Motivation when learning a foreign language is crucial; however, motivational factors differ widely for learners who are required to learn a language for school and learners who are learning a language for non-mandatory reasons, such as integration into a community (as explained by Gardner’s motivation theory). Despite Arabic being taught as a mandatory second language to non-native speakers in K-12 schools and despite being surrounded by a large Arabic speaking community, expatriate children in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) often have low engagement with the Arabic language. Comprehension, production, and language acquisition amongst Arabic learners in UAE public and private schools is considered below desired standards, and no standard test exists to assess Arabic language skills among non-native Arabic learners in the country.
Traditionally, studies in applied linguistics have focused on the motivation of English learners, resulting in a low representation of other languages. Research into Arabic learning motivation for non-native speakers should be prioritized in the UAE given that:
- The official language of the UAE is Arabic
- Arabic language exposure is not limited to the school environment - there is a significant Arabic-speaking community
- There are potential religious and ethnic-heritage related motivations to learn the language
The Ministry of Education’s 2010-2020 strategy states that improving “the curriculum of the Arabic language to increase proficiency of students” is one of its primary implementation initiatives. Schools are subject to a rigorous assessment to evaluate the quality of Arabic teaching, in terms of meeting linguistics requirements. However, it is often not clear if the assessment effectively evaluates whether the motivational and psychological needs of non-native Arabic speaking children are being met. Furthermore, while several initiatives in the UAE aim to support and protect the Arabic language, non-native Arabic students have little to no interaction with these events as they are mostly directed towards native Arabic speakers. Additionally, parental attitude has a direct impact on the child’s performance. Upon surveying expat parents in the UAE(i), it was found that the parent’s attitude towards the Arabic language was a strong predictor of how the child perceived the language. Parents with little interest in learning Arabic themselves, or helping their child learn, often means that the student has low motivation to learn the language.
Discrepancies in parental attitudes toward Arabic are further complicated by the inconsistency of Arabic learning practices in different regions of the world, influenced mainly by the traditional practices noted by Selim. She states that “…many of today’s non-Arabic speaking Muslims have consigned the purpose of Arabic to advanced religious scholarship.” In Nigeria, for example, Arabic is often recognized as a language to be studied for religious knowledge only, while languages such as French and English receive stronger support for business and everyday life. This inconsistency calls for a more careful consideration of religious and secular practices within the context of Arabic language learning.
This research brings a new way of understanding motivation in the context of Arabic language learning in the UAE. It calls upon education systems to bring about awareness among parents of Arabic learners to encourage a positive attitude toward Arabic learning. It also encourages policy makers to assess how we instill positive memories and experiences pertaining to Arabic among non-native speakers in the UAE. This could be achieved through school-based workshops, community events, and access to low-cost Arabic classes for students and parents. Another potential strategy is the encouragement of young Arabic learners through incentives such as internships and funding opportunities based on working proficiency in Arabic. These education and public policies will increase Arabic learning motivation and contribute to the ongoing efforts to enhance the role of Arabic in the UAE.
It is vital that the UAE take action to increase the quality of engagement with the Arabic language in its non-native Arabic speaking population, particularly expatriate children, to protect its heritage and build a cohesive, tolerant population.
(i) Siddiqui, J. (2019). “Exploring Factors Impacting Motivation and Language Proficiency amongnon-native speakers of Arabic” unpublished manuscript, Carleton University.