Should Arabic join other modern languages on the UK school curriculum? Yes, says the British Council's Tony Calderbank, whose own journey as a learner of Arabic has convinced him that knowledge of the language is essential to the UK’s long-term economic and cultural prosperity.
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.
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.
My introduction to Arabic took place at secondary school, where I studied French, German and Latin. When it came to planning my university studies, I thought I’d branch out and do Italian. Then, in one of the most important pieces of advice I have ever received in my life, my A-level French teacher said: 'Why don’t you do something completely different like Arabic or Chinese?'
This recommendation coincided with me seeing a television programme about Arabic calligraphy that was being shown at the time. An old Turkish calligrapher was cutting the nib of his reed pen and making letters on a large blank sheet of parchment. I was smitten from that moment and, shortly after, went to read Arabic and Persian at The University of Manchester. I have never looked back.
Since then, Arabic has been a major part of my life. After graduating, I lived in Cairo for 15 years, taught at a primary school in a Cairo slum and learned to speak the language. I have spent most of the last 30 years in the Arab world. I have taught Arabic, translated its works of literature into English and I can cut the nib of my own reed pen and make beautiful letters on a sheet of parchment.
Learning Arabic is much more interesting than learning French or Spanish. Arabic has whole words made up of sounds your mouth has never made before; its grammar and morphology function in a completely different way from Indo-European languages. And, of course, it is written from right to left so that your hand (if you're right-handed) must learn to push the pen across the paper rather than pull. Imagine the buzz of deciphering the mind-boggling beauty of Arabic calligraphy or the satisfaction of articulating a newspaper headline that to others is just a series of squiggles.
It takes time to speak Arabic correctly – the dream of native-speaker competency shimmering like a mirage in a trackless desert, always just out of reach. 'The first 20 years are the hardest', James Craig, celebrated Arabist and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, used to say.
Most important of all though is that I have met and got to know thousands of Arabs. I have laughed and cried with them, argued and joked with them, fallen out and made up with them. I have made lifelong friends and have come to understand a bit about the Arab world and its culture. At the same time, I have also learned a lot about colonialism, the media and the nature of modern, global power relations. That’s why I think more people should learn Arabic.
A study of Arabic opens up endless possibilities and opportunities for those who embark upon it. A rich and sophisticated language, spoken in many varieties throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it is both challenging and rewarding to learn. A knowledge of Arabic is instrumental to gaining a real understanding of the peoples, societies and politics of the Arab world, and accessing a range of employment opportunities in the region’s finance, media and commercial sectors. As its social, political and commercial importance increases, demand to learn Arabic is set to grow.
Knowledge of Arabic among young people in the UK also brings wider benefits, including a deeper mutual understanding between our communities and the chance to restore much of the trust that has been erased over the last decades as a result of political circumstance and military interventionism. Those who learn Arabic will move beyond the shallow media stereotypes to a fuller, more authentic awareness of the Arab world.
There are lots of good practical reasons why Arabic is a good choice for UK schools. A good understanding of Arabic can lead to a job in the diplomatic service or security forces, media and communications, finance and banking, the oil and gas sectors. It can improve the UK’s understanding of a complex and volatile region, whose stability has increasing resonance in western Europe as the repercussions of colonial adventurism in the Arab world continue to pan out. Or it could just lead to the discovery that the Arab world, despite the consonant clusters, is a great place to get to know.
In a few days’ time, members of the UK's Arabic teaching community will gather at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to discuss the issues and challenges of teaching the language in UK schools. It is both essential and timely that the learning of Arabic in the UK should be expanded and that more children in our schools should have the opportunity to learn the language and become more familiar with the cultures and peoples of the Arab world.
Tony Calderbank is British Council Director Bahrain.
The British Council, in partnership with Qatar Foundation and Greater London Authority, is promoting the teaching and learning of Arabic language and culture in the UK at our Arabic Language Conference on 23 March 2015.
Read the British Council’s Languages for the Future report, which identifies Arabic as one of the ten most important languages for the UK’s future.