This conference highlighted the importance of Arabic and how we can bring the language into the mainstream.
There were many passionate talks with three talks of particular note:
Firstly, an invigorating introduction (partly in Arabic) by Tony Calderbank, British Council Country Director, Bahrain, who spoke about the importance of Arabic. For a summary, see his article on why Arabic should be taught in schools.
Dr Elisabeth Kendall from the University of Oxford then highlighted some crucial points about foreign policy and the UK’s necessity for fluent Arabic speakers. One key point is, for example, that we can no longer have diplomats posted abroad unequipped with the language for the simple reason that during high level discussions, there is – inevitably – then a reliance on the interpreters and their word. Too much of the decision making is, therefore, deferred to the interpreter – not the diplomat!
We were then treated to a passionate and pragmatic talk by Mahmoud Al Batal, University of Texas, a leading authority on Arabic teaching, who had come all the way from the United States. Mahmoud Al Batal spoke about the approach to teaching Arabic (predominately referring to university and academic study) and how to reconcile fuSHaa and Arabic dialects.
Al Batal promotes an integrated approach (see above) emphasising that the dialects form a part of Standard Arabic.
Afterwards, as soon as the discussion was opened to the floor, it quickly descended into a squabble about the age-old debate of shall we teach fuSHaa or dialect, or both and, if so, how and which first and so on.
My opinion is that this discussion was beside the point, particularly if the event’s goal was to encourage the uptake of the Arabic language.
Having more Arabic speakers in the UK is a numbers game and I believe more emphasis could have been given to the practicality of raising those numbers.
We know from the statistics on our website how many people come to the website, how many start the course, how many complete a unit and who will continue with the language course. It’s a funnel process.
This applies equally on a grander scale. What that means, concretely, is: we need more people curious about the language. With more people curious about the language, more will give it a go, more will take lessons, more will take formal exams and then ultimately, more people will take the language up at university.
Simply, the more people that start, the more people that will eventually complete. Any salesman can tell you that.
Arabic at degree level
Currently, the percentages of people taking up Arabic at university are small. So, for that to increase, we obviously need a larger base.
Notwithstanding that a large percentage of current Arabic degree students probably already had some prior connection to the language or the Arabic world, for example, through relations or having spent time growing up in the Middle East.
When I studied degree level German it was the same situation – and that was German, which is one of the most common second languages in schools!
More Arabic speakers
Of course, learning the language to a high level at a university is not the only route and shouldn’t be the ultimate goal, either. It is equally important to have more Arabic speakers at A2 and B1 level, at which point you can hold a reasonable conversation and deal with texts. These levels are achievable for the self learner with a moderate investment of time. These levels are also ideal goals for a company wishing to upskill their staff with better language skills and cross-cultural understanding.
Regardless of whether we are aiming for more university level Arabists or general and business learners, there are, to my mind, three key steps to increasing the numbers: arousing curiosity, raising the profile of the language and dispelling the myths surrounding the language.
The curiosity needs to be experienced. One example would be to have more language ambassadors doing road tours, introducing people to some of the fascinating aspects of the language, such as: the script, the root and pattern system, the colourful expressions and Arabic words that exist in our language.
These ambassadors need to be seen speaking the language to psychologically prove and SHOW that learning the language is an achievable goal. I think it’s important for these people (particularly British people) to casually say “Yeah, I can speak Arabic”. We also need people who don’t look or speak like academics or diplomats, casually saying “Learning Arabic isn’t a big deal. Why don’t you give it a go.”
Tony Calderbank, for example, was a great inspiration: listening to Tony speak Arabic was even more pleasing than listening to his wonderful Scottish accent!
At ArabicOnline, we have created a video “Welcome to Arabic: myths and Facts about the Arabic language” in the hope of arousing some curiosity to the general public. We also have a Facebook pagewhere we regularly share information about the language and culture.
Raising the profile of Arabic
I believe the profile of the Arabic language is gradually rising (as reflected in the current language importance ranking by the British Council, right). Learners and policy makers need to be aware of these facts about how the language will benefit leaners and why they should invest their time.
Human beings, as rational actors in our current economic system make economic decisions. For all the hundreds of great reasons for learning Arabic, the potential economic benefits accruing from learning the language will surely be one of the clinchers. This information needs to be disseminated at school level and to policy makers and parents.
As for the learners, it also needs to be cool to speak Arabic, not just intellectual.
Dispelling the Myths
As we have highlighted countless times on our website, Arabic is still often perceived to be a difficult language to learn. This myth also needs to be dispelled. We are doing our best in two ways: firstly, through the videos and secondly, by allowing people to give thelanguage a go and see for themselves! Learners can access up to 50 hours of free Arabic language learning content online or via theiriPads!
Dispelling this myth and making Arabic more accessible was one of our primary aims. We have implemented a language learning methodology, based on discovery learning and with a clear focus on communicative skills, thereby allowing learners to start discovering and speaking the language without being bogged down by overcomplicated grammar rules – which is still often the way Arabic is taught and which, ultimately, re-instils the fear of Arabic.
Taking Arabic further
Going back to the numbers: the more people that are exposed to the language and give it a go, the more people will eventually take it up.
And, yes, learning the language is going to be a challenge. I had a fantastic chat with Martin Hope (British Council, Qatar), who rightly pointed out, “What’s this about languages now only being fun?”. Just like with sport, it requires commitment and dedication. Indeed, language learning shouldn’t be a grim duty or a chore, but likewise you will need dedication to get to a higher level. In the process of making languages more accessible and fun, we’ve forgotten this aspect, it seems.
Conclusion: the state of Arabic in the UK
To conclude, the conference reiterated the undisputed importance of the language and I’m glad that we are getting the ball moving. However, we need to bear in mind that if the goal is to have more Arabic speakers in the UK, we need to move away from the endless red herrings and focus on engaging more people with the language through arousing curiosity and raising the profile of the language.
This does require some top-down decisions. At ArabicOnline we are doing the best we can: we have developed many resources to help with this goal: we’re providing innovative, comprehensive and learner-cetentered materials for Arabic. We also have apps and educational packages.
By making ArabicOnline available in schools, we could certainly start arousing curiosity and raise the profile of the language. If this were to be combined with an Arabic ambassador, then this would have an even greater and longer lasting impact.
Neal Taylor, Torquay, April 16th 2015
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