Is There Anything Wrong With Losing Your Language?

So, the trend among international schools here in Jordan seems to be focusing on delivering all classes except Arabic, religion, and social studies in English.  I’ve been thinking a bit lately about whether this is a good thing.  I have to admit, it worries me a bit.  On the playgrounds of these schools you hear mostly heavily accented English.  Often that accent is Filipina or Indonesian rather than one of the common Arab accents.  I even have friends struggling with their kids speaking this way when one of the parents is a native English speaker.  From personal experience, I can tell you it’s hard to hold out.  After all, that’s what they hear and what is easily understood.  So, it’s natural that they slip into it.

El 3atal and I moved to Jordan to get the Beans some fluency in Arabic.  It’s been a hard road… and we’re not there yet.  ButterBean’s comprehension is literally better than many of her peers who have mostly Arabic at home.  Her spoken Arabic is still weak, mostly because she’s shy to speak and all of her friends speak English.  JujuBean is much the same.  Her standard Arabic improves continually, her spoken not as much.  Our reason for coming removed some schools from consideration for us.  After all, places like American Community School and Modern American School teach Arabic as a second language one a week or every day, it doesn’t matter.  It is taught as a language rather than being the language of instruction.  So, we didn’t consider them.  Now, more and more schools have popped up with this seeming philosophy.  Schools like IAA and Mashreq and Amman Academy.  They are all sending out affluent children whose English is likely to be better than their Arabic.  And is this something that should worry us?

In a society like Jordan, movement among classes is beyond difficult.  Often it seems impossible.  The child of a garbage man is not going to be a CEO or Prime Minister (see Jaraad’s comment o my previous post).  Moving from lower class to upper class is becoming harder, not easier, as the days pass.  And, the middle class is shrinking.  This means the disparity between rich and poor is becoming a larger and larger gulf.  Once it was about money and social standing.  Now, I think it’s beginning to include language as well.  If most of the schools that enroll the majority of the affluent students teach in English and reward those skills, what incentive is there for students to learn Arabic?  These students are not likely to take the Tawjihi (a whole different topic and a move I think is the right one.  The government needs to be listening to the fact that its most educated population thinks Tawjihi is not the right approach).  So, when, then, and why would they spend time really understanding Arabic as a beautiful language?

And if this population doesn’t learn Arabic, what will that mean for the workplace of tomorrow?  Will we have a cadre of owners and managers who can’t speak the same language as their supervisors and workers?  How will any company develop a common culture when there isn’t a common language?  And how will private industry relate to government, which is filled with folks who completed Tawjihi and use Arabic as the language of choice?  What implications does it have on that already widening gulf?

For us, our kids understanding Arabic was as much about understanding themselves as complete people, 1/2 Jordanian, 1/2 American, half English-speaking, half Arabic.  I didn’t want children who didn’t understand their father’s culture, and language is a big part of that.  After all, can you rail at the oldest son in America who fails to name his first son after granddad if you raised him 100% American.  If you never gave him a language or cultural concept of himself as Arab, why would you expect him to be when a baby comes?  So, I wonder, is language important?  Or is it okay that much of affluent Jordan is writing it off as a life skill for their kids?

Happy Expressiveness!


12 thoughts on “Is There Anything Wrong With Losing Your Language?

  1. Jordan is still much better than Lebanon where they speak three languages all at once. Seriously, it is more than just a language issue. It is a cultural shift and one that disconnects the youth from the older generation and makes it more difficult to show respect and appreciation to one’s own heritage. Not sure though what to make of English language movie and TV satellite channels that are overdubbing their programs in Arabic. Certainly not out of language preservation since it’s mostly slang/street Arabic.

    • Joe, I tend to agree on the dubbing issue. I can’t watch those shows. Thought I’d try to improve my Arabic… sigh. high-pitched voices, melodrama, and sound and picture tracks that don’t match… talk about a nightmare. But I also think this is more and a young/old thing. Younger folks from less affluent areas aren’t learning English and certainly aren’t learning only English. So, how will the two halves of the country relate? Especially seeing as it won’t be anywhere near half… seems to me another country has demonstrated what happens when a small percentage of the population is seriously out of touch… SIgh.

  2. Last year when we visited Amman My 2 yo daughter then couldn’t communicate w/ most of the kids her age -friends and relatives- simply because she speaks Arabic and they don’t!

    • Nido, I can definitely see how this could be. It’s one of those challenges for us… we can’t find playmates for the Beans who only speak Arabic. Glad to hear your daughter speaks Arabic, at least someone is keeping it alive!

  3. You bring up some good points! My parents also brought us to Jordan to learn the language, culture and religion. We also got the opportunity to interact with my dads side of the family and I believe that was valuable. My Arabic skills are still so-so but much better than if we had stayed in the US!
    What I have noticed while working in Jordan is that English is more important than Arabic but so is the accent. I taught English for a while and they cared more about my “American accent” than my teaching skills. I think we are moving towards a more global world and the language is English but we aren’t preserving the richness of the Arabic language and culture that comes along with it. I hope we don’t lose the language.

    • Winter, exactly. While you find that English is more used in higher circles of business, Arabic is still a necessity in working with the masses. Management are often the only folks who speak English well enough to use it. And, depending on the age, I think school should put more focus on native speakers of English with good accents. KG is the perfect time to do accent work with kids and instead KGs are focused on giving worksheets and pushing reading and writing… sigh. Alas.

  4. Very interesting. We have a similar situation in Turkey in higher education. A great percentage of university education is conducted in English, which really stunts your education if you’re not fluent.

    Alas, my son has partially lost his first language (Spanish) and my daughter never fully learned it. But we are now using it again the last two years since we have contact with other Latins here.

    • Olive, very interesting perspective. I know so very little about Turkey. Here, higher education that is supposed to be in English is often half/half. After all, professors are a mixed bag, some are unable to complete a Master’s level lecture in only English. I guess that would be fine if it weren’t billed as a course in English…

  5. Wow, you took this a couple steps deeper than the “American Mom Loses Her English Skills And Her Kids Speak Broken English AND Arabic”. Ramificaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaations.

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