November 20, 2004

English in Kurdistan

There's a letter in Friday's Financial Times from Brendan O'Leary and Khaled Salih, Constitutional Advisers to the Kurdistan National Assembly, arguing as follows:

That many Kurds have chosen English (or "American") as their primary second language is evidence of Kurdistan's progress, and should be welcomed. English is the lingua franca of advanced scientific and medical journals, and of international governmental and business organisations; and it is the emergent public language of the European Union that Kurdistan's neighbour, Turkey, may soon join.

It is equally in the interests of Arab Iraq to have English as its second language, not least to bridge the three deficits in the Arab-speaking world identified by the Arab Human Development Report of 2002; namely, the democracy deficit, the female equality deficit and the knowledge deficit. Kurdistan's comparative success in these three domains owes much to the prevalence of European second languages among its diaspora and residents. English, as a post-colonial and a world language, is the appropriate impartial link medium for a pluri-national, federal and democratic Iraq in which both Arabic and Kurdish will be official languages.

They are responding to an Op-Ed piece by Damjan De Krenjevic-Miskovic and Nikolas Gvosdev of the Nixon Center, published on 11/16 (accessible only with a subscription).

I recently heard a Kurdish official describing a meeting with an (Arab) representative of the current Iraqi governing council. According to the Kurd, he began the discussion in English, and the Arab objected: "Can't you speak Arabic?" The Kurd's response: "No, I can't." In fact, his command of Arabic, both literary and colloquial, is excellent -- he was making a true statement about his perceived moral and political obligations, rather than a false one about his linguistic abilities.

Recent history helps to explain this attitude.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 20, 2004 09:38 AM