Saturday, 13 June 2009

thinking critically while thinking foreignly.

A couple of weeks ago, Mamour Turuk gave a very interesting seminar on his doctoral research: Developing Critical Thinking Skills through Integrative Teaching of Reading and Writing in ESL. His PhD is a form of educational experiment. He is trying to find a way of teaching English that encourages students to “think critically” in English. In a show of PhD student solidarity, I have been thinking in English about thinking in English.

English in Sudan

Sudan has always had a complicated language policy. Traditionally, Sudanese universities used English as the language of instruction. In the early days of independence, many of the professors had received their training abroad and most teaching materials could only be found in English. English became the de-facto language of higher education in Sudan. However in the 1990s, this all changed. In what was wildly regarded as an educational revolution, the government instituted a policy of Arabization within the public education system. As a result English was replaced by Arabic as the compulsorily language of instruction in all public universities in Sudan.

For many, this was seen as a political issue. Southerners had, by and large, grown up within an English speaking educational system. The imposition of Arabic as THE language of education put them at a huge disadvantage. There was also the issue of speed. Arabization happened very fast, with few professors being able to both speak Arabic well and lecture deeply about the subject matter in question. Quality is said to be adversely effected by the new policy. For others, this was an anti-colonial matter; Arabic was the official language of the country, so therefore universities should teach in Arabic. Khallas! Additionally it was thought that students would learn better in their own language.

Of course, Arabic is not the first language for many of Sudan’s citizens. Sudanese speak multiple languages in the home and in the South, English has become the lingua franca. Indeed under the new constitution, signed in 2005 as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, both Arabic and English are the official languages of Sudan and Southern universities are now able to use English as the language of instruction. And even within the North, private universities still teach in English. And even within Arabic-speaking universities, many technical subjects rely heavily on English textbooks and computer programs.  Therefore, while Arabic may be the official language of higher education in Sudan, many students are still trying to study in English.

For one thing, English opens doors. When a student graduates, the first thing she must do if she wants a professional career, is to learn English. If she doesn’t, she will not get a job. It doesn’t matter if the company is Sudanese, Chinese, French or Dutch, she needs to speak English. Every HR manager I have spoken to during the course of my research says the same thing. They offer law as the only exception, as all court cases must be conducted in Arabic.

Whether they are speaking some pure form of “British” English or “American” English that the queen would approve of is debatable. Because they don’t have to. If you read half the emails leaping through the UN system, you would see what I mean. The UN is an international space and international English prevails. My high school English teacher would run riot with her little red “grammar” pencil. A sea of crosses and questions marks and “syntax error number twelve”! I can even see the smile on her face as she tears them up; this is fertile ground for her over-enthusiastical grammatical brain. But these guys don’t need perfect grammar. They don’t need to blink an eye over syntax nor pronoun agreement. They don’t even need to use the verb “to be”. What they need is the ability to think in English, think quickly and resolutely, and under pressure as the world falls down upon them. In simple terms, they need to think critically.

So is it possible to think critically in a new language?

When we study foreign languages, we often slip into the convenience of translation. We translate the material, think about it in our own language, come up with a response and then translate it back again. It may look like we have thought about the subject in the foreign language, but really we will have treated the language as a code. This is especially the case when you learn a foreign language outside of its native stomping ground. If your teacher is good, she will only use the foreign language in the classroom, but as soon as she turns her back, you may well whisper something to the student next to you,

“Oi! What was she going on about?”

Then when the class is over, you return home and turn off the little language part of your brain. “click” like a light switch it’s gone. No more Arabic grammar for the day! Ilhamdulilah!

But you must be forced to think in the foreign language for it to really sink in.

You’re on your way home after a long hot day, sitting on a particularly uncomfortable seat on the bus. Your seat is sagging onto the next person’s lap and the woman next to you has three children who stare at you for the entire ride home. They are suspicious of the khawaga. The president has made them sensitive to the ways of the wicked West and they are not going to take their eyes off you. You scan the horizon for signs of a junkfood establishment. You must consume something before you melt into your bedsheets. The sun has drained you of your sugar and salt. This is not a culinary matter. This is about glucose! You close your eyes as the bus screeches to a halt. You leap out and walk home through the pasture of donkeys and dust and strange metal objects that surround your home. You are SO ready for Bed-fordshire that you’re not even going to buy a ticket….

