English Is The New French: The Case Of Lebanon

English Is The New French: The Case Of Lebanon
The case of Lebanon is a complex one. The country got independence from the French in 1943 and faced a chaotic and violent 15-year civil war in 1975, resulting in a high death toll and mass exodus. Ever since the League of the Nations assigned the countries of Lebanon and Syria to France through the creation of the French Mandate, a system of education modelled after the French education curriculum was developed in 1924. The French were quite overt and went all-in with their cultural hegemony. As a result, they prepared a constitution in 1926 that declared French as the official language besides Arabic.

The system was moulded in such a way that the knowledge of French history and French culture became mandatory for the Lebanese citizens to enter the global workforce. Privatised education saw its high noon, and Arabic was displaced. As soon as the country got independence from the French Mandate, the first Lebanese governments tried to break the French hegemony in both education and politics. Old laws were repealed and replaced by new decrees that focused on Arabic as the language of instructions and as a primary language. While many of these reforms were not or barely implemented practically, they were present in the constitution. As the subsequent governments paced towards decolonizing the various departments of the country, the civil war of 1975 erupted, leaving many of the reforms incomplete and unimplemented.

Following the end of the civil war and the promulgation of the amnesty law in 1990, Lebanon kept seeing inter-religious tensions, a stagnant economy, sky-rocketing inflation, making education no longer a priority. While the French language hegemony could never truly leave Lebanon, the use of the English language, as a globally spoken language, has lately been increasing in the country.

In the 1951-52 international yearbook of education by UNESCO International Bureau of Education, the educational reform plans of Lebanon put an exclusive focus on the textbooks. Most of these textbook reforms pertained to the question of compulsory bilingualism. Later, in 1990, the Ministry of Education, Lebanon, released a plan for educational reform in the country under the Ta’if Agreement, which aimed to nationalise the education system and perpetuate the narrative of a single Lebanese identity as an Arab country. The policy focused on closely monitoring the foreign textbooks and, consequently, working on the National school textbooks. However, the looming threats by Hezbollah, the Israel-Palestine conflicts, and the influx of refugees from the neighbouring countries to Lebanon, along with dire economic conditions, complementing the intricate and complex inter-religious affairs and sectarian violence within the country, did not lead to the complete implementation of these policies. Therefore, to fund and support the government came the influx of USAID programs. These programs complemented the strong presence of the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, slowly forwarding and building on the English language hegemony in the region.

As a result of American aid and globalisation, the use of the English language in Lebanon has lately been causing a shift from bilingualism to tri-lingualism within the region. Can this shift succeed in undermining the French language hegemony? Is the undermining of French hegemony by the rise in the use of the English language leading to the much-awaited French-language decolonisation or its removal in Lebanon?
As per the statistics from the Lebanese Education Ministry, 62.5% of all Lebanese schools offered French as a second language in the school year in 1999-2000 which decreased to 55.8% in 2005-2006 and schools in which English was offered increased from 19.7% to 21.6%

In a decree legislated in 1946 (three years after the independence), the Lebanese government, as per Shaaban and Ghaith (1996), ordered that all subjects be taught in Arabic. The subsequent decrees legislated that Arabic be a mandatory subject in all foreign and national educational institutions. Later, the foreign institutions were allowed to use any language as a mode of instruction but strictly followed the Lebanese school curriculum. Over time, foreign educational institutions were exempted from teaching the Arabic language, but private schools were still required to teach Arabic.

The language-in-education policies changed with the changing governments. In 1968, a decree was legislated that required that pre-school, elementary, intermediate, and secondary level subjects should be exclusively taught in the Arabic language, except for foreign languages and literature. Post-independence and pre-war Lebanese governments put ample focus on nationalising the curricula and strengthening the role of Arabic as a language. Some of these decrees were emotional and seldom took the job market and the impact of learning a foreign language into consideration.

Further amendments in the decrees resulted in Arabic being a language of instructions only limited to lower levels of education, and it did not expand on a grander scale as the English and French languages did. The reason that is said to have resulted in this outcome was that classical Arabic was difficult to write and learn. Experts like Shaaban and Ghaith (1996) argue that there had been little to no amendments within the language, on a linguistic front, to make it accessible, which resulted in many foreign as well as local educational institutions preferring to teach in foreign languages over Arabic.

