By Dudley Reynolds/Doha
Arabic or English? Like many countries around the world today, Qatar faces a dilemma.
It is unimaginable to think of Qatari children who cannot read a news story, write a business letter, or give a public speech in Arabic.
At the same time, the number of websites, scientific publications and master’s degrees in places like Denmark and Singapore that are offered only in English grows exponentially every year.
In 2004 Qatar’s independent schools embarked on a series of ambitious educational reforms, including the decision to teach science and math in English at all grade levels.
The goal was to ensure that Qatar’s children would be prepared to participate in the 21st century’s globalised workforce.
They would graduate from independent schools and proceed to study advanced degrees - in English -at both Qatar University and the American universities hosted in Education City.
In 2012, this policy was reversed and instruction reverted to Arabic, the language these children learned first from their parents and grandparents.
I am president of the TESOL International Association, the largest international association of English language teachers, with more than 12,000 members in over 150 countries.
I am also a teacher of first-year English at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar.
You might think therefore that I would question Qatar’s recent policy shift back to Arabic.
I still remember my seventh grade Life Science class.
We studied cell structures, genes and human reproduction.
If I had learned these topics in French, the one foreign language I knew at the time, I never would have understood what was happening to my mother-in-law when the doctors told us she had cancer or why my children needed to be tested for genetic conditions that their parents might have.
The idea that Qatar must choose Arabic or English, however, is a false choice.
Because I learned about cell structures in English, I can now read news stories about the Zika virus in Spanish, a language I started learning my senior year in high school and which I ended up mastering much better than French.
You might ask why would I want to read articles in Spanish if I can read English.
There are many reasons.
Since I can read about the Zika virus in Spanish and English, I can compare the perspectives of people who are already living with the effects of the virusand those who are worried it will hit them next.
I also have access to a wider range of scientific perspectives.
Perhaps more importantly, many years of linguistic, psychological, and anthropological research demonstrate clear social and cognitive benefits from multilingualism - everything from sharper mental functioning to being more empathetic to the needs of others.
In a world increasingly torn apart by lack of empathy for other cultures and misinformation about the needs and achievements of others, we need future generations who can read, synthesise and create understandings that bridge our divides.
To do this, we have to begin with language.
Regardless of the country we call home, we should ensure that our children fully command the language of their heritage so that they can represent that heritage to the world.
We must also prepare them to step out into that world, to listen, learn, and interact, to see through the linguistic lens of other cultures.
- Dudley Reynolds is president of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) International Association, and teaching professor of English at CMU-Q.
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