According to a British Council report, Arabic is the second most important language of the future for British people with Spanish leading the top ten list. For that reason, the British council is urging UK schools to start teaching the Arabic language to their pupils.
The significance of the Arabic language has been growing rapidly in the UK and this was evident in the 2011 Census, which was the first to ask such detailed questions about language in the UK with 159,000 member of the population speaking Arabic.
Statics of the 2011 census puts Arabic as the 6th most spoken foreign language in the UK. But this was not the case when I moved to England 28 years ago, as I hardly saw any Arabic speaking people, translators of the language, shops that stocked Arabic labelled products and of course it was impossible to find Arabic books.
At school, Arabic was never an option and when I wanted to take it up at high school, teachers told me that it has to be taken as an additional subject to the 9 subjects that I was already studying. At the time every pupil in the UK had to study 9 subjects for GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) with a second language being compulsory for all, which was predominately French or German but Arabic was not offered.
I had to take the Arabic GCSE exam without being taught it; there were no classes, teachers or even text books. Things soon started to change gradually as the dynamic of the British population also changed with an increase in number of people of diverse backgrounds.
Arabic became a language that was widely spoken and when I began college, I chose it as one of my A Level subjects where I actually had classes and a teacher that taught us the subject. All of the students in the Arabic class were of an Arab origin; they either wanted to maintain their Arabic knowledge or needed the grade to ensure university entrance and what could be easier than a language that is your first spoken language at home?
But why Arabic is important?
The importance of the Arabic language is attributed to many factors; it is 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.
Arabic is not the language of one country, of course, but of 26 nations across North Africa and the Middle East. It is a language that unites native speakers in the Arab world, as well as being something of a lingua franca of Muslims worldwide.
As one of the six official UN languages, Arabic is an essential language to know when you take into account Britain’s export links, government trade priorities, diplomatic and security priorities and the most popular holiday destinations.
If you take a brief tour around London you will hear at least one in ten people speaking Arabic on the street, shops displaying offers in Arabic and even recently, I noticed Ramadan Mubarak and Eid Mubarak signs in Arabic at various venues. Plus in recent years, the UK’s economy has been heavily influenced by Arab investors with Qatar owning some of London’s top attractions such as The Shard, London Dockland, Chelsea Harbour and Harrods store to name just few.
In 2004, the Labour led government made the decision to remove languages as compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds, which affected the hierarchy of languages as French declined due to the fact that many children dropped languages and at the same time it opened up the opportunity for other languages to emerge. It is of no coincidence that Arabic has raised steadily in popularity; with GCSE take-up increasing by 82% between 2002 and 2012 as French was no longer the number one foreign language at schools.
From September of this year the British Council will sends out a “language and culture” pack to around 5,000 primary schools in the UK, in an attempt to persuade them to take up the subject – and give their pupils an insight into the culture of the Arabic world.
This will pave the way into making a foreign language compulsory at Key Stage 2 in England from the next academic year. Although the step is viewed as a positive sign by many professionals but there are unresolved issues about resourcing, continuing professional development, continuity and progression from primary to secondary, as well as time for languages within the curriculum.
It was revealed by the British Council that international research has shown that England provides one of the lowest amounts of teaching time to modern languages in primary and secondary schools of all of the OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and in order to make substantial progress in a language, significant time investment must be made.
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart”
At a time of great global conflicts and encountering various forms of extremism, dialogue and communication are the key factor in combating segregation and promoting coexistence and unity regardless of the language barrier.
First published: February 2016