Why should we teach Arabic in schools?

In our current global climate, it seems increasingly evident that British schools could benefit by branching out from the classic language offerings of French, German and Spanish. With 1.2 billion native speakers of Mandarin and 250 million native speakers of Arabic across the world, all participating in the global business arena, why are British school children limited to only a small collection of European languages? In this 2 part blog, I will discuss the reasons for and against teaching Arabic in UK schools as well as potential next steps.

Why teach any languages in schools?

Essentially, this discussion comes down to what is the purpose for learning a second language at school? Depending on who you ask, they will give a different answer and will have different motivations for doing so. For example, some might argue that it is simply to introduce students to the concept and practice of language learning. Others might argue that it is to enable students to acquire a high level of fluency for future career goals. A recent Education Secretary promoted the English Baccalaureate (7 GCSEs including Modern Foreign Languages), indicating that languages form a fundamental subject matter. Depending on the purpose for why we learn languages, certain options might be better suited than others. 

Exposure to other cultures

Learning a language is about much more than pronunciation and grammar. It is a unique way to discover a culture other than your own. Consider language learning as a means to open students’ minds to other cultures and prepare them for living in a global context. In this case, languages that are further removed from English would provide a different, non Euro-centric view of the world. Arabic would be highly suited for this. 

There is a tendency towards Islamophobia in today’s world, which breeds discrimination and misunderstanding. Through language there is greater exposure to other cultures, which leads to greater cultural tolerance. While this is a significant reason to teach Arabic in schools, Islamophobic sentiments may also sadly be preventing this from being developed further.

Shortage of language teachers

French, German and Spanish are simply no longer as unequivocally advantageous for British pupils to study. Furthermore, there is a serious shortage of language teachers in the UK. This has resulted in a large bursary to influence speakers of French, Spanish and German to undertake and complete teacher training as Modern Foreign Language Teachers (MFL Teachers). On the other hand, there are many native speakers of Arabic in the UK, who could be trained as teachers. This would meet a shortage of MFL teachers with those equipped in a desirable language.

While it is clear that there is a rationale to update the languages taught in schools, there is no structure in place for the reform required to enact this. In Part 2, I will take a closer look at these obstacles.

Try Arabic! – a taster course for schools

As an attempt to overcome some of the obstacles to introducing Arabic to schools, The British Council together with Arabic Online have created a taster course of Arabic, designed especially for school pupils and which can used in schools that.do not have a native speaker of Arabic but do have trained MFL teachers. More can be found here.

The British Council Arabic Schools Project

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