Lost in translation

Lack of English language proficiency deprives the Arab region of a crucial bridge to the rest of the world.
Sunday 11/11/2018
Iraqi schoolgirls attend an English class at a school in western Mosul. (AFP)
Listen, look and say. Iraqi schoolgirls attend an English class at a school in western Mosul. (AFP)

The latest EF English Proficiency Index, released by the EF Education First in Zurich, affirms the unfortunate status of the Arab region as the least skilled in English among all regions of the world.

The survey, which collected the views of 1.3 million non-native speakers of English in 88 countries or regions, did not list any Arab country among the top 30. The closest an Arab country gets to a nearly acceptable rank is Lebanon, which ranks 33rd, with a “moderate” level of proficiency.

The ranks of other Arab nations vary between “low” and “very low.” A sorry state that 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.

Among the ten lowest-ranking countries, five are from the Arab world, including the two countries that rank at the bottom of the EF scale. Those are oil-rich Libya and Iraq, a stark illustration of how decades of strife, instability and inadequate policies pre-empted serious educational progress and language training.

In Libya, many generations suffer from the consequences of former strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s paranoid suspicion of foreign languages. Seven years of conflict and displacement since the toppling of the Libyan regime have prevented the rebuilding of the country’s socio-economic and educational systems.

In Iraq, methods of foreign language teaching, often the same as used in the 1950s, have been an abysmal failure. Decades of war and strife did the rest.

In many other places as well — such as Syria and Yemen — the schooling of Arab teenagers is disrupted by war and displacement and soaring dropout rates.

English language teaching deficiencies are part of the wider problem of educational systems that need desperate repairs in most of the Arab world. Recent studies show that even illiteracy is alarmingly making a comeback.

Not surprisingly, the lack of English language proficiency is obvious in one particular age bracket of Arab young men: “All age groups fall well below global averages but the cohort that is farthest behind is unfortunately also the largest: adults aged 18 to 20,” notes the Education First report.

This gap is an unavoidable reflection of the inadequacy of English language training at primary and secondary school levels.

This kind of insufficient training ill prepares secondary school graduates for the requirements of predominantly English-language teaching at most Middle Eastern universities. For those studying abroad, the challenge is even greater because Arab students are not prepared for the communication and research uses of English.

The insufficiencies of university training can only compound the chronic mismatch between educational systems and the job market where a foreign language such as English is a highly demanded skill. The problem hinders the employment of young Arab graduates in search of jobs at home and abroad in today’s highly globalised marketplace. It also deprives economic systems seeking to attract foreign investors, businessmen or tourists of a huge potential.

In the Maghreb, English language proficiency is hampered by the third-language status of English.

Families in the region are increasingly aware of the adverse effects on their children of foreign language deficiencies. They are accordingly tempted to send their children to private schools but such schools are costly and therefore inaccessible to the vast majority of students. Even public education graduates often end up taking remedial courses, especially if they are considering emigration.

Only correctly designed and implemented policies in the Arab world’s public education systems can ensure the adequate training of the masses of young men and women graduating each year.

It is also unacceptable that the Middle East remains the only region of the world where men show better rates of English proficiency than women. Despite their high graduation rates at the university, young women do not show sufficient motivation to engage the outside world through foreign languages.

Improving English standards for both sexes, especially young women, 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. They may even face culturally conservative environments where English or any foreign language for that matter is seen as an alien influence if not a threat to identity.

Dispelling such inhibitive notions must be part of any economic modernisation process in the region. Speaking English and speaking it well are prerequisites in such a process.

Lack of English proficiency deprives the Arab region of a crucial bridge to the rest of the world. There is no hope for a better understanding of the region’s realities if its messages are continuously lost in translation.