Time to get over this pointless language barrier

It’s not which tongue you use, but what you say that is important, says Shane McGinley
Shane McGinley
By Shane McGinley
Wed 23 Oct 2013 04:52 PM

Recent Arabian Business cover star Sheikh Mohamed AJ Althani argues that Arab parents’ obsession with speaking English to their children is “a big problem” and is leading to the Arab world slowly losing its identity.

“We all now take our children to a Western-influenced school. But if it was up to me I would leave the first years for children to really remember this part of the world; religion and culture are very important and if they miss out on that they get lost later as they grow up, so it’s a big challenge... And that’s something I’m worried about,” Sheikh Mohamed said.

A quick look at the comments section on the story shows the issue soon descended into a debate over the merits of the English language and the pros and cons of its rapid globalisation.

Coming from Ireland I can empathise with Sheikh Mohamed’s point of view. My grandfather was of the generation that spoke Gaelic, the native Irish language, and was forced to learn English. I can still remember when I was young, going to visit my older relatives in the west of Ireland and their staunch refusal to speak English, forcing me to use the pidgin Gaelic I had learnt in school.

It is still compulsory to learn Gaelic in Irish schools, or if you want to go to an Irish university, join the Irish police force or get an Irish government job. But, bar road signs, government documents and the odd staunchly nationalistic rural resident, Gaelic is a dying language. English, meanwhile, is widespread and the first language for the vast majority of Irish people.

However, I don’t think the loss of the Gaelic language has had much impact on Ireland as a country and, if anything, it has helped it to better integrate on the international stage. Would Irish people have travelled less if they only spoke Gaelic and would Joyce, Wilde and Bono have been as successful? Who knows.

The influence and impact of English is a matter for global debate and not just in the Arabic-speaking world. For decades, China rigorously forced its children to learn English in order to progress in the world of business. But at the moment a debate is raging in China about the importance of English and Beijing’s obsession with the language is diminishing.

As we speak, the Chinese government is making moves to remove English from the nationwide higher education entrance test. Previously, English and Chinese were ranked equally but now the government wants to promote Chinese a lot more. As the world’s second biggest economy, is China’s rethink on English a sign of its growing power and the waning influence of the UK and US?

Back in Europe, France traditionally guarded its national language and detested the distilling of French with English-sounding modern words and slang. However, this summer the French parliament began debating whether to allow French universities to teach some courses in English. Some saw this as a national betrayal while others saw it as inevitable.

"We must teach in English or there will only remain in France a handful of experts discussing Proust around the table," French higher education minister Genevieve Fioraso said.

Last year, Qatar University, the country's largest tertiary educational institution, ruled that all lessons in business, economics, media and international affairs were to be taught solely in Arabic instead of English.

As the debate rages from Beijing to Paris to Doha over the link between national identity and language I think it slightly misses the point. It’s not what language you say something in, whether it is Arabic, English, Gaelic or Chinese, but what you actually say.

Language is just the medium, not the message. Authorities should be more concerned with the standard and quality of education children are receiving, rather than what language they are receiving it in. A racist, a bigot, a poet or a genius’ message is the same, whether it is said in English, Arabic, Chinese or French.

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