Focusing on the use of language in the Qatari workplace

by  — 3 May 2015

In Qatar, a state with 2.2 million inhabitants (according to the latest available statistics from the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics) and, more importantly, one in which 85 percent of the population are expatriates, a single, unifying language is a crucial issue on multiple levels. For one, language shapes a large part of cultural identities, more so in a cosmopolitan setting. In the Qatar workplace, in which the use of English, the lingua franca, how does the 2012 Qatari Supreme Education Council decree that changed the medium of instruction in four of the colleges of Qatar University and the independent schools, from English to Arabic, stand up? And, asks Aparajita Mukherjee, how will it affect the linguistic preparedness of the labour market entrants?

There are voices both for and against the change from English to Arabic as the medium of instruction. Those who argue for the decree say that it is aimed at helping young Arab students preserve their identity and culture, especially given the country’s large expatriate population.

But those who argue against the move have pointed out that one main concern is that students who study in Arabic would have trouble getting accepted into the cadre of prestigious international universities that have been set up in Qatar, because most of them teach in English. If that is the immediate impact, what about the longer-term consequences on the job market? Are students who graduate from these institutions adequately prepared for the professional world?

The Edge spoke with experts to get their take on this change, and to gauge the impact it has had and will have on the overall linguistic preparedness of a student who merges into a workforce that presupposes English-language capabilities.

Director of British Council Qatar, Martin Hope, says that this is clearly a challenge. In their experience, continues Hope, “we find that many students lack both the confidence and linguistic skills to operate successfully in English in the work environment. In particular, written skills (from basic e-mails to more formal reports) are inadequate and this has significant impact on their efficiency and effectiveness in the workplace.” Hope adds that with regard to speaking skills there is a broad spectrum. Some are able to participate in only the most basic interactions, while others can manage as long as the topic is familiar and the environment not too formal.

Dr Amal Al Malki, executive director, Translation and Interpreting Institute, “wouldn’t narrow down job opportunities to language requirements, but it is a known fact that mastering at least two languages will be an added advantage to the candidate”. She is of the view that both English and Arabic languages in constant conversation would add value to building a global citizen, which is what any education system would want.

David Jones, managing director of The Talent Enterprise, is of the opinion that while Arabic is clearly the national language in state education and in all aspects of the operation and employment within the State of Qatar, this is simply not the case within the private sector. In terms of Qatar’s total workforce, adds Jones, approximately 94 percent are non-Qataris, with English being the most common language of exchange. Jones adds: “While we fully believe that preserving the heritage and culture of the Arabic language is critical, proficiency in English is not only critical within Qatar’s own economy, but for its potential to increasingly integrate with the global economy more broadly.”

Presenting the hirer’s perspective, Fahad Ismail HM Zainal, chief administration officer of Qatar Financial Centre Authority (QFCA), says that a majority of graduate students in Qatar are bilingual, as Qatar University operates a highly accredited English Foundation Programme, which develops students’ English language proficiency levels.

According to Professor Robert Bianchi, assistant professor, English, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar (VCU-Q), there is a disconnect between the national language and the language of globalisation and commerce here in Qatar. The implications are that either more emphasis needs to be placed on bilingual education so that Arabic and English can both be mastered, or else, laws will have to be put in place to prioritise Arabic over English in the market place, in shops and in society in general. “This second choice is likely to be the least popular because of Qatar’s ambitions to become a serious global player politically, economically and socially,” Bianchi adds.

Speaking to The Edge on the sidelines of the Sixth Annual Translation Conference held in Doha recently (and bringing in a wider Gulf Cooperation Council relevance to the debate on linguistic proficiency), Dr Hisham Jawad, translation programme coordinator – English Department at the College of Arts & Social Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman, says: “A diverse economy with a globalised dimension will, by default, demand graduates who are equipped with a fair bit of English language proficiency, the global language of science, technology and almost every aspect of life. Therefore, it becomes imperative that students develop some satisfactory level of proficiency in English so as to deliver efficiently in the marketplace.”

English language teaching

In the backdrop of the Supreme Education Council 2012 decree, the role of institutions that teach English language has become more crucial, especially as they cater for students who are entering the labour market. What would these institutions recommend to improve the linguistic skills of students in Qatar so that workplace transition becomes seamless?

