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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Qatar’s education system grapples with language challenges

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School reform in Qatar has been a tough road. For more than a decade, the country has been trying to implement a series of reforms to prepare its young people for a future knowledge-based economy, and bring them up to speed with international standards.

But a continuous stumbling point appears to be language. In a country where expats comprise more than 85 percent of the population, and where English is the lingua franca, identity issues and language seem to go hand in hand.

To help young Arab students preserve their identity and culture, Qatar’s independent schools and its largest university last year switched their main language of instruction from English to Arabic.

The change was a reversal of an unsuccessful Supreme Education Council decision a few years ago that schools teach science and math in English, instead of Arabic.

Teachers were given short notice about the change, and because many were not proficient enough in English to do the subjects justice, test scores plunged and interest in science and math fell, educators told Al Fanar Media, an online publication that focuses on education in the region.

But the reinstitution of Arabic as the official medium of instruction has prompted its own set of headaches, instructors have said.

One main concern is that students who study in Arabic would have trouble getting accepted into the cadre of prestigious international universities that have been set up in Qatar, because most of them teach in English.

Al Fanar reports:

“We’re still getting students who were in the old system who went to high school in English. They typically have an advantage,” said Todd Kent, the assistant dean for academic affairs at Texas A&M University at Qatar, one of six American universities at Doha’s Education City campus.

That doesn’t mean that the students in the new high school system can’t make it, he said, but they may need a little extra training. It remains to be seen, he said, if the change will hurt enrollment at Education City universities, where English is the dominant language of instruction.

Education City aside, students who receive an Arabic-language education here could matriculate at Qatar University, which also began teaching certain disciplines in Arabic last year, including law, international affairs, media and business administration.

But graduates themselves have questioned whether the decreased focus on English would hurt their employment chances.

Resolving these issues will surely take time, but also feedback from both students and educators, Al Fanar states, citing a QU study on perceptions of education reform that concluded “teachers are the key to educational reform and change and leadership that does not include teachers in the process of change is destined to fail.”

Thoughts?

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braininstead
braininstead
7 years ago

it’s really a double bind.

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
7 years ago

“But graduates themselves have questioned whether the decreased focus on English would hurt their employment chances.”

Of course it will. It will also severely restrict their university options to Arabic-language universities (very few of which are high quality and in safe countries).

I understand the cultural concerns about Qataris not being literate in Arabic, but there will be a heavy price to pay for not ensuring they are bilingual. Most successful education systems worldwide ensure that students are also fluent in English. In fact, more people now speak English in China than in England. It’s a global language, and if Qatar wants to be competitive globally, its people need to be able to communicate effectively in it.

Abdulrahman
Abdulrahman
7 years ago
Reply to  DavidRSS8

“It will also severely restrict their university options to Arabic-language universities” Most, if not all, English (language) universities offer English language programs for non-English speakers. It may take a few months to a year and a half, but you do learn to be fluent enough in English to attend the university. How do you think most the Qataris who are above 30 who got degrees from reputable universities in the West managed to do so, when most of them attended the old all Arabic government schools.

Kingpin
Kingpin
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

Its like saying the pupils in France are at a disadvantage because science and maths are taught in French. Of course the students should be taught in Arabic, it’s an Arabic country. This doesn’t stop them also studying English at the same time

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
7 years ago
Reply to  Kingpin

Actually French students who only learn French are at a disadvantage in that their choice of universities are limited. Those who are bilingual in English have greater access to the world’s top universities. The vast majority of scientific and mathematic journals are published in English, and virtually every French scientist I’ve met speaks English for that very reason.

This is a time when forward-thinking educators are pushing multi-linguism; Qatar is one of the first I have heard of that is actually trying to move away from it.

Kingpin
Kingpin
7 years ago
Reply to  DavidRSS8

I agree, but my original point was that if maths and science are taught in Arabic, students can also be made to study English. They are not exclusive

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
7 years ago
Reply to  Kingpin

I agree. The main issue is that bilingual education is key, and it seems that the SEC is steering Qatar away from this. It may very well be that teaching in a language other than their native one is inhibiting their development in maths and sciences.

It’s hard to imagine that prohibitive costs are keeping qualified Qataris from attending good university, but would be interesting to know if it is.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  DavidRSS8

The Gov’t pays for their education either here or abroad. I’d like to have just the living expenses they get when abroad.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Kingpin

Qataris prohibited due to finances. lol. How long you been here? The State pays for the education. Even abroad.

Ivan Brendieswski
Ivan Brendieswski
7 years ago
Reply to  desertCard

Mmm, but the article wasn’t talking exclusively about Qataris. How many deserving ‘other Arab’ student have you met who couldn’t go to a QF school because of costs? I’ve met a goodly number, which was always sad.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago

The costs to go to an EC school is the same as going to that same school in the US. And if their families live here it’s less because they will most likely live at home and not have to pay for room and board in the US.

Ivan Brendieswski
Ivan Brendieswski
7 years ago
Reply to  desertCard

Agreed, but there are still many deserving non-Qatari Arab students who gain acceptance to HBKU schools but can not attend for financial reasons.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago

It’s like anything in the world there are haves and have nots. It would be nice that everyone could have access but most, if they gain acceptance, have many financial resources available in grants, scholarships and other aid made availalble to them in the USA. No one ever pays “rack rate” in the USA.

Kingpin
Kingpin
7 years ago
Reply to  desertCard

Firstly i’m not in Qatar and secondly I was referring to students around the world who do not speak English as a first language attending the “top” universities. It is no more a deterrent that they are taught in their home languages than Qatari’s are in Arabic. Do you think Chinese, Argentinian, French or any country teach their children maths and science in English?

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Kingpin

How can you say it’s not prohibitive? The issue is if they are not exposed and taught English at least as a second language. How can they go to Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Cambridge,… heck any university in an english speaking country if they don’t understand the language they will be taught in? All those students who do attend have a grasp of the language.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Kingpin

As the cost prohibition would be the same for an american who speaks fluent english but does not have the finances to pay for Harvard, etc. There are many schools outside the so called elites that offer great education for $20,000/yr or less. Maybe not the same cachet but quality non the less.

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

What you state simply isn’t true. Top universities in the West do not fully admit students who are not fluent in the primary language of instruction, including those in Education City. Please name some that do, because this would truly be surprising.

Students can, of course, take immersive programs to learn the language, but as any person familiar with linguistics education can tell you, children learn the language easier and faster than adults (particularly before the age of 12, when their neuropathways are still forming.

As I stated, restricting instruction to Arabic limits students’ higher education and employment opportunities. Bilingual education is the best way forward, especially as students here are already handicapped by the poor quality secondary education system. Perhaps that is why Qatar Academy chooses English as its primarily language of instruction and why so any of the ruling family and other elites elect to send their children their and other English-language and curriculum schools.

Abdulrahman
Abdulrahman
7 years ago
Reply to  DavidRSS8

Is it really that hard to read and understand my comment? Really David, “Stop reading something into my comment that isn’t there.”

Okay, let me try this again; less than 15 years ago, most Qataris who went to study abroad were graduates from government schools where everything was taught in Arabic expect of course for the English language class. This gave them a basic to good command of English.

When they went to study at universities in the U.S. and U.K., they had to take an English language evaluation to see how ell they spoke English. Almost all had to enter some kind of an intensive English program so that they could handle being taught at these English universities. Those of them who were willing to study hard and put the effort into it, managed to graduate from these universities, and some even went to get their Masters and PhDs!

Guess what, yours truly is a graduate from a government school! Yeah, that’s right, me! I speak better English than some native English speakers!

So, the bottom line is; just becasue you didn’t learn to fluently speak English at an early age at school, doesn’t mean you cannot attend a good university in the U.S. or U.K. and become a top student.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

You speak better english than your “native speaker” friends? lol
Where did you go to college?
So how many of these “hard workers” were there?
It’s too easy but from what I see today it couldn’t be very many.

Diego
Diego
7 years ago
Reply to  desertCard

Go to many inner citiy areas in North America, as well as some Canadian outports and you may agree with Abdulrahman.I have noticed a number of very articulate Qataris with excellent command of the English language.In NA they have a name for the inner city language/slang and its Eboli, and much of it would not guarantee that one would be prepared for University study.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Diego

We were speaking of Qataris

Diego
Diego
7 years ago
Reply to  desertCard

Abdulrahman stated he spoke better English than some native speakers and I find that plausible, thats what I was referring to.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Diego

But that a very very very small percentage of the population. And those who speak this are usually not High School material much less college material of which we were speaking.

Diego
Diego
7 years ago
Reply to  desertCard

Not sure what you mean not high school material vs high school material.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Diego

I’ll assume you mean HS vs College material. Most of these kids who don’t bother to speak proper english but choose Ebonics are not interested in much of any education. Bill Cosby has been a loud critic of this.

Diego
Diego
7 years ago
Reply to  desertCard

No, I meant Ebonics was a natural evolution of the environment and Abdulrahman was probably lucky and motivated enough to learn proper English.But getting back to Qatar I will say there are a high number of females in the school system that are motivated,excellent English skills and will surpase the males on any given day.

Susan
Susan
7 years ago
Reply to  Diego

Women here routinely outperform the men in school. That’s been true for decades…

Diego
Diego
7 years ago
Reply to  Susan

Not necesssarily,but the majority do.I don’t know about decades, but this may not be any different than many cultures.It is refreshing to see though, the fact that some student are motivated.

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

I think we can agree that you are the exception to the norm in this and in other categories.

Besides, how many Qataris are willing to send their daughters abroad for education?

Abdulrahman
Abdulrahman
7 years ago
Reply to  DavidRSS8

Why thank you. However, there are many others like me who went to government schools, and still managed to improve their English speaking to the level where they could attend English language universities.

Now, I’m not saying that there are no challenges associated with learning to speak proper English once passed 18. Nor am I against schools that teach all subjects (but Arabic and Islamic studies) in English. I find science subjects (math, biology, etc) to be easier to understand in English.

However, if you think about it, those who can overcome these challenges are usually the best and brightest, and wouldn’t we want those to be the ones we send abroad. Just because someone speaks English fluently doesn’t make her / him a good student.

DavidRSS8
DavidRSS8
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

True, the best and brightest will overcome these hurdles. But here are some problems with relying on the old system:

1) Some Qataris who go abroad are reluctant to come back, choosing instead to pursue careers in the West–not unlike what most countries face is such situations.
2) Qataris rarely send their daughters to study abroad
3) Qataris are so few in number that they cannot afford to be all that selective when it comes to higher education–at least not if they hope to run their country

Fluency in English gives any student in the world a significant advantage over an equally qualified student that cannot speak English.

Ivan Brendieswski
Ivan Brendieswski
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

Speaking is of little importance, we are getting into the BICS and CALPS distinction here. Academic writing is the real area of concern.

Ivan Brendieswski
Ivan Brendieswski
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

It can be done Abdulrahman, but it takes much more than a few months to year and a half, on average you’re looking at around 5 years for academic – particularly writing. The Qatari students you refer to are not ‘typical’ students in the first place – students who seek education abroad rarely are. Finally, I can’t tell you the number of people I know who make a very lucrative, (if highly unethical) living doing academic for mostly Chinese and Gulf students.

Abdulrahman
Abdulrahman
7 years ago

So where have you been the past few days? They closed the comments on that test for Fabulousness before I could answer your question; alas the Michele Bachmann joke was something I read somewhere (probably on Salon) about 2-3 years ago, and so I cannot take credit for it.

Ivan Brendieswski
Ivan Brendieswski
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

Took a health scare on Thanksgiving Day that has me tied up with poking a prodding a bit, but I’m back full force now.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

Many of them also went to either english speaking HS here or abroad.

desertCard
desertCard
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

And you can’t understand the nuances of a language in 6-12 months. Maybe where everyone else is at your level but not at an American or English univ. I’ve lived in the Middle East a long time and comfortable with my arabic but no way could I go to college on it.

