Better mastery of the English language is sorely needed in North Africa so as to meet many of the region’s critical challenges. Recent global studies show that English language proficiency is still lagging in this region. According to the latest edition of the English Proficiency Index, put out by the Swiss-based organisation, Education First, English language proficiency in the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt ranks at levels varying only between ‘low’ and ‘very low’ levels. Libya, in fact, takes the lowest rank among the 54 nations assessed in the survey.
Other results revealed by a 2012-report prepared by Euromonitor International, show that English is spoken by 14 per cent of the population in Morocco, 13 per cent in Tunisia and 7 per cent in Algeria. In the three countries, there is still reliance on French as the main foreign language (the level of proficiency in French varies between 60 to 70 per cent of the population). But even in Egypt, where French is not the second language, English is not spoken by more than 35 per cent of the population.
The current linguistic situation is a serious handicap for North African countries as they try to meet the challenges of youth unemployment and slow economic growth. The Education First report shows the strong correlation between English language proficiency and higher levels of exports, more foreign direct investment inflows, better business environments and greater competiveness.
For the Maghreb countries, where trade is essentially with Europe, this is a strategic issue. English is today spoken in Europe at a higher level of proficiency than any other region of the world. It is also more spoken among the 25-35 young professional Europeans than any other age-group. If Maghreb countries are serious about being competitive in Europe, today and tomorrow, they cannot ignore the English language factor.
To be better equipped to deal with the joblessness problem, which affects about 40 per cent of their 19-to-25 year-old populations; North African countries need value-added economic activities. These include IT, software development, and service-related occupations of consulting and travel and tourism, where English proficiency is important. “English is necessary to compete with the broader tourism market in the Mediterranean region. Also, all the new markets in Eastern Europe require English,” says Jerry Sorkin, President of Tunis-USA, a Philadelphia-based travel company. English is necessary to be able to reap the benefits of internet-based knowledge and to take part in global research and innovation. In 2011, half of the pages on the internet were in English. Countries in North Africa with the lowest rate of internet penetration are the same with the lowest rates of English language proficiency.
English is also necessary to facilitate the access of Maghrebi job-seekers to outside employment possibilities, whether in Europe, North America or even in the Arab Gulf countries. The same applies to joint-ventures and business opportunities. A very telling indicator of the importance of English language proficiency in employment is the listing of English proficiency as a hiring requirement in newspaper job ads. English as “a second language” is required in 92 per cent of jobs advertised in Morocco and 54 per cent in Tunisia. English language proficiency guarantees a better income. In Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, the salary gap between employees who are fluent in English and those who are not, varies between 7 per cent and 10 per cent. In Egypt, where 98 per cent of the job ads require “English as first language; the salary gap between those who speak English and those who don’t, reaches as high as 70 to 80 per cent.
One of the root causes of the low level of English language proficiency in North Africa is education itself. In Morocco and Tunisia, English is being gradually taught at earlier grades. But as a general rule, English is not taught early enough or according to the requirements of the globalised market. “English should be taught and tested to a level equivalent to mother tongue reading and math skills,” recommends Education First. At the university level, “there is not enough qualified teaching staff,” notes Imed Bin Ammar, an English language professor in Tunis. At all levels, there is not enough focus on nurturing communication skills. “Despite improvements in the last decade, the spoken level is still behind that of understanding,” notes Sorkin.
Beyond the teaching of English, in most countries of the region there is a dire need for enhanced quality of education to match the huge public expenditures in this field. Morocco spends more than 27 per cent of its budget on education, followed by Tunisia (20 per cent) and Algeria (14 per cent). Still, in most international scholastic tests, North African (and Arab) students score below the global average.
Would better English proficiency negatively impact the cultural identity of the peoples of North Africa? Not necessarily. “Multilingual countries can clearly achieve high levels of English proficiency without sacrificing their identities, as illustrated by Finland, Singapore and Malaysia,” says English First. For Maghreb countries, it should mean maintaining and improving their French language proficiency, at the same time that they improve their English language proficiency. An added ‘fringe benefit’ from greater English language proficiency in Maghreb countries would be greater harmonisation of business, education and communication standards between them and other Arab countries of the Middle East and the Gulf.
Foreign language teaching should be part of the educational reforms ushered by the 2011 revolutions in North Africa. Greater openness to the outside world and the higher level of engagement of international media, academia and civil society should naturally lead to expansion of educational exchange programmes.
Finally, a lot of concerns about communicating the true story of the Maghreb and conveying Arab messages through the global media would be greatly alleviated if higher levels of proficiency in English were to materialise. Like most of my former colleagues in charge of the information and communication sectors in the Arab World, I have always dreamt of a new golden age where our leaders could address western media without cumbersome voice-overs or English language subtitles at the bottom of TV screens. This might be the moment.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication.