A Conflict of Desires – Push and Pull

A final major theme in the data related to conflicts surrounding English. This often involved being pushed or pulled in different directions. Having to decide on the value of certain aspects of cultural identity individually is challenging, but it is equally challenging to receive mixed messages from society about the direction one should follow.

Mixed Messages

A ‘conflict of desires’ or feeling of being torn was described by both Emiratis and expatriates. Expatriate teachers commented that often mixed messages were given regarding how much cultural change was acceptable, leading to confusion and uncertainty about which path to take, as seen in Example 6.32.

Example 6.32

Cultural identity here is inextricably linked to religion, tribe and family, which are strong factors that are not changing so much. However, they are being pulled two ways now with the ever-increasing exposure to western ideals through media and the Internet.

(Lisa, New Zealand)

Identities are shifting and changing and moving and I think quite a few Emiratis probably do feel insecure because they think ‘how can I be modern and progressive, educated and a high achiever, and keep my identity but at the same time embrace what is new and at the same time balance and juggle?’ 1 think, particularly for girls (this is hard).

(Rachel, UK)

Expatriate teacher, Rachel (UK), went on to give further accounts of such challenges, when female students have dreams of a certain career, only to be told that working in a mixed environment is culturally inappropriate.

Linguistic and Cultural Conflicts in Families

A feeling of being pulled in different directions was discussed at length not only in relation to career goals but also in relation to home life, both in terms of language and culture. Emirati primary school teachers spoke of their school-age children using English so comfortably and naturally at home that certain family members were excluded from conversations. Descriptions of non-English-speaking older family members as ‘mute’ and ‘isolated’ indicated serious divisions caused by the dominance of English, as seen in Example 6.33.

Example 6.33

One day 1 was in the car with my husband and my kids. He is in KG2 (second year of Kindergarten), he talks with me in English and the father is like mute. He’s not there, somebody is driving the car, it is not his father (laughs). And the conversation was there and we were talking and he asked his father ‘isn’t it like this?’ and his father didn’t answer, so I feel like yes, we are in the car but we are in danger, we are like isolated our father from dealing with us or joining us in our conversation about... so I taught the children the Arabic language at home and when my child starts to talk in English, 1 answer him in Arabic to ask his father to join us, you know, because it’s scary because I need this relationship between us.

(Oshba, Emirati primary school teacher)

Example 6.33 indicates that English is causing relationships to be strained and damaged in families. Further personal accounts from Emi- rati university students described mothers and grandmothers needing to bring daughters or granddaughters on shopping trips and to hospital appointments due to not being able to get by without English as seen in Example 6.34.

Example 6.34

In malls, my mum can’t speak English well so when she goes alone, she cannot deal with people in the shop so I have to go with her or my sister has to go with her to speak, to get the information that she wants.

(Sara, Emirati university student)

In Example 6.34, both Sara and her mother may experience a myriad of feelings. Sara on the one hand may feel ‘proud to help’ and on the other hand ‘burdened or obligated’. Her mother may feel resentment, asking herself ‘why can’t I speak my own language in my own country?’, as well as low self-worth and lack of independence and freedom (reliant on others).

Conflicting feelings also occurred when helping children with homework. Although Arabic is viewed as the ‘home language’ (as seen in Chapter 5 of this book), the homework from school often needs to be completed in English. Choosing English over Arabic when helping with homework caused tension and conflict in Emirati schoolteacher and mother, Lamya’s household, as seen in Example 6.35.

Example 6.35

As an English teacher, I would be teaching my kids at home and my husband would come home and he would say everyone speaks English except him. I would be teaching them Math, English and Science and he will start to fight with us, you know, arguing. So, this is what I feel, to be honest. Because he’s like, ‘you have to teach them in Arabic’ and I am like ‘yes, but this is English. This is what our government asks in the schools. This is what they need’. This is the new generation.

