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The Role of English in the United Arab Emirates and Resulting Implications for English Teaching

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The Role of English in the United Arab Emirates and Resulting Implications for English Teaching
Cynthia Dorsey
I. English Use in the UAE
On any day in the UAE, an observer is likely to witness these English interactions:
An American businessman meeting with a South African associate
A Ugandan worker speaking with her Emirati employer
A Polish mother conferencing with the British principal of the international school
A Pakistani shopkeeper helping his Australian customer
A professor from India teaching his class of Arab students
A Filipina nanny conversing with her Emirati charges
And any of these people are likely to speak to all of the others, as well. Emirati nationals make up only
nineteen percent of the population of the small country. Immigrants from South Asia are 50%, from
other Arab countries and Iran, 23%, and Westerners and East Asians make up the remaining 8% (Index
Mundi, 2014). With such a diverse population, it is no wonder that English plays an important role in the
UAE.
The British had little interest in the area of Arabia which became the United Arab Emirates until
1820, when a treaty was signed between the British Empire and the sheikhs of the western Arabian Gulf
coast with the objective of making the waters of the Gulf safe for trade with India. Pirates had been a
problem in the area, and the treaty established a truce between factions conducting warfare at sea. The
area became known as the Trucial States, a protected British territory. However, the treaty did not bring
much contact between the local Gulf Arab population and English speakers, because the desert land was
seen as inhospitable and worthless. The Trucial States were never colonized by the British, and so the
English language had little impact on the area until the discovery of oil reserves in the Gulf region in the
1930s. Regular contact between native English speakers and residents of the Trucial States became
much more common after British oil conglomerates began to extract oil off the coasts of Abu Dhabi and
Dubai in the late 1950s and 1960s (Boyle, 2012, p. 316).
With the massive oil wealth that began to flood the newly-formed United Arab Emirates in the
1970s, also came a desire for modernization and economic expansion. The expertise that was needed to
carry out modernization plans had to be imported. Multinational corporations, bringing thousands of
employees from all over the world, set up in the UAE. As Karmani (2005) observes, it was inevitable that
the language of the economic powers, the UK and the USA, would become the lingua franca for this mix
of expats. Although it is not an official language of the UAE, English is now used alongside Arabic in most
businesses and government departments in the country.
It is possible, and even easy, to live in the UAE without any knowledge of Arabic, as long as one
has a decent command of English. Almost all official documents are available in both languages, as are
government and business websites. Street signs, advertisements and shop signs are all bilingual.
Workers from the Philippines make up the bulk of the commercial workforce in shops and restaurants,
and many of them have little or no Arabic. They operate almost exclusively in English commercially. The
local population of Emiratis are finding that knowledge of English is no longer optional in their own
country. It is becoming necessary (Randall and Samimi, 2010).
The Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) recognized the necessity for English proficiency and
launched a school reform program known as the New School Model in 2010. This was part of a wider
government initiative called Vision 2030, which aims to prepare the UAE to compete globally in
commerce, science, technology and education by the year 2030. ADEC implemented a bilingual model
for curriculum in the public schools. English, science and math are now taught through the medium of
English, with Arabic, Islamic Studies, and National Education taught using Arabic (Abu Dhabi Education
Council, 2013). This policy was not without controversy, as will be discussed later. Thousands of teachers
from English-speaking countries were hired to teach in the public schools, in the hope that Emirati
students would be better prepared to enter universities both in the UAE, where most universities use
English as the medium of instruction, as well as abroad. English is now the accepted language of
business, finance, petroleum and education in the UAE - but which English?
II. Which English in the UAE?
The acceptance of the idea of multiple Englishes is a relatively recent concept. It grew out of a
response written by Braj B. Kachru in 1976 to an earlier paper by Clifford Prator. Prator railed against the
notion that varieties of English other than those considered ‘standard’ (meaning native speaker
varieties) should be studied and considered accepted varieties. Kachru’s rejoinder laid out a case for the
study of varieties of English in their own sociolinguistic contexts, and for an appreciation of the roles
English plays in settings outside the mother-tongue domain, where English had been transplanted
(Saraceni, 2015). Kachru argued, “In these countries, English is used to teach and maintain the
indigenous pattern of life and culture, to provide a link in culturally and linguistically diverse societies,
and to maintain a continuity and uniformity in educational, administrative and legal systems” (Kachru,
1976, p.225).
