English Language ‘Lost in Translation’ in Arab World

A recent article written by the chief editor of the Arab Weekly, Oussama Romdhani, suggests that the lack of English proficiency “deprives the Arab region of a crucial bridge to the rest of the world”.

According to the latest EF English Proficiency Index, released by the EF Education First in Zurich, the Arab region is the least skilled in English among all the regions of the world.

The research, which considered data collected from over 1.3 million non-native English speakers, who were located in 88 different countries or regions, highlights some surprising information regarding the proficiency of native Arabic speakers to communicate proficiently in English.

Many Arabic nations ranked either low, or very low, however, Lebanon ranked 33rd, with a moderate proficiency level.

Oussama Romdhani suggests this “sorry state” both “explains and predestines the Arab world to lag in terms of interconnectedness with the rest of the world, engagement in the globalised economy, technological innovation and even social progress.”

He goes on to say that “the English language teaching deficiencies are part of the wider problem of educational systems that need desperate repairs in most of the Arab world.”

However, there have been incentives, released primarily by the UAE, which are set to address this problem. Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed recently launched Madrasa, the Arab world’s largest e-learning platform, which includes over 5000 free lessons in subjects such as biology, math, and chemistry, with further subjects being added over time.

The aim of projects and incentives such as these, are to bridge the knowledge gap in the Arab world, which is key to boosting a civilisation’s progress.

Among the ten lowest-ranking countries on the EF scale are Libya and Iraq, which can, in part, be explained due to decades of conflict, volatility and insufficient government policies. These three points have been found to pre-empt serious educational progress and language training in countries where instability is rife.

War torn countries, where people are suffering under conflict and displacement, such as Syria and Yemen, facilitates a failing education system where teenagers dropout of school, or are displaced by the conflict.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of English language proficiency is highest in one particular age bracket – Arab young men.

All age groups are well below the global average, but adults aged 18-20 were found to be the largest group, according to the Education First report.

This gap highlights the lack of early-years provision for English language within Arab primary schools, and secondary schools, and is also offering insufficient training for entry requirements at the predominantly English-language teaching in most Middle Eastern universities.

For those undergraduates who wish to study abroad, the difficulties faced can be even more challenging, due to their lack of English-language skills.

The Arab world is also the only region where men have higher English-speaking proficiency than women. Despite women’s success at universities in general, they are not showing an inclination to engage with the larger world through their inability to speak foreign languages.

Oussama Romdhani proposes that in order to improve the standard of English in the Arab world it would “require better social awareness and support for improved proficiency rates, as most young Arabs do not grow up in social environments where high value is placed on fluency in English.”

He suggests that lack of cultural awareness of English, and other foreign languages, is creating an environment where they are potentially seen as an “alien influence, if not a threat to identity”.

Dispelling such notions is likely to be an integral part of modernisation for the Arab world, and will include cultural awareness training and language education, in a bid to overcome comprehension differences.

The lack of English language proficiency could well deprive the Arab world of mutually beneficial interactions with the rest of the world.

Knowledge and understanding, both in language and culture, are essential if the Arab world hopes to convey the region’s values, without them becoming lost in translation.

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