Over time, people started finding incentives to learn foreign languages. The abundance of oil in the Gulf brought business to the region. This further pushed the people to learn foreign languages, specifically the English language, to avail maximum opportunities. So much so that the Lebanese government established the Centre for Education Research and Development (CERD) in 1971 to involve experts in developing an English language-specific curriculum. This was the time the focus from Arabic and French had moved to the English language. As of now, the Arabic language in Lebanon is the language used by newspapers, administrative and legal systems, news broadcasting and so on. The Arabic language, therefore, rules mass media and courtrooms.

However, despite this, foreign languages, especially the English language, have been able to penetrate the system quite deeply. For example, in Lebanon, 14 out of 16 governmental ministry websites have English as one of the available languages in use, and ‘out of these sixteen websites, nine use English as the default language. Why this is the case is better understood when one realizes that in Lebanon, Arabic is more of a symbol of culture and Muslim unity, and the English language is instrumental in the pursuit of education and in the fields of science and business, as suggested by Linda Akl (2007).
The religious connotation attached to languages in Lebanon, other than being a good example of symbolism, also shows how the diverse population of Lebanon has been able to sustain and maintain the languages spoken within the country

During the Lebanese Civil War, while on the one hand, the standards of quality education continued to fall, the use of the English language kept increasing dramatically. The most pivotal role that was played in the rise of the English language was by mass media, which included television, radio and newspapers. This was also when the French language lost some of its hegemony. Given the deteriorating condition of the country, CERD, a key player in the Lebanese Education Ministry, ceased to work on the education policies for the time being. This gave a chance to people to establish private schools and commodify education. These private schools had the English language as the medium of instruction.

So, with this increased use of the English language, is the impact of the French language being diminished? Well, during the war, four more universities were established in the country that taught specifically in the English language. The war years played an important role in reducing the impact, if not substituting, the French language. Since the war years, the language-in-education policies of Lebanon have been leveraging foreign languages with a substantial focus specifically on the English language. The English language, over time, has become an important deciding factor for the pursuit of higher education and for immigration to foreign countries as it is a language that is understood and spoken the world over.

UNIFIL peacekeepers teaching French to schoolchildren, Lebanon

It is not like the English language completely dwarfed the impact of the other languages. A vast majority of the Muslim population still speaks Arabic in Lebanon. Moreover, a big chunk of the Christian population living in the country speaks French and English, for they have a history with Christian missionaries in the past. The religious connotation attached to languages in Lebanon, other than being a good example of symbolism, also shows how the diverse population of Lebanon has been able to sustain and maintain the languages spoken within the country.

In practical terms, however, the reason behind the English language substituting the French language is partly economic, as Bohous et al. (2011) write that “proficiency in foreign languages helps Lebanese graduates find job opportunities in the region and abroad since there is a limited job market in Lebanon”. Moreover, it is also, to a great extent pertaining to politics. According to Bourhis (1982), after the independence, the Christians started to use French, and the Muslims embraced the Arabic identity. To counter this divide, the English language was declared an alternative to the French language in 1946. Although it didn’t have much impact, it paved the way for the English language to reemerge at the end of the war as 61.5% of Francophones, at that time, believed English to be more useful than French, according to Abou et al. (1996).

So, would this change be called decolonising or a steady process of recolonizing? A piece of evidence on how English is being institutionalised gradually is the requirement of two foreign languages in the 1990s education reform. In fact, in 1996-1997, Lebanon implemented via the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) and the National Center of Educational Research and Development (NCERD) a new English language curriculum which resonated the principles of theme-based language teaching.

As per the statistics from the Lebanese Education Ministry, 62.5% of all Lebanese schools offered French as a second language in the school year in 1999-2000 which decreased to 55.8% in 2005-2006 and schools in which English was offered increased from 19.7% to 21.6%. The Lebanese Education Ministry also reported in 2009 that the number of students learning French as a second language has fallen by over 10 per cent while the number of students learning and using the English language keeps increasing. In conclusion, there is no doubt that the much-awaited French decolonization of Lebanon is finally taking place only for different colonisers to take the place of the French, strictly in terms of the language.

The author is a policy student whose interests lie in education and academia