The ideological debate between those who advocated linguistic purism and others who urged
linguistic tolerance continued, as witnessed by a new exchange between Randolph Quirk and Kachru in
the early 1990s. Quirk argued for the necessity and desirability of a standard form of English, especially
in teaching the language to second language learners (Saraceni, 2010). Kachru responded that the idea
of codification (implying acceptance of a variety) is a tool of control and power. He further contended
that English users in many parts of the world were not using English to speak to native speakers, but to
other non-native speakers. Thus, a ‘standard’ English might not be the most appropriate choice (Kachru,
1991). By this time, a journal dedicated to the study of English varieties in the world, World Language
English, had already been established, with an editorial statement in its first issue that asserted, “English
as a world language does not ‘belong’ to mother-tongue speakers alone, but to all those who can make
effective use of it” (Abbott, 1981). The field of World Englishes had come into its own.
Kachru, as one of the most influential leaders of the new field, offered a conceptualization of
the world varieties of English called the Three Circles Model. The first circle, the Inner Circle, includes
those places where English is the native language, spread from Britain in the first wave of colonization to
America and Australia. The Outer Circle includes the places where English was spread in the ‘second
diaspora’, during colonization of India and parts of Africa and Asia. In these places, English has
developed new varietal norms and is used internally. In the third circle, The Expanding Circle, English is
taught as a foreign language, is used mainly to communicate with native speakers internationally, and is
dependent on norms from Inner or Outer Circle Englishes (Jenkins, 2014, pp. 14-15). We can start to
define English in the UAE with a look at Kachru’s model.
The UAE, never having been colonized, would seem to fit in Kachru’s Expanding Circle, which
includes those places where English is mostly learned as a foreign language. It is true that English is an
acquired language for most Emirati nationals, who use it for communication outside the confines of
their local society, but the Emiratis are a very small part of the UAE’s total population. There are large
numbers of expats, for whom English is a native language or additional language. And, as mentioned
before, English is used intra-nationally in every aspect of life in the UAE. Therefore, the Expanding Circle
designation is not entirely a good fit for the UAE. As Bruthiaux points out, this classification of a variety
of English by its geographical or geopolitical location is unable to “account for complex sociolinguistic
phenomena” (2003, p.172). And the sociolinguistic situation in the UAE is nothing if not complex.
British English has been transplanted to the UAE. The British arrived there first, and British ties
to the UAE government made British English the most accepted standard of English (the ‘acrolect’) for
many years, even though the UAE was never a British possession. The British Council still has a very
prominent role in the teaching of English in the UAE outside of the public schools, and the International
English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam is the standard by which English proficiency is measured
in the country. British lexical terms abound. People wait in queues, eat crisps and check with teachers
about their child’s marks.
However, British English is not the most widely-spoken English. The number of British expats
and British-educated locals has always been very small compared to the number of Indian nationals
working in the UAE, so Indian English has the greatest number of speakers in the country, and it has
greatly influenced the way English sounds and looks. Schneider labeled this influence of a linguistic
group outside the colonizers and the indigenous people the ‘adstrate’ (Boyle, 2012). In his
lexicogrammatical study of the English used in UAE newspapers, Boyle (2011) found many similarities
with Indian English features, such as use of the present perfect with a time adverbial and alternations of
present and past tense. This Indian English influence may, however, be more observable in newspapers
than in general English usage, because of the tendency in the UAE for certain professions (news
agencies, for example) to be dominated by individuals from a particular ethnic group. The English that is
used in any given segment of UAE society is likely to be subject to widely different influences.
More recently, American English has become a major influence on the English used in the UAE.
There are more than 1000 US-based firms operating in the UAE, and the UAE has been the largest
market in the Middle East for US exports for the past six years. The military cooperation between the
two countries continues to expand, mostly due to the UAE’s commitment to oppose Islamic extremism.
