Teaching, language, neocolonialism

I am grading exams, again. And once more various feelings of discomfort bubble up and stop in my throat. In addition to the frustrations especially those relating to “bearing to hear the words you’ve spoken, twisted…” there’s the one about language.

Literary critics and culture studies people have discussed the relation of language and colonialism in much depth, and have exposed the politics inherent in those issues. Today I’m feeling them very acutely.


As an adult I’ve been reading and writing mostly in my second language. My mother-tongue, first/native language is Arabic, yet my university education has been in English. I did all my higher education in English. I wrote my dissertation in English. My first job was as a journalist in an English-language newspaper published in Cairo. And for the past seven years I’ve been teaching Arab and Islamic history to mostly Egyptian students, in English. Last semester I had an opportunity to reflect on the work of the historian as the work of a translator and today I remember the issues again but mostly as a teacher of history. It’s leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. Whereas I often find that teaching this history in translation allows opportunities to students, today I’m not so sure. On the one hand translation creates a barrier between the students and what they’re reading and learning, and this can force them to look at things with a fresh eye: to call the seventh century Arab expansion just that: “expansion” or “conquest” rather than the familiar “futuhat” with all its positive connotations is to be forced to address the political and ethical issues involved.


But today I’m frustrated because rather than opportunities gained I can see the opportunities missed. Because many of my students have limited vocabulary in English, they end up missing much of what is in the texts they’re reading, what I’m trying to argue in class or what I’m asking them to discuss on exams. A lot of it boils down to weak linguistic skills.


And it’s one of the discomforting things about globalization that English has become the dominant language in most of the world. Here in Cairo where I work, knowledge of English is essential for social status, maintaining it and/or advancing it. That’s why there’s a huge demand on private education in English. Even national universities now have special departments that use English as their language of instruction, and that are usually for additional fees.


As I’m reading the exam essays, some of which are really poor not because the student doesn’t know the details, the facts and evidence, but because they didn’t understand the question, I am myself questioning the futility of it all. What’s the point of trying to teach analysis and critical reading if they don’t understand the words themselves? And is the result leaving them worse off: with a hazy and confused understanding of the past, because of their limited vocabulary?


No easy answer. I remind myself, and my students, that there wonderful inventions called dictionaries, that some of them are available as apps on their ever-so-smart phones. I calm myself and remind her that learning is a responsibility, that when they’re confused they should try to find out more, figure out more.

But then the bitter taste returns. Am I partaking in robbing them of their understanding of their own history and heritage? By teaching them this history in a language other than their own, am I denying them something? Killing something? A connection, a link, a sense of ownership?

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