In the opinion of the director English language services, British Council Qatar, Amanda Ingram, “Learning a language takes time, dedication, and a motivating and skilled teacher. Qatari students need exposure to graded but authentic input in English from an early age, and language must always be presented within context.” Ingram adds that Qatari students need to be actively encouraged to participate fully in a communicative English classroom and their curriculum should balance productive skills (writing and speaking) and receptive skills (listening and reading).

According to Ryan Peden, educator – corporate programmes, at Sidra Medical and Research Center, students need to show initiative and embrace opportunities to learn English before entering the workplace. This, to him, is especially important if their English learning opportunities are limited in school. Peden believes that students need to look for opportunities to use English in practical environments. He adds, ”Socially, this might mean joining a sports team or a club, where they know they can interact with other expatriates to practise their everyday use of English language. Students can also look for work placements or internships, like those organised by the Bedaya Center, to not only get work experience but also to gain experience in English-speaking working environments.”

Zainal of QFCA has a different take. “I don’t believe that linguistic skills are the major barrier to a harmonious workplace environment,” he says. “In fact, it is my firm belief that a seamless transition in the workplace is only guaranteed by developing graduating students’ confidence and soft skills through internship graduate development programmes.” He mentions development programmes such as Kawader (a five-month long development programme designed for Qatari students whom have just graduated from university/college), which play a tremendous role in developing crucial business knowledge and building employees’ soft skills and confidence in a professional environment. “Attending such programmes enables a seamless transition from the student life to the professional life,” adds Zainal.

Qatarisation and language proficiency

Does the broad policy for Qatarisation in government departments and companies make local students better suited to public sector jobs? For Radhika Punshi, director of innovation at The Talent Enterprise, Qatarisation is a central tenet of the achievement of Qatar Vision 2030 “if we are to effectively achieve the transition towards a knowledge-based economy from the current energy-based economy”. The Talent Enterprise, she adds, advocates a broader-based approach to Qatarisation – Qatarisation 2.0 – which is a re-boot of traditional approaches.

Explaining the concept of Qatarisation 2.0, Punshi says: “We use a multi-dimension Qatarisation Index called ‘Ta’theer’, which focuses on sustainable advances in the productivity, progress, presence, positivity and positive role-modelling as a better measure of success than percentage of Qatari hires alone.” Punshi stresses that, along with focusing on technical and job-related skills, its critical to foster soft skills such as teamwork, communication, critical thinking, problem solving etcetera, as early as possible (including within K-12 education).

According to Peden of Sidra Medical and Research Center, the larger Qatari workforce in public sector organisations is generally better equipped to adapt to these working environments with their native Arabic language. Having said that, Peden adds, “students who start their careers in government departments and companies should still look to develop their English language abilities, which can increase their career development prospects in the future, particularly if they wish to move to the private sector.”

Private sector opportunities

For the private sector career opportunities, English language is more of a non-negotiable, compared to the public sector. That being the case, does it exclude locals? Hope of British Council Qatar believes that there is no reason for locals to be excluded. The ability to communicate confidently and accurately in English is a key skill that can impact significantly on the opportunities a young person has throughout their life. He says that he is confident that parents, educators and policymakers will consistently prioritise English as part of the curriculum to ensure that young Qataris can compete successfully in the private sector and to secure the path to the achievement of Qatar Vision 2030.

According to Jones of The Talent Enterprise, sustainable progress in the private sector cannot be achieved without the adequate representation of its local workforce in Qatar. He adds that all stakeholders, be it employers, educational institutions, policymakers or individuals themselves, need to do more in this regard. “There is no choice but to increase representation of Qatari nationals in the private sector, since employment within the public sector is already saturated within Qatar, and the biggest growth in future employment will come from the private sector. It is also important to recognise that the nature of private sector employment is also changing dramatically.”

Assessing the current scenario of linguistic skills in the private sector both Zainal of QFCA and Dr Malki of the Translation and Interpreting Institute stress that locals are better suited in the private sector because of their bilingual skills. According to Dr Malki, “The workplace in Qatar is looking for just that.”

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