GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
From ‘late-late’ to ‘early-early’ immersion: Dilemmas and discontinuities
Paper Proposal Text :

Higher education in the UAE has long been conducted predominantly through the medium of English (Davidson, 2008), yet the vast majority of state high school graduates are Arabic speakers whose schooling has ill-prepared them for learning through English, having studied it merely as a foreign language for a few hours a week at school. Consequently, only a small minority (fewer than 10%) of Emirati state school leavers are actually ready to study subjects through English at tertiary level (Lewis, 2010), where ‘readiness’ is measured by modest attainment levels in standardized tests. Thus they must spend up to two years in an intensive English language program before embarking on their undergraduate studies. Furthermore, college student attainment levels in English remain low, and graduating students continue to struggle with English proficiency upon exiting university. Although international evidence shows that bilingual immersion education (where students study subjects through a second language) is highly successful in promoting both second language proficiency and content knowledge (Johnstone, 2001; Baker, 2006), the UAE’s policy of ‘late-late immersion’ in English is clearly problematic for the vast majority of students. Yet the prevailing ‘discourse of opportunity’ (Tollefson & Tsui, 2004) in relation to English means that it remains essential in higher education and for participation in the global knowledge economy.

In a radical attempt to boost proficiency in English and to redress such problems of discontinuity, Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) has recently veered to the opposite extreme, shifting the paradigm from ‘late-late’ to ‘early-early’ immersion in English language. The ‘New School Model’ launched by ADEC (2010) as its key reform initiative sees teachers from Kindergarten onwards using English as the everyday medium to teach some subjects, alongside the traditional medium of Arabic. This seismic shift from very late to very early immersion in English presents its own set of challenges, however, as young Gulf children already struggle to acquire proficiency in standard forms of Arabic in the early years of schooling (Abu Libdeh, 1996; Al Sharhan, 2007). The existing discontinuities between the Gulf dialect of the home and the standard forms of Arabic in use in school are now compounded by the introduction of English as a compulsory medium of instruction for all children, alongside the home language, Arabic.

Alongside these linguistic discontinuities between school and college, and between home and school, the move to early bilingual immersion sees new pedagogical dilemmas emerge. Should children in Kindergarten be taught to read and write in both languages simultaneously, or should children learn to read and write in their first language, Arabic, first? Can enhanced literacy practices in both languages in school compensate for the reported low levels of Arabic literary practices in Emirati homes, where oral expression predominates over written forms? Are sufficient resources being pumped into the enhancement of Arabic language teaching, where teaching methods are widely recognised to be in need of ‘immediate overhauling’ (Taha-Thomure, 2008, p. 187)? Furthermore, given the time and effort required to master standard Arabic as well as English, what spaces exist for Emirati school children to learn other languages that are needed in the contemporary world, such as Putonghua (Mandarin)?

Subsuming such pedagogical dilemmas, there are ideological dilemmas associated with bilingual schooling. In light of the complex interplay between two powerful and prestigious languages in education in the UAE, how valid are the fears that bilingual schooling will see Arabic becoming further marginalised by English (Davidson, 2005)? Politically, in terms of nationwide educational outcomes, currently only Emiratis who are schooled in the Abu Dhabi Emirate have free access to bilingual schooling, so what are the longer-term implications of uneven access to the economic benefits conferred by English on other Emirati citizens across the country? Furthermore, given that bilingual immersion education is now both compulsory and universal in Abu Dhabi schools, what alternatives exist for Emirati families who want their children to learn only through their mother tongue, not through English?

This paper explores such discontinuities and dilemmas in medium of instruction practices in the UAE, and by relating the data and discource on language in education in Abu Dhabi to the insights from international research on language-in-education, the papers suggests some possible solutions to seemingly intractable issues.

Abu Libdeh, A. (1996). Towards a Foreign Language Teaching Policy for the Arab world: UAE Perspectives. Available: [Accessed 18/09/09].
ADEC. (2010). ADEC prepares education community for monumental step in education reform. Abu Dhabi Education Council. [Accessed 20/06/2010].
Al Sharhan, A. (2007). Language in education in the United Arab Emirates. Beirut, Lebanon: Librairie du Liban.
Baker, C. 2006. Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Davidson, C. (2005). The United Arab Emirates: A study in survival, Boulder, Colorado, USA, Lynne Rienner Press.
Davidson, C. (2008). Dubai: The vulnerability of success. New York: Columbia University Press.
Fox, W. (2008). The United Arab Emirates and Policy Priorities for Higher Education. In Davidson, C. & Smith, P. (eds.) Higher education in the Gulf States: Shaping economies, politics and culture. London: SOAS.
Johnstone, R. (2007). Characteristics of Immersion Programmes. In Garcia, O. & Baker, C. (eds.) Bilingual
education. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Lewis, K. (2010). Students entering university still stuck on remedial treadmill. The National, 25th May 2010.
Taha-Thomure, H. (2008). The status of Arabic language teaching today. Education, Business and Society: Contemporary Middle Eastern Issues, 1, 186-192.
Tollefson, J. & Tsui, A. (eds.) 2004. Medium of instruction policies: Which agenda? Whose agenda? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.