Image Credit: GN Archive

I once saw this sign on a shop as I was walking down a street in my hometown: “Which shop was here is now shifted to there.”

My friend and I stopped in our tracks and we then read it out aloud again and started laughing hysterically, and pedestrians looked at us and hurried past, thinking we were a bit cracked.

The shop was shuttered and I wondered where in the planet was it now. If the shopkeeper wanted his clients never to find his shop in the new location, he certainly did a great job.

English is the language of communication in most of the world today. It is the language that bridges communities and countries, the language that helps ease trade and commerce and guides pilots in the air to get to their airports and yet very few people across the globe speak or write it well.

The UAE is no different. This favourite destination of many jobseekers is peopled by a mish-mash of nationalities, from the very vocal and speed-speaking Indian from the south of India to the gesticulating Italian, who speaks more with his hands than with his tongue.

The lingua franca (a bridge language that is spoken in a multicultural crowd) in the UAE is English, and because English is spoken more than Arabic, everyone should be proficient in the language. Right? Wrong!

The UAE was ranked 42nd in the English Language Proficiency Index this year. This despite the fact that English is sort of a semi-official language of the private sector with its diverse expatriate population from countries such as Russia, China, India, Philippines and of course Britain, where the national language I hear, is Gujarati these days!

UAE residents should be proficient in English, says the study, as English is the language of instruction in most private schools. But sadly, they are not.

I was driving to Abu Dhabi from Dubai a few years ago and a sign whizzed past that made me drive off the road and onto a dirt track. I parked and made my friend come with me in the blazing hot summer day to take a picture. The sign said: “Watch out for road surprises.”

For the next few kilometres after that, I drove like a nervous wreck, like the person who believes in conspiracy theories and about aliens that kidnap human beings and study them. The road to Abu Dhabi was however, smooth and nothing untoward happened and nobody came out of the bushes on the side of the road.

“The trouble with English is that she is very difficult to speak and write, with its funny spellings and grammar.” For example, the plural of mouse, is mice. The plural of mouse, the computer device, is mouses.

That is why you have this sign in a Japanese bullet train that says: “Toilet, One Place One Dream.” Or this one: “If your unborn child doubles as a wifi device you may sit here,” under a sign with the illustrations of an elderly person with a walking stick, a sportsman with a crutch and a pregnant woman with a large tummy. In Egypt, you will see a sign that says Facefood. Maybe the owner meant fast food, or it is just to attract attention like Facebook does.

The language training company EF, Education First, however, rates the UAE first in the Middle East and North Africa region.

In the list of Low-Proficiency countries, UAE is bracketed along with Peru, Chile, France, Ecuador, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Pakistan, Guatemala, China and Panama. Saudi Arabia is ranked 68th, Kuwait 65th, Qatar 63rd, Oman 58th, Egypt 55th and Jordan 53rd. Among other major countries, India is ranked 20, Japan 30, Russia 39, Sri Lanka 49, in the Low Proficiency countries.

Mahmood Saberi is a freelance journalist based in Dubai.