Molten Metal
Molten Metal
7 years ago
Reply to  Abdulrahman

Dude, i like you. Whatever you say, nothing makes some sense.

KK
KK
7 years ago

Several qatar university graduates in my team are unable to present an issue in English in a business meeting let alone that they can write a simple memo in English….

Ivan Brendieswski
Ivan Brendieswski
7 years ago
Reply to  KK

Indeed, I have met many graduates of English medium universities who can’t write a simple email. They were completely unashamed to say that whenever they needed an essay they bought it.

MIMH
MIMH
7 years ago

I’ve thought long and hard before commenting on this one because language is a huge part of culture but here is my two dirhams worth.

Qatar is not building an Arabic economy within the Arabic world, it is building an international knowledge economy with business interests that are worldwide. So to provide the young of today with the right tools education needs to be steered towards these aims. You cannot escape this unless you run a two tier system and if you do that one section is disadvantaged.

So based on Qatar 2030 the answer is obvious. To have a population ready for an international knowledge/business economy you need them to be able to converse in this planets lingua Franca and that is English. This is important at secondary level and critical at tertiary.

Ibrahim
Ibrahim
7 years ago

I study in one of the universities in Qatar Foundation. Many of my Arab classmates, including Qataris, can’t write essays in Arabic and can’t fully understand texts written in formal Arabic. Some of them can’t even pronounce or spell Arabic words. This is really sad. We’re witnessing an identity and culture being lost. This generation that will lead the country in the future knows almost nothing about their root and about their rich language and its heritage. This is one disadvantage of globalization, losing your identity …

Molten Metal
Molten Metal
7 years ago

Well Rome was not built on a single day. You need to wait. Switching back and fro to English and Arabic can actually back fire. Analyse why students fail, give them more training and classes on that weak areas. Slowly there will be improvements.

Lisa Clayton
Lisa Clayton
7 years ago
Reply to  Molten Metal

Agreed, but the first language in the school system should be Arabic. English should be introduced in a structured way with teachers who have competence equal to a native speaker. But again, I stress, Arabic competency is first and foremost.

Susan
Susan
7 years ago

The problem with the switch-over to English was that it happened in such a knee-jerk fashion, with little warning and only a modicum of support or training for the Arabic-speaking staff who were suddenly expected to function like native English speakers when they themselves were far from fluent. It was bound to fail from the get-go.

Studies have repeatedly shown that a bilingual model is the best one to follow. Barring that, allow students to get a solid grounding in their mother tongue and THEN introduce the second language once they have cognitively developed a bit (around the onset of late elementary-early middle school).

Another facet in Qatari students’ lack of progress with English (when compared to that of other nationalities) is the fact that they don’t socialize with mixed-language peers like other language/cultural groups do. Newly-arrived European, Asian, South American and even expat Arab kids typically pick up the language in under 12 months and then they’re off and running — precisely because they join school clubs and hang out on their compounds with the other kids where they need to speak English as the lingua franca. Qataris clock out of school when the bell rings and those 7 hours of class are the sum total of the time they spend using English in any meaningful way. They typically play only with their siblings or cousins. Unsurprisingly, they fail to demonstrate the same rapid progress as other ESL students do.

As things stand now in Qatar, many (if not most) local students have limited competency in Arabic and are piss-poor in English too. I doubt this is the outcome the SEC was aiming for.

Abdulrahman
Abdulrahman
7 years ago
Reply to  Susan

“The problem with the switch-over to English was that it happened in such a knee-jerk fashion, with little warning and only a modicum of support or training for the Arabic-speaking staff who were suddenly expected to function like native English speakers when they themselves were far from fluent. It was bound to fail from the get-go.” THIS!

John Haberstroh
7 years ago

Qatar needs to improve its Arabic language high schools and junior highs. There is no problem with a medium of instruction that is Arabic and having English taught as a second language from junior high school onward. Other countries do this and get excellent results. So what’s the problem here? You could start with accountability …

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