May 3 1999

Dr. Ramakanta Sahu,
Associate Professor. Department of English
College of Education at Mahweet
Language permeates human society and is, by far, the most precious possession of human beings. This is why humans are variously called ‘homo-sapiens’ or ‘articulate mammals’. It is now an established fact that language also significantly influences one’s pattern of thought, and the traits of one’s personality.
If we observe the profile of languages used across speech communities, we would realize that most of them are, more often than not, conversant in two or even more languages present in their linguistic environment. Of course, all the members of a given community may or may not have acquired an equal degree of competence in all these languages.
As such, in most societies people are either bilingual or multilingual. One of these languages which the speakers have acquired through primary exposure right from their birth is, obviously, their mother tongue (MT) or L1 and the other language(s) is / are referred to as the other tongue(s). A native speaker, as a result of constant and extensive use of his/her mother tongue, forms an intuition into the underlying rules of his/her mother tongue in the lexical (word level), syntactic (sentence level) and pragmatic (socio-cultural context level) domains of use and usually acquires the ability to use it with ease and felicity. However, one feels the urgency of learning a second language (L2) or other languages if one feels that the resources of the L1 are inadequate to fulfill all one’s communicative demands in different fields or, alternatively, the resources of L2 gives him specific instrumental benefits such as getting a good job, visiting a foreign country and so on.
Learning of and access to two or more language systems or instruments of communication clearly places at the disposal of the user two or more outlets for self-expression, and bestows on him/her a certain amount of socio-cultural prominence, prestige or authority, as language is considered synonymous with power. A bilingual enjoys the singular advantage of being able to marshal his/her ideas, thoughts, emotions and feelings in either of the codes in accordance with the perceived contextual appropriacy, communicative convenience, or his/her personal choice. He/She can even manipulate the languages for ‘code-switching’ or ‘code-mixing’ at will as the situation demands.
In a multilingual context, as in India (with as many as 1625 mother tongues, some16 languages being recognized as state languages), or the USA, where there is a heavy influx of immigrants belonging to different language groups with the accompanying cultural matrices, the situation is at once complex and fascinating. Although diverse languages often co-exist peacefully with their mutually defined domain-specific roles, sometimes they are caught in fierce language rivalries generating a considerable amount of socio-political tension.
Language planning, therefore, becomes a compulsive need in a multilingual context. However, it is an admitted fact that, like every dark cloud having a silver lining, plurilingual contexts offer the members of their speech communities the enviable advantage of a spectrum of choices relating to different language codes. At the same time, the complexities and compulsions of the multilingual contexts oblige them to agree upon a ‘lingua franca’ or common language which provides a most needed linguistic bridge among diverse languages, bringing about a unity in diversity. In many multilingual and pluricultural contexts, including those in India, English has so far been performing this strategic function efficiently so that the whole range of inter-regional, inter-lingual and international communication has been carried on without any major impediments. As a matter of fact, in view of its dynamic roles and versatile functions in the Indian subcontinent, English is fondly referred to as ‘the Auntie’s tongue,’ next in closeness to the mother tongue.
Against this backdrop, it is pertinent to analyze the language use scenario in Yemen, which constitutes an interesting socio-linguistic study of persistent monolingualism in a patently multilingual context. The use of language is enriched by the presence of members of several language communities, such as the Indians, Pakistanis, SriLankans, Germans, Russians, the Dutch, members of the English speaking world, as well as several others.
Yemen offers a predominantly monolingual context where Arabic is the only language used in almost all day to day practical contexts of communication. Children acquire Arabic from the home environments and are exposed to the formal or literary varieties of the language consequent upon their schooling and entry to higher education. They have the opportunity of learning English in the formal setting of schools and, thereby, of becoming Arabic-based bilinguals. But unfortunately, due to the problems of attitude towards English and several other socio-academic factors, most of them end up acquiring a smattering of some form of a pidgin English which is inadequate to stand them in good stead in a range of communicative situations involving the use of English. As a result, they virtually remain Arabic speaking monolinguals for the rest of their lives. This situation has at least the following implications:
a) Lack of proficiency in English denies them the opportunity to access a bulk of information in a number of disciplines, especially in areas related to science and technology. These are available only through English, and not through translation in Arabic. Eventually, they deny themselves the privilege of coming in contact with the world’s greatest minds and achieving academic excellence.
b) They are bound to be cut off from the global mainstream of community life where English provides the sensitive linkage among the communities.
c) So far as bilingualism facilitates cognitive development, being monolinguals they are unable to fully harness their innate intellectual potential. This leads to an avoidable under-utilization of the available human resource in Yemen, which are so crucial to lead the country to the threshold of the approaching millennium. In the face of the acknowledged need for bilingualism, the intriguing phenomenon of mono-lingualism seems to be the result of a lack of perception and awareness of the plethora of possibilities that an adequate level of proficiency in Arabic and English can open up for the enterprising Yemenis in the age of globalization.
In conclusion, one may say that at a time when a strong and powerful wind of change is currently sweeping the world, Yemen can not be a passive and mute observer, but, in the fitness of things, be a legitimate partaker of intellectual strides around, and an active sharer of the global trend. Along with many progressive and timely measures currently underway in Yemen, such as efforts at salvaging tourism, liberalization of economy and so forth, let there be a concerted move on the social and academic planes to equip our young generation in at least two languages – Arabic and English. Then we can show the mutually complementary and enriching role of each. This can help remove what seems to be a major communicational handicap in Yemen before it is too late to resolve.