Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Language & Culture in the Classroom 


Reading Time: 3 minutes

I listened to this podcast Academic Citizen (thank u Laura Czerniewicz for pointing me to it) – this episode on the politics and power of language in the classroom was powerful. They include a student voice at some point in the podcast (they do this regularly) but focus mainly on interviewing experts and for that episode, history Professor Dr Nomalanga Mkhize speaks in a very nuanced way about what it means to use non-English languages in different contexts in the classroom and beyond. She echoes a complex landscape where different parts of South Africa speak different languages whereas English seems to be the dominant language of higher ed. She speaks of how school teachers struggle to teach in English because it isn’t their native language, too. She is highlighting, of course, that in many contexts, ignoring indigenous languages and enforcing a supermacy of English, while important economically and for employability, reproduces inequalities in society and privileges certain learners over others. It also creates graduates unable to engage with the reality of a multilingual society. 

I am reminded again of how little I read in Arabic and how difficult it is for me to write in Arabic.  And my decision to change this. I am already very cognizant of getting my child engaging books in Arabic and have succeeded in that and she was also lucky to have had a good Arabic teacher last year (that’s so rare here).

But beyond my individual change…I would like to go back to some institutional change. And I will start soon. And it is this: our university requires students to take several rhetoric and composition courses in English in order to do well in university. It also requires some amount of Arabic language. Back in my day, you could avoid taking an Arabic language test if you took two Arabic literature courses (classical and modern) in Arabic. I did that. I learned to type Arabic quickly then. But those courses did me little good beyond those days. There is a course now on business/technical Arabic which I believe is more useful. For our students to learn to write and present in Modern Standard Arabic. This, I feel, would be a much more useful course for students. I would take it now. I would so take it now.

I discovered a long time ago that even though my institution required us to speak fully in English in class, that my non-degree students understood me better if I didn’t stick to that too strictly.

There is also the important point of humor in the classroom. Humor is always always different in your native language. Joke in English with an English style joke and some of the class will get it. Joke in Arabic and almost all will get it (I might not get it myself actually! But that’s another story).

So even though I now teach undergraduate students who mostly understand English well enough or even really well… I will occasionally use Arabic. I will allow them to create their games in Arabic if they choose…even though thry have to blog about them in English because my learning outcomes must focus on English communication. 

I am reminded of my schooling. British. We weren’t allowed to speak in Arabic even outside class. We did of course. And inside class as well (non-Arabic class I mean). A small act of resistance by 7 or 16 year-olds. It somehow made Arabic special.

The problem of teaching Arab culture oe history at a place like AUC (American University in Cairo) where I  graduated and now work/teach is that you end up learning it in English and from a partly American perspective. That seems wrong even when teachers are Egyptian. I feel the teachers making it into something by Egyptians for Egyptians and I admire that.

I came across this article from the archives of Hybrid Pedagogy and this quote is worth remembering over and over (it talks of indigenous people which isn’t the case in Egypt in that sense, but the case of good education in Egypt being always in a foreign language to the suppression or alienation of the native language) :

Hybrid learning should not only involve combining the physical classroom with the web and other environments outside the classroom, but also combine western viewpoints, experiences, and ways of learning with those students who are often asked to leave these attributes at the door.


  1. Finally making it here to comment.

    I teach in English to (mostly) Mexicans who are (mostly) using English as a second language. Part of my role here as a native speaker is to give them a different cultural perspective and forced practice in using English in the daily communications.

    Sometimes my students need Spanish to communicate deeply and often I need to allow them that freedom. Speaking in Spanish also gives me (selfishly) a learning opportunity to improve my Spanish speaking and listening skills. The running joke is that many of my colleagues tell me that I have a “university student” Spanish vocabulary which makes sense since most of my Spanish is with those students.

    That brings me to another caution sign for English speaking migrant workers in other countries (somebody asked why we call ourselves expats and not migrant workers on Twitter, great question). I put so much focus on ensuring that my own children have “enough” English language materials at hand (books, movies) that I probably went too far at the cost of their Spanish language fluency including vocabulary. I’ve seen that from my eldest child and now need to ensure she (and my boys) get enough Spanish language literature going forward.

    Thanks for a great post Maha!

    • Expats not migrant workers supposedly because you aren’t immigrating…are you seeking Mexican nationality? Coz that’s what a migrant worker is, right? Expatriate implies temporary and keeping your own identity regardless how you behave when you live there. I wasn’t sure if your wife is Mexican or American or something else entirely. Because that modifies the way ppl look at u, right? Lots of American profs here stay for a long time because they are married to Egyptians… Those are not expats

      • The community here that are still on a temporary visa still use the expat term. I am a permanent resident now (finally) and have been here 21 years now. I’m considering citizenship and looking into that. My wife is from here as well (we call the locals in Guadalajara Tapatios/Tapatias).

        So yes, I’ll be here until they get tired of me and kick me out (the university and the country). 🙂

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