Reflections on the Egyptian landscape of linguistics

Bonny Norton

University of British Columbia, Canada



One of the privileges of working in the field of TESOL/Applied Linguistics is the opportunity to meet extraordinary people from across the globe, learn more about diverse linguistic communities, and take a fresh look at one’s own teaching and research. For this reason, in October 2010, I was delighted to serve as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the TEFL department, American University in Cairo (AUC). Although I had visited AUC in early 2006, the university premises at the time were in downtown Cairo, and AUC has subsequently built a new campus a considerable distance from downtown, in an area known as “New Cairo”. During my visit, I had the opportunity to learn more about the new site and the greater Cairo area. I also enjoyed many conversations with faculty and students, presented two public lectures, and ran a series of workshops. In reflecting on my experience, I have been asked to address the following question: What are the greatest challenges for English language education at AUC and in Egypt?

            In seeking to address this complex question, I offer some preliminary thoughts and tentative observations. To this end, I would like to focus on what I am calling “the landscape of linguistics” in Egypt, a slightly different take on the recent research on “linguistic landscape” associated with applied linguistics scholars such as Elana Shohamy. During my first visit to Egypt, because I was living in downtown Cairo, and took daily walks along the beautiful Nile River, I was only dimly aware that Egypt is in fact almost all desert. At the new campus, the dry, desert-like quality of the Egyptian landscape was clearly evident, and my research confirmed that the only arable land in this enormous country lies along the Nile River. This has important implications for a poorly resourced but highly populated country. Simply put, how does a government feed 80 million people on the produce of a small strip of arable land? Although I am not an economist, it seems clear to me that if Egypt is to survive and prosper, it needs to be at peace with its neighbors; it needs the support of wealthier nations; and it needs a vibrant tourist industry. Poverty and social unrest will create divisions within Egyptian society, with potentially dire consequences for the future.

            So what does this have to do with English language education at AUC and in Egypt more broadly? Since English is a global language of commerce, technology, and tourism, AUC has an important role to play in reaching out to diverse communities in Egypt, both poor and rich. If English remains the language of the elite, which seems to be the case in Egypt, then economic divisions within Egyptian society will be exacerbated, and English will be associated with privilege, westernization, and post-colonialism. Egyptians with limited access to English may become resentful and disaffected, and possibly turn their anger against sites of English dominance.

            I am not suggesting that Egyptians relinquish their investment in the rich and vibrant Arabic language: mother tongue literacy is important not only for the maintenance of sociocultural identity, but also, as bilingual education scholars such as Jim Cummins note, for second language acquisition. At the same time, if English is a language of power, then all Egyptians should be able to have access to excellent English education, and local ownership of the language. In my view, this is the greatest challenge for English language education at AUC, in Egypt, and, indeed, the entire global community.


(Written prior to the January 2011 revolution.)


Bonny Norton is Professor and Distinguished University Scholar in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research addresses identity and language learning, critical literacy, and international development. Her website can be found at