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Languages hold the key to a prosperous future

It is easy to forget how central languages have been to our evolution as a species, and how they contributed to the rise of the most influential civilizations throughout history. Language has transformed the nature of our existence and we, in turn, changed language so that it progressed not only to a means of communication, expression and a form of art, but to offer vast windows into past and present cultures, as well as the inner workings of the minds of different peoples. 
Over the course of history, languages have been key drivers of the growth and progress of civilizations. In fact, languages are so significant to humans that the word “language” is synonymous with the word “tongue,” one of the most important organs in the human body, in Arabic, English and Farsi, as well as other languages. 
Our world today is more connected than ever, and this of course makes it all the more necessary and beneficial to learn more languages. And, while it is important in most parts of the world, being multilingual is especially so in countries like the UAE for a number of reasons.
The UAE has built an impressive and diverse economy, and has successfully positioned itself as an influential player on the international stage. Winning the bids to host the International Renewable Energy Agency HQ and Expo 2020 are testament to the incredible progress of this tremendously ambitious country. Being home to Dubai International Airport (the world’s busiest airport), which served more than 88 million passengers in 2017, is another. This success was made possible mainly by the UAE’s strategic geographic location, but also its longstanding strategy of economic openness and cultural and religious tolerance.
Bilingualism is quite common in the UAE; English today is spoken to at least a minimum degree of fluency by nearly everyone residing in the country. Historically, Hindi, Urdu, Swahili and other languages were informally adopted by and commonly spoken by older generations due to historic trade ties, as well as migration waves to the Emirates from countries like India and Tanzania, among others. 
In 2016, Reem Al-Hashimi, UAE Minister of State (and a multilingual herself) said: “Our strength is in the Tanzanian trader, in the Indian businessman and the Saudi entrepreneur.” The UAE’s market is one of the world’s most dynamic — being among the 16 largest exporters and 20 largest importers of commodities in 2015 ― but it is through people-to-people trade and relations that the country has gained its reputation as a global connector. The UAE’s diverse population of more than 200 nationalities, coupled with its far-reaching foreign trade strategy, renders multilingualism essential for exploiting the benefits of the global markets, improving trade between people worldwide and fostering further cultural exchange.

Multilingualism should be an integral objective of national strategies simply because it is the next logical step in our expedition toward a more connected, tolerant and cooperative world.

Maria Hanif Al-Qassim

In order to achieve that, a nationwide, multi-sector strategy for the effective development of language capacity in the UAE is necessary. The first step toward creating a holistic strategy to promote multilingualism must be taken after a detailed and extensive audit of the languages spoken and assessment of the language deficits that stand in the way of further economic development and expansion. Other indicators necessary to decide which languages a country needs include current export trade, the language needs of business, government trade priorities, emerging high-growth markets, and the public’s language interests. 
Investing in language subjects in schools and universities is one of the ways the nation’s education policy can be linked to its objectives for international engagement in business, education and cultural fields. In the UAE, for example, the Ministry of Education has launched a Mandarin language pilot program across 10 public schools for the current academic year. With that, and given China’s position as the world’s second-largest economy (and the UAE’s number one supplier), Emirati students already have a foot in the future. 
Encouraging people to learn other languages should not be the responsibility of governments and educational institutions alone. Businesses, for example, should also play an active role by defining language needs, as well as investing in the development of the language skills from which they will ultimately benefit. 
Minority groups living outside of their hometowns must preserve their unique culture and heritage by actively teaching their first languages within and outside their communities. Friday sermons in mosques, and prayers and ceremonies in churches, temples and all houses of worship, should be conducted in all the major languages spoken in any given country. 
Needless to say, we need to redouble our efforts to nudge residents toward learning the Arabic language, and make it both simple and attractive to do so. Aside from being a beautiful language, Arabic is one of the most common languages around the world today, with more than 223 million people speaking it. In a study commissioned by the British Council, it was predicted that Arabic will be the second-most important language for the UK’s prosperity, security and influence in the world in the coming few years. It is therefore a missed opportunity for residents of the Arab world to leave the region without having learned the language, and a failure on our part not to have helped them do so. 
Nelson Mandela famously said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” While bilingualism around the world grew organically in the past, it is now time to take deliberate measures toward utilizing the fluid movement of people between continents that is unique to our times, as well as the connectivity provided by technology, to increase linguistic wealth everywhere. Not only will we achieve greater economic growth, but we will build bridges between the different cultures around the globe. Multilingualism should be an integral objective of national strategies simply because it is the next logical step in our expedition toward a more connected, tolerant and cooperative world. 
  • Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif