EGYPTIAN ENGLISH: ACQUIRING A SECOND LANGUAGE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Even though Egypt is located on the African continent, linguistically and culturally the country is tied to the Middle East. I have been asked to write a little about my experiences with the English language as well as my views on English in my native Egypt.The status of English is a particular one in Egypt, due to several reasons.
I was born in 1989 to Egyptian parents in Kuwait, this was a year before Iraq’s infamous invasion. My parents left Kuwait and eventually came back, like many others. My brothers went back to their English schools, and I was enrolled when I was old enough. An English school is considered by middle and upper middle class to spend money on to enable their children future educational and career mobility. This meant all subjects were taught in English, all conversations between teachers and students, students and their peers were n English An immersive English -speaking environment was the rule. Arabic language classes and Religion classes were in Arabic, for obvious reasons. Here begin my years of immersion in English. Up until the age of seven, I was surrounded by English, as Arabic was only spoken in Arabic classes as well as at home. Televison channels were in English, and virtually all my books too. It was during this period, that, I later understood in hindsight, English became my first language. As I grew older, my parents decided to move back to Egypt, this was right before I entered prep school. I was enrolled in a language school, which is more affordable than English school, however mostly lower middle class and middle class parents sent their children there, which is very different from an English school. All subjects were taught in Arabic, with the exception of science and math, which were taught in English. Arabic was the language of instruction, as well as conversation between students.
It was then that I started noticing the differences in English and Arabic vocabulary. The words never quite seemed to match up, the sentences I read, wrote or spoke didn’t convey exactly what I expected or expressed. This experience made me think about the differences between English and Arabic. Modern English is a language that evolved rapidly over the past few centuries, expanding by taking many loan words from multiple European languages. Arabic, as a language, is regional compared to English Loan words have a shorter, and occasionally a non -existent, history. What is now known as Great Britain was conquered many times throughout history, so adopting words in English has a long tradition. In Arabic, many seemingly modern loan words came into the language over past two centuries. These loan words are, overall, transliterations from other languages, arabissed phonetically and sometimes , these loan words have no actual concept in the Arabic language itself. In the 19th and 20th centuries,1 an outward looking cultural movement took place in Egypt, later propagating throughout ottoman empire, for which many translation efforts were taking place.
Apart from the difference in span of English and Arabic, the Arabic language is more fragmentalised when compared to the English language. Arabic is fundamentally three languages in one. Depending on where you are in the Middle East, classical Arabic, modern Arabic or colloquial Arabic are spoken. These three forms of Arabic mix freely in a spoken setting, but depending on existing literature, may be strictly separated in writing. However, there is an actual lack of standardisation, when it comes to teaching the Arabic language. This can make it difficult to distinguish which version of Arabic is being used, or should be used. This can lead to miscommunication and, occasionally, people simply not understanding each other properly. For example, Arabic words themselves have different meanings in different dialects when phrased in sentences or conversations, as opposed to what they would be in standard Arabic, referenced in a dictionary or otherwise.
The English language, as I see it, is practically two languages in one. There is the modern global written version, grammar and vocabulary are overall standardised. Then there is spoken English, which has its local dialects and idioms, but this doesn’t stop English speakers, regardless of background, to communicate with one another, whether it is in speaking or in writing.It is safe to assume that the ability to acquire English as a second language is tied to economic class more firmly in the Middle East, than it is in European countries. This brings me to another aspect to discuss: Egypt, and other Arabic -speaking countries have relatively high levels of illiteracy to this day. We can look at UNESCO’s reports with regard to literacy in Egypt. This presents us with a couple of challenges, as UNESCO itself will admit to. The definitions certain countries use for literacy sometimes are not the definitions that UNESCO2 uses. In the case of Egypt, there can be a lack of literacy programmes to begin with so the literacy data are sources from population censes. This censes are not always kept properly, which can disturb the outcomes as well. Despite this, the numbers can give a generic impression which provides some insight into the class of people who only use spoken language, without ever being exposed to much else, let alone a second language.
Looking at a recent UNESCO3 data, Egyptian youth literacy rate is 92%. However taking a different information source shows a grimmer picture, as news sources referencing CAPMAS (Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics) show, more than 25% of Egypt’s population ‘illiterate,’4 or another proclaiming illiteracy rates stand at 14.4% for males, 26% for females.5 The literacy/illiteracy divide is largely drawn along the urban and rural areas in Egypt.One good illustration of this is the Egyptian Cairo/Giza governates. This is a conglomerate of the capital of Egypt and surrounding ‘suburbs’ where 20% of Egypt’s entire population is located. If there were a count of literate and illiterate people, this anecdotal report would clearly delineate a group of people who are multilingual and a group of people who only use one spoken language. It is not a stretch to imagine that the communication barrier between different economic groups in Egypt is enlarged due to the factor of literacy.