Then you get home and there’s a power cut, or a sandstorm or some other crisis- and your landlady is there, angry and incomprehensible, saying something about God above, and your neighbours are speaking to you in rapid-fire-five-hundred-words-a-minute Arabic and you wonder, God Almighty, won’t they just let me go to sleep? I will sleep without electricity. I will sleep without a roof. I will sleep in the middle of the Nile if that’s what they want from me. Is that what you want from me?!!

That’s when you know you are being forced to speak a foreign language. Because you have to.

When I think back to my bachelor degree, I remember how difficult it was for the foreign students in my environmental policy courses to keep up during the first couple semesters but they had to. I remember proofreading their essays and seeing how drastically they improved from one year to the next. I do not doubt that by the time we had finished our degrees they had not only acquired funny half-British accents, but also the ability to think critically and deeply in English. I admired them for this deeply. I am not sure I could do the same for Arabic.

However this transformation was not so common among my economist colleagues at university. They were never really forced to think in English. Economics was a chiefly mathematical affair. Discussions were seldom held and when they were, we were less animated than a group of stuffed animals on a shelf. Answers to questions were almost always numbers, even when we were talking about economic policies that affected social welfare:

“Should we raise the tax on petrol to encourage public transportation in the UK?”

Answer: +2.6% . Next Question….

In this way, Economics died a slow and painful death. Reduced to mathematics, I lost interest in about five weeks and decided that I no longer loved the discipline as I had before. I shifted my interest to the environment policy part of my degree and gave up wanting to be a “real economist”. I thought Political Economy had been buried and its tombstone lost amongst the partial differentiation equations that dotted the landscape. It certainly wasn’t hanging about in the Economics department at LSE.

The Importance of Critical Thinking

I would agree with Mamour: Critical thinking is a necessary component of education. If you do not force your students to think critically, they will lose interest and if they lose the love of learning, knowledge becomes a matter of memorization. You shove all the information into your brain before the exam, spit it all out and then hope that you didn’t forget anything important. Little real thought is required.  

I have been told by many students that this is the situation in most universities in Sudan today. Some even say that questions during class are discouraged and that classmates rely heavily on other classmates for explanation and copying. People even photocopy their friends’ work. Now if you ask me, that’s plain lazy!

And that’s in the Arabic speaking universities. What about the English speaking ones? Well, like economics at LSE, the majority of students are not native English speakers. The language of instruction is English but the environment is Arabic. They are not forced to speak English outside (and sometimes in) the classroom. I have met many graduates from English speaking universities who do not speak English very well at all. It is almost impressive that they have managed to get through an English-speaking university without being able to speak English, but it begs the question; how much did they really learn? Would it have been better for them to have studied in Arabic (provided Arabic is their first language) and to have thought deeply about what they were studying? Or did they acquire language skills that put them at an advantage in the job market? Because at the end of the day, these people need jobs.

I remember a debate in one of my classes at Edinburgh. I think the question was: Is the use of European languages as the medium of instruction in African educational institutions more negative than positive? I can’t remember what conclusion we came to (if any). All I can say is that English is necessary for social mobility in Sudan. If you want to get a good job, you have to speak English, plain and simple.

In some ways, English also represents a different kind of space in Sudan. For one thing, it is space in which Southerners might be at an advantage. For another, it is a space that might be less policed by the elder generation.

Last Valentines, I found a man in a bookshop writing love letters. I am not sure if he wrote customized letters for each customer or whether all women in Khartoum thought that their loved ones “burnt with respect and admiration” for them but this man was a pro. There was a line of people waiting.

This Casanova was writing in English- apparently the new language of Love?

“Why?” I asked, a bit naively and feeling decidedly French.

"Because parents can’t read." They replied. 

In this way, English represents the langage of the youth, of the new generation of Khartoumers who see the world with international eyes.

