DOHA // Abbas al Tonsi sees something wrong in a future where citizens of Gulf countries wear dishdashas and abayas but are unable to speak Arabic.
“How can you say ‘I am an Arab’ if you don’t know the language?” said the professor of Arabic at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
For Mr al Tonsi, who has written several Arabic textbooks and has been teaching the language for almost 40 years, the crisis is personal. “I am afraid that after 20 years,” he said, “Arabic will just be a language of religious ritual.”
The native tongue for more than 300 million people and used regularly by 1.6 billion Muslims, Arabic is in no danger of extinction. But because of the dominance of English, its usage in everyday life is under threat in several of the Gulf’s smaller states.
A senior official at Qatar’s ministry of culture, arts and heritage recently acknowledged Arabic’s decline and underscored the seriousness of the problem. “Language is the key issue for the identity of a society,” Marzook Basher Binmarzook said last month.
Mr al Tonsi’s forthcoming study of Arabic instruction reveals how Qatari schools are helping to erode that identity. Standards are vague and not communicated well to the teachers, he said.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Meet this level of efficiency’. But how do you guide the teachers to get the students there?” said Mr al Tonsi. “What exactly are the main ideas? In these standards, there are no indicators of intent, no uniform lesson plans or content.”
Secondly, he said, most of the Arabic teachers were inadequately trained and relied on outdated methods.
“The teachers mainly teach grammar, and it’s mainly teacher-centred,” Mr al Tonsi said. “They lecture rather than engage the students.”
Finally, schools use a wide variety of textbooks, which complicates proficiency testing. They also lean too heavily on grammar, according to Mr al Tonsi, and use simplistic drills that fail to develop critical thinking. Further, most books are overly proud and authoritarian, he said.
“‘We are the best, we are the bravest’ – you feel this is nonsense if you’re a young person,” said Mr al Tonsi, who co-authored Al Khitaab, an Arabic textbook used in about 700 universities worldwide.
Similar problems exist in the UAE. Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority recently found that Arabic in private schools was poorly taught by underqualified teachers using inadequate resources.
In addition, fewer Gulf nationals are opting for teaching careers because of low pay and a lack of cultural respect. And a major reform programme in Qatar has instituted a more westernised curriculum.
“Westernising the curriculum, per se, is not necessarily bad,” said Hatem Samman, the director of the Ideation Centre, a think tank based in Dubai, where Arabic has also lost ground in most primary schools. “But if you bring in English in mathematics, geography and science, that definitely has an effect on Arabic, on the language and the culture as well.”
Gulf culture has in recent decades shifted towards the West. Arabs represent a minority population in Qatar, as in the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain. English dominates business, and is more common in many public places, such as malls.
Many schools now favour English as the primary medium of instruction. And Education City in Doha, American University in Dubai and Sharjah and New York University in Abu Dhabi point to a higher educational system that is embracing English.
Many students and their parents see it as the best route to success.
“Many Arab families now want their children to learn English before they learn Arabic,” said Jinanne Tabra, the founder of Araboh, a producer of contemporary Arabic learning materials. “There is this ridiculous impression that English is somehow superior to Arabic.”
But instead of becoming bilingual, most students in Qatar lack fluency in any language. In the past four years, only five to seven per cent of primary and junior high school students in Qatar achieved acceptable standards in national tests for Arabic and English.
“Unless you have a very solid system of your first language you cannot progress in a second language,” Mr al Tonsi said. “Learning Arabic is important for learning English well – it’s very clear.”
As a result, the cultural winds may be shifting again. Last month the UAE announced a new national plan to help Arabic “re-emerge as a dynamic and vibrant language”. Qatar has organised seminars and festivals to celebrate Arabic language and culture.
Mr al Tonsi has more concrete recommendations. He would like to see all courses from preschool to middle school taught in Arabic and English. He cited the example of Lebanon, where most students were fluent in three languages by the time they reached their adolescence.
He urged schools to improve teacher training and create extra curricular activities in which students could converse in Arabic – book clubs, speech groups, drama clubs and poetry readings. He also thinks schools should use audio and video as the main texts, and teach an Arabic that is challenging, enjoyable, respectful of young minds and develops critical thinking.
Maybe learning Arabic could even be fun. “You will never learn a language unless you are willing to learn it,” he said. “No one learns a language by force.”