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

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.

Join the Discussion

Disclaimer:The view expressed here by our readers are not necessarily shared by Arabian Business, its employees, sponsors or its advertisers.

NOTE: Comments posted on arabianbusiness.com may be printed in the magazine Arabian Business

Please post responsibly. Commenter Rules

Posted by: Kinvara

T� s� an t�bhachtach na teangacha dh�chais a chosaint. N�l teangeola� m�, ach is � an Ghaeilge n�os fearr n� an chuid eile! T� s� go s�r�lainn. T� muid n�os saibhre leis na teangacha dh�chais f�s ina gc�na� ar an domhain seo againne.

You say that, but for ?the odd staunchly nationalistic rural resident, Gaelic is a dying language?. Why have you described Irish speakers in such negative terms? The fact that you have underlines Sheikh Mohamed?s key concern. (Anyone interested in hearing the Irish language can check out one of Col�iste Lurgan?s songs on Youtube .)

Furthermore, the Irish language is an important element of ?Brand Ireland? and you must understand that localization is as important as globalization in many respects when it comes to winning business.

Is mise le meas.

Posted by: Mick (no, really)

I grew up on Cape Breton Island, east coast of Canada and my grandparents, like many in CB, spoke fluent gaelic. My mother spoke a bit (as you call it pidgen gaelic). Many "Capers" still find it imperative to learn and speak in Gaelic. I've only learned a few niceties (as well as a few non-niceties) in the ancient language. We still have a college in Baddeck called the Cape Breton Gaelic College. I've been here in Dubai, now, for 5 years and have seen the western influence advance into the lifestyles of younger Emiratis and I still believe that, although, they watch western cinema, drive western cars, wear Yankees caps with their khanduras, they still maintain a very solid level of their culture unlike many other cultures. I do, however, really enjoy speaking with the older generation of Emiratis that are much more sincere in their kindness and humility due to the fact that they weren't raised in the MTV Arabia generation.

Posted by: Padraic

"I don?t think the loss of the Gaelic language has had much impact on Ireland as a country". Books could be written about the impact the language shift had! Language change is not a simple process. The effect it has had on the Irish mind and psyche can be seen to this day. In fact you seem to suffer from this post-colonial mind-set that is prevalent in Ireland i.e. a rejection and shame of what defines national culture and identity i.e. language, culture etc.
"Would Irish people have travelled less if they only spoke Gaelic and would Joyce, Wilde and Bono have been as successful?" Joyce and Wilde were of British descent living in the 'Pale' which became English-speaking a lot earlier than the rest of Ireland. Nowadays, being able to speak English is widespread all over Europe. Look to Scandinavia ? they managed to keep their own languages but speak perfect English. Being bilingual is the norm and an advantage not a disadvantage!

Posted by: Padraic

"It is still compulsory to learn Gaelic?to go to an Irish university, join the Irish police force or get an Irish government job". You do not need Irish to go to university or work in the civil service (obligation ended in 1974!). And the level of Irish needed to be a Garda is very low - try to speak Irish with most Garda� and they won't have a clue!
"But, bar road signs, government documents and the odd staunchly nationalistic rural resident, Gaelic is a dying language". Yes Irish is under threat like most minority languages in the world but to say it's only spoken by 'nationalistic rural residents' is completely ignorant. I'm a fluent Irish speaker in my twenties and I speak Irish every day! I am proud of my country, language and culture but I'm not a nationalist/republican! Most other Irish speakers I know are the same!

Posted by: Padraic

A very misinformed and ignorant piece of journalism. When I studied journalism in university we were told to check every fact and then check it again!
"My grandfather was of the generation that spoke Gaelic". The Irish language is still spoken by every generation. Maybe he was of the last generation in your family to speak Irish but not in the country as a whole! Native Gaeltacht speakers are still being born!
"...forcing me to use the pidgin Gaelic I had learnt in school". Bilingualism is common all over the world and has countless benefits for children. It's a pity you didn't embrace it! And you should have been proud that some members of your family were native Irish speakers and that you had a chance to use the Irish you learnt in school!

All comments are subject to approval before appearing

Most Discussed