(Lamya, Emirati primary school teacher)

Lamya’s choice to use English with her children at home in order to help with homework may be seen by her husband as disloyal to their first language. Lamya feels she has little choice, however, as educational policies support English in education. Through homework, a language which may have stayed at school makes its way into the home. This leads Emi- ratis to separate Arabic from education, even in the home context, and by disengaging identities from home languages, the process of language loss is accelerated (Cummins, 1996). Further examples were given of younger family members being more comfortable using English than Arabic, or in some cases not being able to use Arabic. An illustration of this can be seen in Example 6.36.

Example 6.36

My brother he don’t know how to write in Arabic, so he’s lost that. (He's) seven. He just writes in English. But he speaks Arabic but be don’t know how to write in Arabic. He don’t know the letters. When my mother teaches him, she feels she will die. She wants to kill him.

(Nadia, Emirati university student)

Poor performance of young Emiratis in Arabic (and English - perhaps demonstrated by Nadia’s frequent subject-verb-agreement errors in Example 6.36), is supported by results from the ‘Progress in International Reading Literacy Study’ (PIRLS) standardized test, which aims to measure students’ ability to read and comprehend texts in their native language (Mullis et ah, 2012), where Arabian Gulf students generally do not fare well. From the 51 countries which participated in the 2016 PIRLS, the Arabic-speaking Gulf nations scored notably lower than most other participating countries with the UAE ranking 43rd place, Bahrain 44th place, Qatar 45th, Oman 47th, and Kuwait 48th (Taha-Thomure, 2019, p. 4).

As well as low levels of ability, lack of interest in Arabic is also common in the region. Previous studies in the Gulf have presented accounts of youths’ disinterest in Arabic, even at home. After multiple interviews with Emiratis as part of her research for a recent podcast on the status of Arabic in the UAE, Porzucki (2016) posed the question, ‘is the new Emirati identity an English-speaking Arab?’ One of many interviews with Emirati citizens was with a young woman named Dina who had attended an international school in the UAE. Dina explained that she grew up speaking English both at school and at home and therefore felt ‘Arabic was not a priority’. She commented that when her parents tried to encourage her to speak Arabic it was similar to when other people’s parents say, ‘you should eat your vegetables’. She felt, ‘great, but no thanks’. This demonstrates Findlow’s (2006) fear of Arabic being relegated as ‘non- useful’ and Arabic culture being cast as ‘other’.

In the present study, not only language rifts but cultural rifts in families were also commented on. Primary school teachers Rawda and Hessa’s discussion in Example 6.37 demonstrates this.

Example 6.37

RESEARCHER: Do you think it (English) affects family life?

RAWDA: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I’ll give you an example. When I had my third baby recently, my son refused to go out with us. He says, 'I feel shy because we became a big family now’ and he’s in Year 3 only so, God almighty, he doesn’t want me to come to the school with the baby.

HESSA: Did you tell him it’s normal for Arab families?

RAWDA: Yes, I told him but you know. . .

HESSA: He’s affected by. . .

RAWDA: He’s affected by uh. . .

HESSA: His peers.


RAWDA: He says why do my friends all have small families? Why he’s the awkward one?

In Example 6.37, Rawda talks of her son’s embarrassment over the size of his family compared to his international classmates. Family size in the UAE is typically large, where having nine or ten siblings is the norm. The tension experienced between Rawda and her son in Example 6.37 reminds us of Mills’ study (2004) where British-Pakistani mothers spoke of their children’s embarrassment over them speaking Punjabi in the English-dominated setting of the UK, saying ‘be quiet because everyone else is listening’ (p. 178). Also, in Dovchin’s (2019) study with Mongolian mothers living in Australia, feelings of shame over the first language were passed on to the children due to the Mongolian language being viewed as ‘not necessary’ and ‘of no value’ (p. 13). Accounts such as these, not only in the UAE context but in many other English-dominated areas, demonstrate a feeling of shame related to the LI and local culture and a desire to change, which reminds us again of the final step in Oshba’s stairs analogy (Figure 6.5).

To conclude, through analysis of data in this chapter, we can see that various layers of Emirati cultural identities are affected by English, both positively and negatively, leading to complex linguistic and cultural identities where ‘wanted not welcome’ or ‘push-pull’ relationships with English are often found. The findings revealed that new hybrid linguistic and cultural identities are emerging, although often not without challenges.


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