US educational institutions, including New York University, Boston University, MIT, and Johns Hopkins
University, have campuses, programs, or participate in initiatives in the UAE (Embassy of the United
Arab Emirates, 2015). Add to these the pervasive influence of American entertainment - television,
movies, video games and music - and American English becomes almost ever-present. After several
years of uncertainty, in 2014, the Abu Dhabi Education Council finally settled on American English as the
official standard for English instruction in the public schools (Abu Dhabi Education Council, 2015).
Contact with Arabic speakers has given the English used in the UAE a “local flavour” (Fussell,
2011). Anyone speaking with or listening to English used by Arab nationals will become familiar with the
religious phrases which pepper their speech: ‘insha’alla’ (God willing), ‘alhamdulilla’ (praise God),
‘masha’alla’ (what God wills). There are also hundreds of lexical items borrowed from Arabic for local
concepts, including clothing terms (kandoura, abaya, burqa), food terms (biryani, shawarma, laban),
and religious terms (eid, haram, hajj). Arab speakers of English in the UAE usually ‘open’ the computer
and ‘close’ the lights. Fussell also noted many instances of grammatic transfer from Arabic to English,
including a preference for the use of for + gerund instead of to + infinitive for purposive clauses, and the
use of a “dummy object” in sentences containing a relative clause (2011, p. 29).
English has even invaded the local Arabic, and English words pop up in conversation between
native Arabic speakers on a regular basis. I recently listened to a colleague describing her shopping
excursion (in Arabic, to a roomful of other Arabic speakers). She was particularly happy with the
shoesat’ she had purchased for a low price. (The at is a plural feminine marker in Arabic, and we often
also hear the word boardat to describe the bulletin boards in the school.) My Emirati coworkers who
studied education at Zayed University are hard-pressed to come up with Arabic translations for many
educational terms, and have told me they feel more comfortable speaking about their work in English
than in Arabic. Online, a hybrid language, 3rabizy, is developing. It uses the Latin alphabet to
transliterate Arabic words, with some numbers standing in for sounds that are not represented well by
letters, and it often has English words freely mixed with the Arabic (Bianchi, 2013).
So the question remains, which English is the English of the UAE? Schneider, in his update to the
Dynamic Model of the progression of new Englishes, does a good job of describing the situation of
English in the Expanding Circle and beyond, and his description is applicable to the UAE. In addition to
the intentional expansion of English due to policy, teaching or business interests, English is also
experiencing what Schneider termed “poststructuralist diffusion”. This idea includes selectively
borrowed elements of English, ELF, “internet adoptions of features characteristic of well-known
varieties,” and “the transnational use of whatever kinds and resources are available to individual
speakers in specific contexts” (2014, p.25-26). If it sounds as if English in the UAE, just as in most places
in the world, is a hodge-podge of uses, varieties, proficiencies and even hybrids, that is exactly so.
I would argue that there is not a new variety of English in the UAE, despite the findings in some
corpus studies of a few possibly emerging common grammatical structures and preferences in the
region (Alshurafa, 2014; Boyle, 2011). The population is too fluid, and the society too stratified to allow
for the development of a single English variety. The Indian English spoken by thousands of workers is
obviously not a ‘new’ variety. The grammar and lexical transfer from Arabic found in the population of
local Arabic speakers should not be considered a ‘new English’ because those speakers generally are not
using English to speak with each other, but as a lingua franca. David Crystal suggests that a new form of
English is developing for use in international situations, a “World Spoken Standard English, or WSSE”.
This English is formal, and when using it, you would be “consciously avoiding a word or phrase you know
is not going to be understood outside your own country…. It can also affect your pronunciation and
grammar” (2003, p. 185). It is the English of accommodation and meaning negotiation. This would be
the best definition of English in the UAE English as a Lingua Franca (ELF is used here interchangeably
with English as an International Language- see Seidlhofer (2003)).
That is not to say that there are not dozens of varieties of English present in the UAE. Crystal
(2003) goes on to describe the diglossia that many English speakers in international situations
experience. Within one’s own community, the English might be Ugandan or Indian or American English,
but when crossing over into another community, the switch to ELF is made almost unthinkingly. It is also
incorrect to say that ELF in the UAE (or anywhere) is a variety in the sense of a codified, stable language.
