Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 September 1999
Issue No. 448
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

It's back to school again, and this year, 16 million students are pouring into classrooms across the country. Al-Ahram Weekly looks at one of the controversies surrounding attempts to educate the masses -- and the very privileged few


From right to left

Proficiency in Arabic is on the decline, say experts; is Egypt's private education system to blame? Amira Howeidy stirs up a syntactical hornets' nest
Front Page

Mainstream well-to-do Egyptian families usually enrol their children in private language schools. Families with the means to do so will tend to choose a school that guarantees Westernised graduates boasting strong American accents, albeit very poor Arabic -- an irony, perhaps, since Arabic is Egypt's official language. Although there are no available statistics indicating the level of written and spoken Arabic students come to master, there is a general consensus that the quality of Arabic-language teaching is on the downswing, in both private and government schools.

Critics of this trend are especially concerned with the obvious regression in Arabic proficiency amongst graduates of private language schools. Some put the blame on private schooling itself, and especially on those schools that apply the American and British educational systems. But it would seem that the number of these schools continues to grow, while the number of English departments in Egyptian universities has multiplied, to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for English. While the American University in Cairo (AUC) was once virtually the only higher education option for most graduates of private foreign-language schools, today students can follow the same path at almost any Egyptian university. The Faculty of Commerce, for example, is busy setting up departments nationwide that teach the official curriculum in English. Cairo University's prestigious Faculty of Political Science and Economics opened an English-language section several years ago. The Law School has also opened a new English section.

Although the establishment of these departments has meant an increase in the quota of first-year students and the availability of more options for students, the Ministry of Education has never explained why such expansion had to take place by teaching Egyptian students an English curriculum. Critics argue that the vast majority of students who have completed such a course of education do not master the Arabic language and are incapable of completing a single sentence without throwing in a few English words.

According to figures from the Ministry of Higher Education, however, only 1,260 students received the British, American, French and German high school certificates this year -- hardly enough to qualify as a phenomenon. Some educational experts, such as Karima El-Ansari, however, argue that 90 per cent of the British secondary certificate (IGCSE) graduates have barely any knowledge of Arabic. Some are even proud of the fact since, to them, not knowing Arabic reflects the Westernised, modern and sophisticated upbringing they have been privileged enough to enjoy. Ironically, says El-Ansari, the vast majority of these students are not proficient in English either -- "beyond the accent, of course".

Torn between Westernisation and the feeling that an Arab identity does exist and should be nurtured, Egyptians are divided on both the causes and the true significance of the problem. The ability to speak a language other than Arabic has long been associated with the aristocracy, educated in missionary schools and taught Racine or Shakespeare, not Al-Jahiz. Today, French has fallen out of favour; the British occupation is long forgotten, and English is now seen as the language of globalisation and progress -- the only way to get ahead in prestigious fields like medicine and communications.

Still, some parents, like Maha Kazem, are frustrated by "the inferiority complex of the you-must-speak-English mentality", which she believes causes problems for young children. Kazem, whose two-year-old son is enrolled at a Heliopolis nursery, says that the teachers insist on using English words all the time. "So instead of helping my son -- who recently learned to speak -- get acquainted with his mother tongue, the nursery is indirectly confusing him with the many English words they bombard him with every hour," she argues. Kazem believes that children younger than eight should not be taught a second language. "They must be given a solid foundation of Arabic first. Then they have the rest of the school years to learn other languages." A mastery of English or French, it is true, should not imply the inability to speak Arabic. On both sides of the debate, however, this point seems to be disregarded; many students of Arabic-language schools have only animosity for the linguistic skills they were force-fed by rote, and most parents prefer, indeed insist, that their children excel in a foreign language or two, but regard Arabic with indifference.

Education officials, at any rate, say this is the choice made by most parents. Very recently, for example, a school following the British system received a letter from the Ministry of Education warning that, unless it taught the Arabic language curriculum, the ministry would not recognise the school's certificates. The school administration sent for the parents and presented them with two possibilities. One was to ignore the warning completely and enrol their children in a university outside Egypt in the future. The other was to create two classes teaching different levels of Arabic: one to teach the rudiments of reading and writing, the other to apply the ministry's official Arabic language curriculum.

According to one parent, the virtually unanimous choice was either to ignore the warning or to enrol their children in the read and write class. The three parents who chose the official curriculum option were accused of "suffering from complexes" and making their children's lives difficult.

"Why should I make my children suffer by learning unnecessary, boring, difficult Arabic grammar when what they really need is sound English?" asked Sherine Moheib, one of the mothers who refused the third option. "I put my children in an extremely expensive school so that they don't have to endure the pains of studying the ministry's curriculum," she added.

