Balancing Bilingualism: Language and Class Divides in the Middle East
April 7, 2009
English is showing up in an increasing number of places in the Middle East. No longer merely the language of engineering and medicine, English is becoming widely acknowledged as the language of achievement. Advertisements for luxury goods are more likely to be in English than Arabic, while fast food—an affordable luxury for the middle classes—features generally bilingual advertisements. Only the most necessary local products get Arabic-only billing.
Governmental websites catering to local audiences often have a surprising profusion of English as well. Queen Rania of Jordan has a bilingual website, but her YouTube page and the associated videos are in English only, despite YouTube’s capacity to handle Arabic script. A youth oriented news blog in Jordan, 7iber.com, is explicitly bilingual, but English predominates.
In decades past, elites hastened to learn the languages of colonial masters. One heard French and English in the salons of Beirut and Cairo, while Arabic was reserved for speaking with the hired help. Decades after colonialism, though, foreign language training is once again resurgent. Many in the middle classes regard private school foreign language education as vital, while they see Arabic-speaking public schools as an educational dead end.
Ironically, many graduates are emerging who are not fully proficient in any language at all. They are most comfortable speaking in their country’s version of colloquial Arabic, reading in English or French, and they are uncomfortable writing in any language. Written Arabic is reserved for the religious and the poor, a potentially volatile brew.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.