Jenkins notes that a prominent feature of ELF is its fluidity, its adaptability to each situational use (2014,
p. 94). An example in the UAE would be the decisions I make about using lexical borrowings from Arabic:
in conversation with a newly-arrived expat, I would avoid those terms or introduce them with
explanation, whereas with an Emirati colleague, I would use such terms freely. Users of ELF in the UAE
belong to numerous ‘communities of practice,’ and as such, they are constantly involved in the process
of asserting “their joint ownership of the lingua franca they are using - and in using it, they are shaping
and developing it” (Seidlhofer, 2009, p.242).
III. Implications for Teaching English in the UAE
Teachers of English in the UAE often go about their jobs with little thought for the sociolinguistic
implications involved. McKay (2003) observed that the teaching of English as an international language
rather than as a second language requires a new pedagogy, one that should neither be linked to native
speaker models, nor to the cultures of Inner Circle native speakers, in order to meet the needs of
international learners. In the UAE, with its official policy of achieving bilingualism for all citizens, the
pedagogical implications of the sociolinguistic context must be taken into account at the policy level as
well as by individual teachers. What follows is a brief treatment of some of the major concerns
surrounding the teaching of English in the UAE, specifically in the context of public schools.
English Variety Concerns
Kachru has labeled the idea that the “goal of learning and teaching English is to adopt the native
models of English” a ‘fallacy’ (1992, p. 358). His statement is an appropriate response to Quirk’s (1990)
lecture about the “half-baked quackery” of considering non-native varieties just as valid and acceptable
as so-called ‘standard’ Englishes. Quirk imagined that a foreign student who was paying for an English
course would “feel cheated” if he were taught a variety of English that might limit his ability to
communicate internationally. With respect to English learners in the UAE, Kachru’s point as well as
Quirk’s (however intolerantly and offensively it may have been expressed) are both applicable: the
important consideration should be the use to which the learner will put his or her English.
The extreme stratification of society in the UAE means that some of the concerns over variety
are naturally resolved. Indian nationals most often attend Indian schools, where they are undoubtedly
taught Indian English. The same goes for American and British expats. It is the Emiratis who are faced
with the dilemma of which variety to learn. Some large, prominent families hedge their bets by sending
their children to a variety of schools, this one to the American International School, that one to Al
Khubairat British School. The average Emirati student, however, attends a local public school, where the
English teachers are native speakers from all over the globe who have been directed to teach American
English. At the end of their public schooling, students will then take the IELTS to determine their
proficiency levels.
This blanket prescription of American English for all does not take the needs of learners under
consideration. Some students, who intend to go on to university abroad, will likely benefit from the
imposition of a native model. However, a large percentage of Emirati students will use English only to
communicate with foreign workers, who will most likely be second-language English users themselves.
Randall’s and Samimi’s (2010) study of police officers in Dubai underscores the participants’ realization
of their need for English in their work. The police officers rated work requirements as the most
important reason for learning English, and many mentioned that they would use English because they
must come into contact with many nationalities. It would appear that English as an international
language, rather than an Inner-Circle variety, would better meet the needs of learners in the UAE who
will use English in the workplace.
Another pedagogical concern related to language variety is the expected level of proficiency and
how that proficiency will be assessed. Seidlhofer (2003), in her review of issues surrounding
international English for the Council of Europe, contrasts ‘real English,’ which is still measured by words
such as ‘intelligibility’ that continue to have connotations of native-speaker fluency, with ‘realistic
English,’ which is the English that is actually used successfully for communication in international
contexts. This ‘realistic English’ is difficult to assess, mostly because there is not an agreed-upon set of
codified norms for English as an International Language (Hamid, 2014), although there are many
linguists working now to do just that, most notably Seidlhofer(2001), Jennifer Jenkins (2014) and
researchers connected with the VOICE Project, a collection of corpus data for English as a Lingua Franca.
