English language skills matter in the Arab world

2017/12/03 Issue: 134 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly

In terms of the English language, there is cheering news for the Middle East and North Africa. The 2017 English Proficiency Index, put out by Education First, an international teaching company, stated that some countries are doing rather better than before. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has inched its way up the scale and is a bit more fluent than last year.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the bad news is far more significant. Every Arab country on the 80-country index is ranked either “low” or “very weak” in English language skills.

Except for Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are ranked “low,” the Arab world is at the bottom of the pile, with the dispiriting rank of “very weak.” As the report pointed out: “Average English proficiency across the region remains too weak for academic or professional use.”

This means the region is missing out on the benefits of English language fluency. The ability to use English proficiently ties in with economic opportunity. International trade represents more than 30% of world gross domestic product and the common language required for global transactions is overwhelmingly English. The report notes that English proficiency correlates with GDP and other key economic indicators. Countries with better English language skills “tend to have more service exports, better internet access and more investment in research and development,” the report stated.

Open, trade-driven economies count an excellent knowledge of English as an asset. Linguistic fluency promotes the exchange of ideas and there is no reason that Arabs should be denied access to the international opportuni­ties that come with English skills.

Arab educational systems must improve students’ English language skills. The Education First report recommended the teaching of English as a foreign language to all children starting in primary school, that educational methods be modernised and that teachers be better trained towards that end.

The region’s relatively high access to the inter­net should be an asset. The UAE’s 5-year-old smart learning initiative might serve as an example of how to move forward in the digital age. When fully implemented, there will be “smart classes” in all the country’s public schools and every student would use a net­worked tablet to access online English resources.

Promotion of the English language poses no danger to Arab culture. It would cement the vital ties between Arab countries and the rest of the world and improve Arabs’ chances of progress and modernity.

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