Let us learn in our own language, says Algerian scholar

Use of English and French in Middle Eastern universities creates a divisive elite, argues Inam Bioud

April 17, 2014

The widespread use of English and French is a “blight” on universities across the Arab world because it forces students to study in a foreign language, an Algerian academic and poet has said.

Inam Bioud said that by not using the language of the man in the street, Arab university “elites” created a divide between them and their societies. She urged the region’s institutions to “embrace” a modernised Arabic.

A patchwork of Arabic, English and French is spoken in universities across the Middle East and North Africa, and there have been calls for them to switch to English to make their graduates more attractive to multinational companies looking to set up in the region.

At a conference in London, Dr Bioud said that students taught in Arabic at the primary and secondary level get a “linguistic shock” at university: “They are compelled to pursue their studies in a foreign language for which they are ill equipped.”

Unless Arab states decide to teach English or French to all learners, they should “embrace the Arabic language as the solution to our problem rather than continue to view it as a problem”, she said. Bilingualism can be good for a society, but “the presence of university elites who communicate in a foreign language…generates a divide between these elites and the societies in which they evolve”.

Dr Bioud, founding director of the Higher Arab Institute of Translation in Algiers, cautioned that if a move towards more Arabic is to work, the “huge deficit” of scientific works in the language must be addressed by an intensive translation programme. The paucity of scientific texts in Arabic meant there was a “lack of interest” in science in the region, she told the Gulf Education Conference, held last month.

Dr Bioud also declared that Arabic needed urgently to be modernised by simplifying its grammar, restoring its “scientific features” and removing the “shackles of priestly auras” around it.

Only 1.7 per cent of universities in the Middle East and North Africa are monolingual in Arabic, according to Higher Education Classification in the Middle East and North Africa: A Pilot Study, a report by the Institute of International Education.

One fifth used only English, whereas 37 per cent used a mixture of Arabic and French and just over a quarter used Arabic and English. Eleven per cent used all three languages, finds the report, which is based on a survey of 300 institutions across seven countries. With regard to student instruction, only 15 per cent of universities teach the humanities solely in Arabic, while “almost none” used the language for the sciences, the 2012 report says.

In the humanities, Morocco was the only country where a majority of universities used only Arabic. English dominates in the Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.


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Reader's comments (1)

Thank you for raising the old-new debate on the language of instruction in Arab universities. The article essentially points to the limited success of the national translation policies in the Arab world. It has been pointed out that translation policy makers in Tunis, Cairo and Dubai are representing the elite of society and not serving the best interests of ‘the man in the street” as professor Bioud so correctly and candidly puts it. Over the years most Arab universities moved towards English and French as the de facto language of instruction except in Syria. However, professional results do not show any direct benefits from the current modus operandi. Syrian-educated doctors, for example, are among the most successful in Australia and the United States. As the Arab world is characterised by a youthful population that is fast espousing digital technology there seems to be another revolution in the air; an educational one. There is no denying that translation will always play a decisive role and this points to ‘audiovisual translation studies’ which is yet to take root in Arabic. For many years, televisions in Arab cities have been subtitling foreign language programs into Arabic but without considering screen translation as a discipline to be examined in its own right. Now there are screens everywhere: in the street, the car, school, work, and at home. Information as well as entertainment is being broadcast via a screen and every hand, young and old, seems to have a smart phone with a screen. There is an opportunity to rectify the situation in Algeria as well as in the Gulf States by espousing audiovisual translation which can easily replace the not-too-successful translation programs and campaigns that exist in almost every Arab country from Egypt to Lebanon and the Emirates. There is no doubt that teaching Arabic at primary and secondary schools needs a facelift. However, the solution must be well-orchestrated and must be multimodal at the audio and visual levels. It needs to win the hearts and minds of 60% of the population (the youth who are under 25). It must be remembered that Arabic content online is still very modest at 1% of the total content. Academic institutions, and particularly translation departments, need to shift to digital technology and to content creation which is essentially more efficient to organize, more economical to do and easier to access. Muhammad Y Gamal, PhD University of Canberra Australia


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