For now, however, the IELTS test remains the “gate-keeper of global mobility” in the UAE
(Hamid, 2014, p.263). Before the rise of English as the world’s lingua franca, the assessment of
proficiency levels based on a ‘standard’ English was not problematic, as most test-takers did plan to use
English to communicate with native speakers in Inner Circle areas. As recently as 2014, a study of IELTS
test-takers’ opinions about the test seems to support the idea that the test should assess only Inner
Circle varieties, because, as one respondent said, “…the English in an international test like IELTS should
conform to the standard so that all test-takers feel fair irrespective of the circle they come from”
(Hamid, 2014, p.268). IELTS does measure exactly what test-takers expect it to measure: their
proficiency in a ‘standard’ English. But in general, the word ‘proficiency’ has problems. Does it mean the
ability to speak the language as it is spoken by monolingual native speakers from the Inner Circle?
Canagarajah defined it as “the ability to use the English language effectively for specific purposes,
functions and discourses in specific communities” (2006, p.235). Unfortunately, there is no
internationally recognized test for this kind of proficiency in English at the present time. In the UAE,
graduates wear their IELTS scores like badges, and a high score opens many doors, while a low score can
severely limit career choices. Perhaps the problem lies not with the test itself, but with its use to assess
proficiency for English users regardless of their intended use of English.
While English teachers might prefer to teach English as it is used in the local community, the
official expectation is still that students will attain proficiency in an Inner-Circle variety of English. This
policy should be revisited. Both Canagarajah (2013) and Seidlhofer (2003) call for a shift in pedagogy
from language teaching to teaching “language awareness”. This type of pedagogy would include
negotiation skills, such as code-switching, speech accommodation and rephrasing. It would also instill
the awareness that pragmatic norms change as one changes communities (Canagarajah, 2013, p.9). In
the complex sociolinguistic milieu of the UAE, such skills would be put to use on a regular basis by most
users of English.
However, neither teachers nor students will be willing to consider such a pedagogical shift so
long as the IELTS remains the accepted measure of English proficiency in the UAE. Especially for students
who plan to study abroad, a high score on the IELTS is a worthy goal, but for students who plan to work
in the ELF context of the UAE, a test of the kind proposed by Suresh Canagarajah (2006) makes much
more sense. This test would measure pragmatic competence in a multiple-candidate situational
conversation with raters from both the candidates’ communities and inner circle speakers. The
situational test would reflect real-life interactions and allow candidates to use their negotiation
strategies to achieve success in communication (2006, p.239-240). The development of a test for ELF
would take the pressure off of those students for whom the IELTS seems an impossible task, not to
mention completely irrelevant, while still giving these students a sense of achievement and confidence
in their ability to communicate using ELF.
Cultural Concerns
Education policy makers in the UAE are caught between two opposing goals: the development
of a competent, internationally competitive local population and the conservation of local heritage. This
sociolinguistic struggle has played out in governmental decrees, parliamentary debates and the pages of
the local newspapers over the last few years. The UAE government has an official policy of
‘emiratisation’ of the workforce, requiring international companies to employ a quota of Emirati citizens
and encouraging nationals to “make a valuable contribution to their nation’s growth by building their
knowledge and applying their talent with innovation and drive” (UAE Vision 2021, n.d.). To further this
goal, the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) established a policy of bilingual education starting in
2009, with the introduction of almost 1000 native English-speaking teachers into the local schools. The
director general of ADEC at the time stated, “English is the international language of business and
science and is central to Abu Dhabi achieving its vision of economic growth and diversification” (Olarte,
2009). The program has been expanded each year to include new grade levels and more expat teachers.
However, it has not been without controversy.
The two greatest fears seem to be the extinction of the Arabic language, and the resulting loss
of heritage associated with the reduced role Arabic plays in UAE society. In 2008, the government
formally established Arabic as the official language of the UAE, as had been advocated by the Arabic
Language Protection Association. Supporters of the measure felt it “was a step in the right direction in
emphasising national identity” (Al Baik, 2008). In practice, however, English is still very much in evidence
in governmental offices, websites, and publications.
