Study re­veals maxim for Dubai – if the lan­guage fits, use it

The National - News - The Review - - Roundup - Anna Zacharias Anna Zacharias is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist based in Mus­cat.

Suneeta Thomas’s doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion for Pur­due Univer­sity in the United States ex­plores the use of English in the daily lives of Dubai’s mid­dle class. Her re­search up­ends tra­di­tional the­o­ries of ap­plied lin­guis­tics, but those who call Dubai home will not be sur­prised by her find­ings: namely, lan­guage in Dubai is dic­tated by con­ve­nience rather than pres­tige. In short, peo­ple use what­ever works.

There are many the­o­ries for un­der­stand­ing the use of English as a first and sec­ond lan­guage. For ex­am­ple, ad­vo­cates of lin­guis­tic im­pe­ri­al­ism ar­gue that im­pe­ri­al­ism is still a force and, with it, im­po­si­tion through lan­guage. But oth­ers, such as World Englishes, take the view that peo­ple have rein­vented English for their own use.

As a stu­dent of ap­plied lin­guis­tics in the US, when Thomas didn’t see her “typ­i­cal, In­dian mid­dle class” Dubai up­bring­ing rep­re­sented, she re­turned home to find an­swers. She sur­veyed 128 In­di­ans, Filipinos and Pak­ista­nis from Dubai and con­ducted 13 in­ter­views. Her doc­tor­ate the­sis ex­am­ines per­cep­tions to­wards English and its use in the work­place and daily life. Thomas found that peo­ple in Dubai opt for ease over iden­tity politics, switch­ing be­tween lan­guages un­til the best way is found to com­mu­ni­cate. While a so­cial or po­lit­i­cal elite tra­di­tion­ally dic­tates which lan­guage dom­i­nates, in Dubai, the elite and mid­dle class switch to the lan­guage of the work­ing class. “What I no­ticed across the board is peo­ple tend to re­vert to a lan­guage most com­fort­able for com­mu­ni­ca­tion rather than show­ing pride or a sense of moder­nity or dif­fer­ence,” says Thomas, who is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Mis­souri State Univer­sity. “That was, in some sense, a very en­dear­ing fact. We don’t want to cre­ate dif­fer­ences. I don’t want to show I’m dif­fer­ent, rather, let me try a lan­guage that you prob­a­bly un­der­stand.”

Here English is not con­sid­ered an ad­van­tage, a source of pride or moder­nity, un­like in In­dia where it is seen as a colo­nial legacy. Nor is its use con­sid­ered detri­men­tal to other lan­guages. It’s just part of ev­ery­day life.

Aca­demics and tra­di­tion­al­ists have of­ten pegged English ac­qui­si­tion as a ne­ces­sity as­so­ci­ated with moder­nity and pro­fes­sional ad­vance­ment.

This is not the case in Dubai, ac­cord­ing to Thomas’s re­search. Speak­ers did not con­sider English for­eign, mod­ern or a means to a great life. In­stead, knowl­edge of English and its us­age was taken as a given, nei­ther a pos­i­tive nor neg­a­tive sig­ni­fier, but sim­ply an or­di­nary part of an ev­ery­day life.

“English ex­ists, but it’s not a great thing,” Thomas’s un­cle told her upon learn­ing of her re­search topic. Why study some­thing so com­mon­place?

“The lit­er­a­ture has been say­ing that English is a golden rite of pas­sage, you need it to suc­ceed,” says Thomas. “While that is true, this pop­u­la­tion al­ready pos­sess English and yet their life is nor­mal and reg­u­lar. We’ve moved so much from that po­si­tion in his­tory. English just ex­ists and is very much a part of their iden­tity.”

Sim­i­larly, in Thomas’s Dubaibased re­search, speak­ing English was not per­ceived as a threat to the mother tongue, but a par­al­lel lan­guage.

Most par­tic­i­pants were young, highly ed­u­cated and three­quar­ters were In­dian. Nearly half were raised in Dubai. Both Pak­istani and Filipino re­spon­dents had a pref­er­ence for their mother tongue in the per­sonal do­main. Pak­istani na­tion­als of­ten de­faulted to Urdu in the pub­lic do­main rather than English.

Among In­dian par­tic­i­pants, English was so com­mon that it was used 60 per cent of the time when in­ter­act­ing with friends, even among those who could con­verse in Hindi. This preva­lence re­flects In­dia’s lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity; English is one of it’s 22 of­fi­cial lan­guages.

But part of this, ar­gues Thomas, is also Dubai’s im­print. Her per­sonal story is telling. She at­tended an ex­pa­tri­ate school for In­dian stu­dents in Dubai, where classes were taught in English and it was nat­u­ral to speak English among friends. Her par­ents also spoke to her in English but to each other in their mother tongue, con­fi­dent she would learn Malay­alam through at­tend­ing church and the oc­ca­sional Malay­alam movie. They’d also watch Hindi tele­vi­sion chan­nels, Bol­ly­wood films on week­ends and lis­ten to Hindi ra­dio sta­tions in the car.

It was a typ­i­cal Dubai child­hood. “Ob­vi­ously there are some peers who had just the op­po­site ex­pe­ri­ence, but this has def­i­nitely been the norm,” says Thomas.

Her re­search also high­lights Hindi as a par­al­lel lin­gua franca in Dubai. In­ter­vie­wees said Arab of­fi­cials in the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor tended to com­mu­ni­cate in Hindi or Urdu with the work­ing class, and oc­ca­sion­ally the mid­dle class.

“This is amaz­ing, again un­der­lin­ing the im­por­tance of con­ve­nience rather than dif­fer­ence,” says Thomas. “His­tor­i­cal ten­den­cies have shown that in any con­text the lan­guage of the elite or the rich class tends to gov­ern how the lan­guage is used.

“I think that’s an in­ter­est­ing dy­namic, which prob­a­bly sheds light on how the coun­try gen­er­ally tries to be very friendly and ac­com­mo­dat­ing to the ex­pat pop­u­la­tion. The over­ar­ch­ing theme would be com­mu­ni­ca­tion and con­ve­nience rather than gen­er­at­ing dif­fer­ence.”

Lan­guage, after all, ought to be about un­der­stand­ing. In this way, Deira and Satwa get it right.

‘ Peo­ple tend to re­vert to a lan­guage most com­fort­able for com­mu­ni­ca­tion rather than show­ing pride or a sense of moder­nity or dif­fer­ence Suneeta Thomas As­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Mis­souri State Univer­sity, US

Delores John­son / The Na­tional

The re­search sur­veyed 128 In­di­ans, Filipinos and Pak­ista­nis in Dubai to un­der­stand their at­ti­tude to English.

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