Calls by a British Council report to introduce Arabic at schools in the United Kingdom in a bid to combat the country’s apparent language deficit have received mixed reactions, particularly among those concerned with the complexity of the language and with the likes of the British National Party making harsh criticisms of the idea in a way that some might regard as Islamophobic.
Since 2013 the British Council has been working with the Qatar Foundation to fund schools to help in the teaching of Arabic to UK school children. In an opinion piece published in Al Arabiya News on Tuesday, British Council Director for Bahrain Tony Calderbank argues it is extremely important that Arabic continues to be taught extensively.
“Arabic is one of the world’s great languages. Spoken by more than 400 million people, it has been the vehicle of many significant contributions to the development of science and culture, from the earliest odes of the pre-Islamic poets through to the cutting-edge research of the philosophers and mathematicians of Islam’s golden age, to the novels of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz,” he wrote.
“Arabic is also one of the official languages of the United Nations and was recently identified as one of the ten most important languages for the UK's future,” added Calderbank.
He also said that understanding the language would help to break down barriers as well as open up a number of career opportunities for speakers – including the diplomatic services, military, or in the industries of oil and banking.
However, not everyone in the United Kingdom shared Calderbank’s enthusiasm.
Indeed, the far-right political group the British National Party (BNP) has made it clear that it strongly opposes the idea in anarticle it published in response to the British Council’s report.
In part it read: “Yes, Arabic will be useful in an Islamic Britain where the Quran will no-doubt be recited in the Arabic language…Yet again Islam is making little adjustments to our society whilst the majority of the public sleep in ignorance - an ignorance that will one day lose them their nation.”
The article quotes deputy head teacher Haroon Asghar, who was cited as saying that he hoped the classes would spark a love of language learning from a young age.
But the article scoffs at the idea that Britons want or need to learn Arabic.
“There is certainly no demand from the high majority of parents whose children attend primary and secondary schools across the UK.
“No-doubt Arabic will be useful in business abroad, but most Islamic countries speak the language of that nation or region,” it adds.
“We say now, that we do not believe that there is any real demand for Arabic to be taught to primary children across Britain and the BNP will fight tooth and nail to make sure the parents of this great country are warned, if any attempt to introduce such learning in children's education,” the article claims.
Al Arabiya News reached out to the BNP for further comment on the topic, but had not yet received a response at the time of posting this article.
When contacted by Al Arabiya News, a spokesman for the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) apologized for not being able to comment because they have to prioritize local media outlets in the UK.
“Sorry but I am not going to be able to respond to this - I'm having to prioritize, I hope understandably, media requests from domestic outlets,” John Gill said in response to an email.
Poor track record
Britain is believed by many to have a very poor track record in teaching foreign languages - as recently as 2013 its foreign language skills were described as being in crisis, British newspaper The Guardian reported. Ministers voiced concerns after research revealed that in 10 years’ time, 40 percent of the country’s university language departments were likely to close due to the increasing decline in students studying languages.
So, given Britain’s issue with this area of education, is Arabic the right choice for English schools?
Critics would argue that learning Arabic is not perceived to be an easy task for English speakers – the unfamiliarity of the writing and the sounds made to form words bear no resemblance to the English language and while those fluent in the language generally write in standard Arabic (allowing for some local differences), the language itself varies a great deal when depending on the country or region.
While English has many regional dialects, generally the differences are not so great that people from another region do not understand eachother. This is sometimes not the case with the Arabic language.
For his part, the British Council’s Calderbank argues it was these differences that he enjoyed the most compared to learning French or Spanish.
‘A language skills deficit’
Commenting on the report, Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Al Arabiya News that he agrees that there is certainly a need for Britain to “address a significant language skills deficit.
“The British Chamber of Commerce have said it impairs our ability to trade and this has already been done at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - they’re already trying to boost the number of Mandarin and Arabic speakers,” he explained.
“And it makes perfect sense that British schools also do this, but they encourage people to take up languages like Arabic and go beyond the normal standard French, German [and] Spanish options that may be on offer.”
He acknowledged that Arabic may take much longer to learn than French as the European language is so much closer to English than Arabic is.
But he said: “Arabic is a U.N. language. It is spoken over a vast geographic area, so that alone makes it important. But add to that, it has a religious significance, for many people who are Muslims, it is the language in the Quran.
“And, increasingly, the Middle East is on our doorstep so understanding Arabic is an opener to another culture. Not only do you learn the language, by learning it you do actually get an entry point in to how Arab society works and functions.”
A spokeswoman for the British government’s Department for Education told Al Arabiya News that language education was now a compulsory part of the primary school (pre-high school) curriculum, but said the language choice was optional.
She said: “Our plan for education is for young people to leave school with the skills they need to secure good jobs and get on in life. The ability to speak and understand a foreign language isn’t just valued by employers, it helps pupils understand different cultures and countries, opens up the world and prepares them for life in modern Britain.
“We have made languages a compulsory part of the national curriculum at primary school to lay the foundation for further language study in secondary school. It is for schools to decide which languages they teach.”