Home | News    Wednesday 6 October 2004

The fall and rise of English in the Sudan

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By Chris Bishop

KHARTOUM, Oct 5, 2004 (IPS) — Crumbling masonry, peeling paint and dusty patches where once were manicured lawns?The University of Khartoum has worn poorly under the searing Sudanese sun - as much as the language that the buttoned-up colonialists who built it came to spread.

When the university was opened in 1902 amidst military pomp by Horatio Herbert Kitchener, formerly governor general of Sudan, English was the medium of instruction - and also the official language of Sudan.

But the end of British and Egyptian colonial rule in 1956, followed by the ascendancy of Arabic, saw the popularity of English wither. By the late 1960s instruction in English was being phased out in schools (although universities only followed suit in the early 1990s). All teaching in Sudan is now in Arabic.

There are no official statistics for the number of English speakers in the country at present, but it is safe to say that they are few and far between - especially amongst the youth. On the streets of the capital a conversation in English is usually held with a grandfather who was taught before the so-called "Arabization" of the country.

Change is in the air, however. While the crisis in the western region of Darfur has fuelled the image of a country at odds with global opinion, those outside political corridors testify to growing contact with the world beyond Sudan’s borders. In addition, a clause in the peace plan being developed to end civil war in the south may bolster efforts to bring English back into fashion.

Since 2002, delegates from government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army have met near the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to hammer out a deal to end 21 years of fighting in southern Sudan. In addition to stipulating how the country’s all-important oil revenues will be shared and a government of national unity constituted, the plan stipulates that English must become Sudan’s second language after Arabic.

Mohammed Elfatih Ahmed Braima, who is writing his doctoral thesis on language policy in Sudan, welcomes the renewed interest in English.

"I am not very happy with the situation of English in this country. It is the language of technology and trade, and not enough of our people are learning it," he says.

Similar concerns are voiced by retired engineer Ahmed Defalla Mohammed, who studied in London.

"The (post-colonial) policy put Arabic first and made sure that everyone mastered their own language, which is a good thing," he notes. But, "If they had taught the world’s academics and experts Arabic it would have worked better, because the text books are still in English."

However, a resurgence of English may catch Sudan’s various teaching institutions flat-footed.

In a country where education is taken seriously there is a university in every state, but this system is groaning under the strain of too many students crowded into too few classrooms.

This year, official figures put the number of students attending Khartoum University at over 20,000 (although certain lecturers claim the number is likely to exceed 40,000) - a dramatic increase over the student complement in earlier years. In light of this, some wonder how tertiary institutions will cope with the extra burden of providing more English courses.

Others point out that taking English at university is a poor substitute for receiving a good grounding in the language at school.

"We cannot teach in four years the English that people used to learn in 12 years at school," says Sadig Yahya, the energetic head of the English Department at Khartoum University. He notes that of the 400 students who apply to study English every year, about 300 are accepted - only a hundred of which will ultimately graduate.

"We have even had students who cannot copy basic information from the question sheet onto their examination papers," adds Yahya.

While many at the university say the dearth of English in home and public life underpins the inability of students to grasp the language, one senior lecturer puts a portion of the blame elsewhere.

"The British?are neglecting the health of their language and culture overseas. It seems they are interested in business only these days," says Younis El-Amin.

Elamien Saeed, officer-in-charge at the local branch of the British Council, begs to differ. Speaking at premises in a side street off the chaos of downtown Khartoum, he says the council helps up to 200 people a day in their quest to learn English - even though only one language officer has been assigned to Sudan.

"Considering the resources we have, we are doing quite a lot," Saeed claims. The council is an arm of the British government dedicated to increasing cultural ties between the United Kingdom and other countries - and to providing educational opportunities for British and foreign students.

Back at Khartoum University, in the hush of library’s high arches, 19-year-old Safa Abu Bieda pores over a book in her bid to master English.

The daughter of a customs officer, she is one of the fortunate few who can speak English fluently - albeit with a slight American accent. Because there are so few people to speak English with in Khartoum, Abu Bieda watches American films and listens to American music. She wants to be an interpreter one day.

"I find the teaching is not enough, English is just another subject here and the rest of the world is in Arabic," she says. "Some students struggle with learning certain subjects like physics and medicine in Arabic?Many text books are still in English."

"In Arabic there are many words for one concept. In English, there are many concepts for just one word," Abu Bieda adds.

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The Sudan Tribune editorial team.

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