The fear that Arabic is losing ground against English is not unfounded. School inspection reports
from Dubai indicate that, especially in the areas of reading and writing in Arabic, students’ skills are
showing little development, to the point that a news article’s headline warns “Arabic ‘at risk of
becoming foreign language in UAE’”. In part, this result is blamed on the antiquated teaching styles that
many instructors use in the teaching of Arabic, as opposed to the creative and fun lessons students have
in English (Pennington, 2015). Others point to educational policies that have made English the medium
of instruction in universities and colleges in the country as a contributing factor to the success of English
at the expense of Arabic in intellectual pursuits (Al-Issa, 2012).
A researcher from Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, Susan Hopkyns (2014), surveyed forty-seven
Emirati university students about their attitudes to English and its effect on their culture and identity.
She found that, although the majority of respondents viewed learning and speaking English positively,
they also acknowledged the impact English has had on Emirati culture. Students listed cultural changes
in clothing, lifestyles, and open-mindedness and awareness about other cultures; however, the most
often-mentioned negative impact was the loss of Arabic. One student commented that “it’s bad because
children are starting to lose interest in the Arabic language and most of them can’t talk in Arabic”.
Concerns about loss of culture and linguistic identity are real. Unlike in colonial settings, the
danger to the local language in the UAE has not been a result of intentional linguistic imperialism, but of
‘macro acquisition’ of English. A world language such as English often comes to be used by a large
number of bilingual or multilingual speakers in a country where there is already an entrenched local
language because it allows for communication internationally, a process described by Brutt-Griffler
(2002). The erosion of Arabic in the case of the UAE may be explained by factors that make this country
a special case. First, the population of Arabic speakers is small enough in relation to the population of
the country as a whole to make English necessary for both intra-national and international
communication. Second, the government is imposing English acquisition on public school students from
a very early age, starting at four years old in kindergarten.
Both policy-makers and individual teachers can help to reduce the erosion of Arabic language
skills by treating English as a “utilitarian communicative tool,” as proposed by Modiano (2001). If English
is taught as an international language, it can be viewed as supplementing a learner’s communication
repertoire. English is used very often in daily life in the UAE by Emiratis, but it is not used in all contexts.
Policy-makers should set goals for learning English for specific purposes, and create English programs
accordingly. Teachers should also be aware of the purposes for which learners will use English, and craft
their curriculums to meet those specific needs.
In the kindergarten school where I work, we addressed this issue. Our achievement data
showed greater progress in English outcomes than in Arabic two years ago. Administrators felt this
result was due to the reliance of teachers on core texts that were in English in the development of
teaching units. The English stories were very engaging, while Arabic teachers focused mainly on the drier
area of phonics. As the English head of faculty, I worked with my Arabic administrator colleagues to
develop a new, integrated curriculum for English, math, and science, as well as a richer, more interactive
Arabic literature curriculum. I trained English teachers to teach English in the context of exploring
science and math concepts, which is the use of English that many students will go on to experience as
they transition to upper grades and higher education. Arabic teachers involve students in creative
stories, storytelling and discussions about society, history, religion, and culture. Last year, we saw an
improvement in the Arabic skills of students, and we look forward to a similar result this year.
Native Speaker vs. Non-native Speaker Teachers
McKay (2003) labels the preference for native speaker teachers one of the common fallacies of
ELT. She makes a forceful case for the advantages a bilingual English speaker may realize when he or she
shares a native language with the learners. These bilingual teachers understand the variety of English
that is used in their communities, as well as how English is used. They also share a culture with the
students, so teaching may be more culturally relevant and appropriate. Despite these benefits and
others, students themselves often cling to the belief that a native speaker is a better teacher. In a study
of students’ attitudes towards the accents and perceived ethnicities of English teachers in Oman (a
country neighboring, and culturally similar to the UAE), most students expressed a preference for a
native English speaker as a model, and a native speaker accent as a learning goal. Students then listened
to recordings of English teachers and rated them on their pronunciation, grammaticality, and their
suitability as English teachers. Interestingly, students rated those teachers with UK accents most highly
when the students were informed that the teacher was from the UK. The most highly rated teacher,
presented to the students once as a UK national, was rated much lower when presented a second time
as a Pakistani national (his true nationality), even though he was using the same accent for both
recordings (Buckingham, 2014). This study highlights the role that perceptions play in judgments made
about non-native speaker English teachers.