Could English therefore also be the language of protest? If you master English well, can you veil your comments in sarcasm and a cutting wit that the government and its probes might not recognize. I have seen this on the facebook statuses of my friends. Sarcasm is a powerful tool against the strong.  

In this way, English, or more precisely international English should not be seen merely as a colonial remnant. It is no longer a British space, a former territory that we control, as native English speakers. No, English is alive. It lets people communicate with foreigners from around the world, from Asia and Africa and Latin America. It allows you to express yourself in deviant, socially liberated ways. And perhaps mostly importantly of all, English is the gateway to social mobility in a globalized Sudan. It gets you a job.

This is why Mamour’s research is so important.

As a short side note; there is a conference on English language teaching in Sudan next week, on Monday and Wednesday at Omdurman Islamic University. If you are interested in joining me, let me know!


  1. I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is unethical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Unethical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is long overdue.

    An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  2. Dear Brian,

    Thanks for reading my blog and leaving a comment.

    However, I don't know if you fully got the intention of my post. I didn't mean to say that people in Sudan should not keep a hold of their own languages and simiarly, I don't think that everyone in the world needs to speak English, but specifically in Sudan, English is extremely important for social mobility.

    I don't think it is about imperialism anymore because it is no longer English English. We are not even the majority anymore. There are six times more English speakers than native English speakers in the world. English has been described by educational planners in Sudan as "an industrial tool". In the same way that IT training is now becoming vital for job candidates, English is a tool of social empowerment.

    I used to live in London too and I love the fact that you hear so many languages on the tube and in the park and wherever else, but if you want social mobility (i.e. to improve your social welfare) I think it is hard to get by without some level of English in London.

    I also don't think people should rely on English. I myself am an Arabic student. I have spent the last 8 years learning Arabic. I also wish that I had more time to improve/resurrect my Spanish.

    I think people should preserve their mother tongues, but in Sudan it is more complicated than that. The choice of education at the tertiary level is basically a choice between Arabic and English. Arabic is NOT the mother tongue of everyone in Sudan and it is linked to Arabization/Islamization of society- one of the chief reasons the war in Southern Sudan started up again in 1983. English is the language of Southern Sudan. If they didn't have English, they wouldn't have a common language- apart from Arabic, which many Southern Sudanese resent. In this way, English is sort of a non-national languages which does place all ethnic languages on an equal footing. It is also a source of common identity which is something Southern Sudan desperately needs. Its peace is fragile at the moment and it needs to develop itself as a nation.

    Additionally, it is currently IMPOSSIBLE for students in Medicine and Engineering to study without English. Until a real translation movement comes about in the Arab world, it is IMPOSSIBLE to study these technical subjects without English. There aren't enough textbooks. There aren't the same technical terms. I have read economics textbooks in Arabic and they still write lots of technical words in English. Classical Arabic tries to "create" modern words for things, but trying getting Egyptians to call a telephone a "Hatif"- they all say "tilfon".

  3. I went to a conference on English Education in Sudan yesterday and a professor from Lebanon who works as an educational consultant around the Arab world basically confirmed all these things. If an economy wants to develop then it must a) engage with IT and b) speak English. This was his message.

    I also discovered that Sudan used to produce the world's best Arabic-English translators. It was renowned for its excellent Arabic and English teaching. The forced Arabization program has ruined this. It is sad because this is something that a lot of Sudanese were very proud of.

    Anyhow- whether you like it or not, English is the language of science and technology. When people start doing serious scientific research, social analysis and technological R and D IN ESPARANTO, then I think you have a case for arguing against English, but I don't see that happening any time soon.

    Personally I am very passionate about social mobility and economic empowerment and for this reason, I do hope that Sudan improves its provision for English language. At the moment, only the rich have access to English language training and the opportunity to travel abroad. I am hopeful that the fact that Southern Sudan has now been able to re-introduce English as the language of primary and secondary instruction means that in the future, Southern Sudanese job candidates will have an advantage in the job market- because quite frankly, they need it in the current Sudanese job market.

    Anyhow, thanks for reading and all the best.

  4. yes, I'm also much agreed with you the "ENGLISH" is must to know unless this will bring you the wrong way, so keep it to learn what the global business environment need from their coming employees or visitors . .
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