in the name of Arab nationalism.

Yet, many voices call for protecting the Arabic language from deterioration.

“The Arabic language is being torn apart, and this in turn has negative social and cultural repercussions, says Omar, explaining how globalization is speeding up what Western imperialism started decades ago.

Perhaps history repeats itself since what is seen now as hegemony of Western culture is not unprecedented. Throughout history, there were complaints about how certain languages and cultures prevailed.

“The history of languages shows that fears of incursion, dilution, weakening and even death of one language in the face of another are ever-present when there is contact, says Edwards.

In the mid-ninth century, a Christian priest from Andalusia wrote: “Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention.

And in the 15th century, Ibn Khaldun, the North African social scientist, explained how “defeated peoples imitate the customs of their conquerors, in his famous book “Al-Muqaddimah.

Although the age of territorial conquest ended long time ago, the Arab world is still “defeated in so many ways. No wonder experts argue that the retreat of Arabic in the face of foreign languages is a natural by-product of a general state of decay.

Topics: Aboul Fotouh

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