In addition to the standardisation problem of Arabic and the literacy problem, there is the factor that many people who are simply never exposed to another langauge do not properly realise that many of our psychological and sociological attributes are normative within a language itself Apart from noticing differences between my native Arabic language and my acquired second English language, for some reason it was the acquired language that enabled me to form new ideas. English provided me with a cognitive differentiation and whilst this may not be an exclusive trait to English, I did notice that Arabic speakers who learnt English experienced something similar. Arabic speakers from the upper middle class and higher class usually speak English or French, and they would find it difficult to connect to other segments of the population, despite knowing and speaking Arabic fluently. People with access to English/French books have fundamentally different life and cultural references than just Arabic speakers, a divide that is practically invisible till friction of daily or civic interaction occurs. In my opinion, this point to a cognitive element in second language acquisition. The economic divide and the accompanying literacy problems are likely to display this cognitive element more prominently.
Over time, I noticed that English had become my first language, rather than Arabic. I compartmentalised my schooling and socialisation in Arabic. The books I perused were mostly in English, and later when I got a PC and an internet connection, I only read English texts on the web. The question whether I am bilingual has been resolved in the sense that I feel that the English language covers my needs when it comes to expressing myself, whether it is ideas or otherwise meaningful communication. The many texts available in the English language resulted in an expansive worldview, there were always more topics to learn, more challenging material to understand, and more words (and loan words) to connect the dots. The Arabic language is used in formal settings, talking to my friends and family, but I feel that this is an additional language that I use in a somewhat detached manner.
How Arabic will be taught in the future is a question that has not been resolved as of yet. In school, speakers are taught a mix of texts, entailing both classical and modern Arabic, students learn to read and write in Arabic. But after leaving school, plenty of people do not particularly bother writing in Arabic again, this has in part to do with lack of standarisation which was mentioned earlier, but also percieved lack of (loan) words. Especially in a technological context, many people simple use the Latin script to text over phones, or via social media, that happens despite of Arabic characters being supported fully in keyboards and arabic script in software. The literacy divide in Egypt (and the Middle East in general) and its convergence with the economic divide, means that most people in Egypt are never exposed to another language outside of media settings, such as movies with subtitles. These are the people who mostly deal with Arabic only. The people either deal with Arabic in its spoken form, due to illiteracy. Then, there is the group of people who speak and write Arabic, but they choose the Latin script since they can express themselves better that way, even though they do not speak another language fluently. Lastly, there is the group of people who are multilingual. The English language has contributed to this differentiation.
The lack of standardisation of Arabic, the internet and social media, and the slow but certain emergence of English speakers will continue to influnce Egypt. There will emerge a new group of language users who are not bilingual, but monolingual plus, a person who merely employs another language for social or economic reasons, among which I count myself. Then there is the internet. Generally speaking, the world wide web is a unique phenomenon insofar as itis a truly global phenomenon. It takes no specific insight to understand that the internet and social media have only started to influence the world as a whole, but in the final part of my essay, I want to discuss the internet’s influence on Egypt.
The use of English in Egypt will be stimulated further by the internet, given that English is the web’s dominant language. In the past, the goal of literacy was teach people reading and writing skills in order to enable them to participate in society. The internet is a different equaliser in this respect: people who have access to the internet and the information it provides will still have difficulties participating if their English is not sufficient. Whether the illiterate group will learn to read and write in Arabic or in Latin is a relevant question, given the long-term implications of the web. The other two groups I mentioned earlier will, consciously or unconsciously, use the English language more often. For a country like Egypt, this could imply that second language acquisition, over time, will make a bigger impact than could be expected. This only shows that the biggest changes manifest in unforeseen ways.
by Niko Eldeeb
3. https://en.unesco.org/countries/egypt; http://uis.unesco.org/en/country/EG
4. https://egyptianstreets.com/2014/09/09/more-than-25-of-egypts-population-illiterate/; 23.7 percent of Egyptians above 15 are illiterate: CAPMAS
5. Egypt illiteracy rates stand at 14.4% for males, 26% for females: CAPMAS