Ooo…spicy headline New York Times! (I totally clicked it!)
According to this article, a senior education official in Iran told state television that the teaching of English in primary schools as part of the official curriculum in both government and nongovernment schools is against the law.
I would love to get a focus group of Americans together to elicit their reactions to this. Iran is often played as the villain in U.S. politics and media, and I am sure many would have strong opinions on the issue.
I would equally be interested to hear from Iranians and their thoughts. I have some classmates from Iran, so I plan to ask them their perspectives (Hopefully, they will comment below).
Where do I stand? I agree to a certain extent with the Iranian government, but with some caveats.
How English Has Invaded the Gulf
While I’m sure the ‘cultural invasion’ part of the headline was designed to elicit emotion, the idea of the English language as an invader is quite real, and the Iranian government should worry about it. One needs not look further than to see how English has infiltrated education in the Arabic-speaking Gulf countries, and its effect on Arabic, to see what could happen if English goes unchecked.
English-medium education has taken over much of the other Gulf countries, resulting in the status-lowering of Arabic. Countries such as the UAE and Qatar have imported numerous foreign branch campuses to their countries, where students can pursue degree programs exclusively in English. As a result, many in the region no longer see Arabic as a viable language for academics or jobs (Al-Jarf, 2008). Some degree programs, particularly in the sciences, are only offered in English. In degrees where there are choice of medium language of instruction, many students who pursue degrees in Arabic, their mother tongue and national language, feel disadvantaged in their local job markets when compared with candidates who studied their degrees in English (Al-Muftah, 2017).
The Problems the Invasion of English Cause
The English invasion is a problem for a variety of reasons. For one, English is acting as a gatekeeper to education in many instances. Those who have failed to learn enough of a second language are being kept out of higher education. In Qatar, with the exception of Qatar University, all other universities have English proficiency requirements for admission. In the past when Qatar University also had such requirements, many have reported being left out and unable to pursue studies as a result (Al-Muftah, 2017; Khalifa, Nasser, Ikhlef, Walker, & Amali, 2016).
Could you imagine in the U.S. having to prove proficiency in German to study a degree? It would be absurd.
Every student should have the right to study in their mother tongue, the language which they are most likely to have academic success. Unfortunately, that is not the case anymore in many Gulf countries because English has gone left unchecked.
Another problem is one of culture. Language is loaded with culture, and learning a language is often learning of culture, particularly at higher proficiency levels. When learning an L2 takes priority of learning an L1, the L2 culture may overtake the L1 culture. By studying in another language, using their curriculum, their textbooks, reading their literature, etc., you are teaching ideals and values connected with that culture, ones that may be in contrast with the one of the students. In addition, it may also result in the inability to navigate the local work place. It has been documented that medical students studying at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar struggle to use their knowledge and skills in Qatari hospitals and clinics (Kane, 2014). Many of the skills, strategies, and vocabulary they learn are all from an American context and often do not translate to the cultural norms of the Qatari medical scene.
For these reasons, I believe Iran should monitor the amount of English education in schools. Qatar changed much of its K-12 curriculum to English-medium instruction in 2002 as part of their “Era of Educational Reform” only to realize that by doing so it had created both educational and societal issues. I believe Iran is trying to avoid such problems and preserve its language and culture.
That being said, Iran should not throw the baby out with the bath water…
An Argument for an English Curriculum in Primary Schools
Hate it or love it, English is the international lingua franca. It is the language that is used around the world to connect people in politics, academics, business, and World of War Craft (yes, I’m serious). English is important in our internationalized world.
But English is also very difficult to learn, and to be able to participate in forums of politics, academics, and business, a high proficiency level and strong grasp of academic English is a must (You may be ok in World of War Craft with lower proficiency). To achieve the needed levels, it can by some accounts take 5-7 years or even longer depending on the amount of exposure. With this being established, starting earlier will give learners the adequate amount of time to acquire the needed language to succeed in today’s globalized world, especially if you are limiting the exposure to preserve L1 education.
Besides the amount of time it takes to learn a language, there is also a lot of brain research that shows the benefits of the bilingual brain. This article talks about a few of them, albeit in a U.S. context, but the important takeaway is that cultivating bilingualism has its benefits.
While I support Iran’s cautiousness, and may recommend other nations exercise a bit more cautiousness in their language policies as well, I would like to also encourage the government to consider the benefits of bilingualism for younger learners while also guarding their language and culture. I do not believe these two things need to be exclusive.
I believe language education can be done early without threatening the L1 language and culture if implemented carefully. A mindset of additive bilingualism and promotion of multilingualism can help learners understand that English is an added linguistic resource that supplements, rather than supplants, their L1. This can be done through techniques such as translanguaging, that showcase the idea that two languages do not have to be seen as separate entities.
Also, using cultural relevant materials, instead of importing English materials from the West, can also preserve culture while encouraging language development and multilingualism. Part of the culture problem may be that culturally appropriate language materials do not exist in many countries. Creating language learning materials that connect with culture may be able to provide the proper protections for preserving culture while also possibly allowing for greater language learning.
In the end, if a national language policy is constructed properly, cultures can be preserved and multilingualism can be promoted.
What do you think about English instruction in primary schools internationally? Yay or nay? Let me know in the comments.
Al-Jarf, R. (2008). The impact of English as an international language (EIL) upon Arabic in Saudi Arabia. Asian EFL Journal, 10(4), 193-210.
Al-Muftah, E. (2017). Qatari women in a corporatized higher education setting: International reforms and their local bearings. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies (JCEPS), 15(1), 19-41.
Iran Bans English in Primary Schools to Block ‘Cultural Invasion’. (2018, January 07). Retrieved January 16, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/07/world/middleeast/iran-english-schools.html
Kamenetz, A. (2016, November 29). 6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/497943749/6-potential-brain-benefits-of-bilingual-education
Kane, T. (2014). Whose lingua franca?: The politics of language in transnational medical education. The Journal of General Education, 63(2/3), 94-112.
Khalifa, B., Nasser, R., Ikhlef, I., Walker, J. S., & Amali, S. (2016). A qualitative study of student attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, outlook and context in Qatar: Persistence in higher education. Near & Middle Eastern Journal of Research in Education, 2016(1), 1-22. doi:10.5339/nmejre.2016.2