Despite the UAE government’s official policy of ‘emiratisation,’ native speakers of English are in
high demand in the educational system of the country. As it is in other places, the employment of native
speakers as teachers of English is used as a selling point for private education (Buckingham, 2014;
McKay, 2003). In the public education sphere, non-native speakers have been completely cut out of the
picture by ADEC’s hiring process, which requires interviews in Inner Circle home countries (and South
Africa), and specifies “native speaker “ as a job qualification (Teach Away, 2015). The exceptions to the
native speaker requirement are the new Emirati English-Medium Teachers or “EEMTs”.
The EEMTs have graduated recently, in the last five years, from local universities. They have
achieved a score of at least 6.5 on the IELTS. Some of the teachers have experienced negative reactions
from the parents of students who would prefer that their children learn from a native speaker. I
interviewed two EEMT kindergarten teachers about these experiences. One teacher said, “A few parents
were initially unhappy but after speaking to me realized that I was very capable.” Both of the
respondents mentioned the advantage they have in being able to understand their students when they
talk to each other. Their views on using Arabic in their classrooms differed, however. One teacher felt
that her students would be confused if she used Arabic with them, while the second replied that using
Arabic “is good only when they [the students] can’t understand a new concept” (M. Al Hosani and M. Al
Jaberi, personal communication, December 15, 2015). These Emirati pioneers in the field of English
teaching are doing a great service to their country.
Because the government of the UAE has become so involved and invested in the creation of a
bilingual populace, it is crucial that policy-makers take current research regarding the previously-
mentioned concerns under consideration as the English program is developed. The initiative to train a
cadre of Emirati English teachers is one of the most important steps the Education Council has taken
(Hopkyns, 2014). The local teachers will be likely to use culturally relevant teaching materials and to
speak and teach an English variety that is an achievable model for students. The preference of some
parents (and some students) for native English speaking teachers should be addressed directly by the
Education Council in emirate-wide communications, such as newspapers, to focus on the benefits of
emiratisation of the English-teaching field. This effort can also be supported at the local level by school
principals in informational sessions with students and parents.
As an additional benefit, these local English teachers are able to access the wealth of literature
about teaching and learning that is available only in English. Thus, their repertoires of teaching
strategies can be enhanced, and they may serve as models for Arabic-medium teachers as they share
their professional learning in their schools. The use of updated strategies for teaching Arabic, plus the
balancing of instructional time spent on both languages, should help to reinforce student achievement
in Arabic. Hopkyns (2014) suggests delaying the start of English instruction until after the primary years
to allow for a firmer base in Arabic, which is another policy option that ADEC should consider.
The slow trickle of Emirati English teachers into the workforce means that expat teachers will
continue to play a major role in the teaching of English in the public schools for some years. These
teachers must be aware of the responsibility they bear in helping to conserve local heritage. ADEC is
making efforts to supply teachers with culturally-appropriate resources, such as alphabet kits with local
pictures and vocabulary, science books which focus on the resources and environment of the UAE, and
math books with directions written in Arabic for parents who help their children with homework. Native
speakers can supplement these resources with texts from local newspapers and books written by
Emirati authors in English. As McKay (2003) notes, often students may use English to explain their own
culture to others outside of it. The inclusion of explanations of local culture in speaking and writing
activities would be a helpful strategy English teachers might use to promote students’ interest in their
own heritage.
IV. Conclusion
English plays a major role in both intra-national and international communication in the United
Arab Emirates. It is the lingua franca that allows people from all over the world to participate in the
microcosm of global society that the UAE has become, due to oil wealth and the government’s
commitment to development. Because of its lingua franca role, English should be taught as an
international language, with attention to language awareness skills such as meaning negotiation and
accommodation, for the majority of English learners, although some students may prefer to specialize in
a native-speaker variety. Fears about linguistic imperialism should be addressed directly, with improved
Arabic teaching strategies and instruction in English for specific purposes. The creation of a local, Emirati
English-teaching workforce is a development that can lead to Emiratis making English their own, so that
it will serve the purposes for which they need it, while conserving their own heritage and culture.
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