This growing trend within the education system and society at large has sparked intense controversy, as advocates of a Westernised education grow more outspoken, and the media and government step up the anti-Westernisation campaign. Last June, writer Ne'maat Ahmed Fouad published a lengthy article in Al-Ahram entitled "What Happened?" and calling for the resurrection of the katatib (schools where children learned to read, write, count and memorise the Qur'an). This measure, argued Fouad, was "the only way to strengthen and preserve the Arab language". Others joined in, arguing that the Americanisation of Arabic is an indication of the nation's weakness. Even prominent radio broadcasters such as Taher Abu Zeid dedicated an entire series of his weekly show to promoting his idea of forming a front for the defence of the Arabic language.

The People's Assembly had its say, too. Last month, its Culture, Media and Tourism Committee invited the minister of education, the director of the Arabic Language Academy, the head of the Higher Cultural Council and many others to a symposium aimed at issuing resolutions to preserve and strengthen Arabic. "Here," warned the parliamentary report, "our children, especially those who go to expensive private language schools, are learning everything in foreign languages. There is no harm in learning other languages. But harm is done when we and our children move further away from the mother tongue and excel in other languages to the detriment of the language of our parents and grandparents." The report also attacked public schools for their failure to teach proper Arabic. Shawqi Deif, director of the Arabic Language Academy, was quoted as suggesting that the curriculum at all the stages of the educational system should be in Arabic only. He went on to suggest that students should take at least six hours of Arabic grammar per week. Gaber Asfour, head of the Higher Cultural Council, put the blame on communications experts for not producing enough Arabic educational software. He also criticised the widespread tendency to correlate social status with the ability to speak English.

Of the 17 resolutions issued by the committee, only one was implemented. Ahmed Guweili, the minister of trade and supply, issued a ministerial decree banning and prohibiting businesses from using non-Arabic names, trademarks or brand names.

But some Education Ministry officials view this uproar as exaggerated. Mohamed Salem, head of the ministry's language schools department, told the Weekly: "I see no cause for this alarm. The Arabic language is well studied in all schools." He explained the increase in private language schools (which now number 1,000) as "a natural phenomenon, given the growing interest in opening up to the world and learning the languages necessary for such communication." The government itself is founding what it calls Experimental Schools, which teach the same English curriculum as that of private language schools. According to Salem, they are called experimental because the Ministry of Education's statute does not grant it the right to establish language schools, but does give the minister the right to experiment.

Whether or not Arabic is on the decline, then, seems a moot point given the widespread perception that English is the language of science, business and technology -- in other words, the language of the future. Critics of the trend are lone voices in a sea of approval. With confidence, and a strong American accent, Dalia Abdel-Aziz, a student at an American school in Cairo, asserts: "It's my English that counts, in school, society and in my future profession." Her friends nod in approval.

Bits and pieces

The countdown

  • Al-Ahram, 1 August
    Following a debate over the length of the summer holidays and parents' complaints that their children are being kept in school although exams are long over, the minister of education decrees that the school year must last a total of 37 weeks.

  • 8 September
    Giza Governor Maher El-Guindi has appointed 6,000 new teachers, a move of unprecedented magnitude.

  • 15 September
    Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata asks Local Council officials to conduct a clean-up campaign targeting schools. Trees are to be planted, maintenance improved, and decrepit school buildings restored. So far, 77 per cent of Cairo's schools (in real figures, 1,238) have been upgraded in this way.

  • 16 September
    Health Minister Dr Ismail Sallam orders governorate officials to conduct periodic checks on the quality of drinking water in schools throughout Egypt. Classrooms, the minister emphasises, must be properly ventilated (windows and vents must make up 1/6 of the classroom's surface). Special committees are set up to check the food sold by street vendors outside schools.

  • 18 September
    Education Minister Dr Hussein Kamel Bahaeddin states that 16 million students meant 16 million problems for the educational system. Parents have problems of their own to deal with, however: while technically, fees have gone up by five per cent (that is, 50 piastres) in government schools this year, the cost of the ubiquitous private lessons is skyrocketing.
    The increase in fees is meant to help fund educational technology -- mainly, the introduction of computers in schools. According to the most recent figures, 18,500 schools have been equipped; this year, the target is 23,000.
    President Mubarak has allotted a LE16.1 billion budget to education this year, but fewer schools were built in 1999 than in previous years (down from 1,500 to 1,000). Budgetary resources have been poured into megaprojects designed to boost overall development. According to Bahaeddin, the ministry has decided to build 100 experimental schools every year.

    Across the republic...


    photos (from top): Emad Abndel-Hadi, Sherif Sonbol and Randa Shaath

  •    Top of page
    Front Page