Europe studies Arabic

David Tresilian , Friday 7 Aug 2020

Arabic is becoming more and more popular as a school subject in Europe, but there are still barriers preventing its wider study

illustration: Fathi Abul-Ezz

So, you want to learn Arabic? But what sort of Arabic should you learn and for what purposes should you learn it?

Many people beginning what can turn out to be the long-term project of learning the Arabic language will have asked themselves such questions. Not only is there the question of what dialects of Arabic they might want to learn in addition to the written language, but also which language skills they may want to prioritise.

Some people may feel more comfortable reading and writing than listening and speaking when learning a foreign language, something encouraged by more traditional educational systems that like to reduce learning foreign languages to grammatical exercises. But even apart from the question of natural talent — some people may be naturally more extrovert than others and more drawn to speaking as a result — there are added difficulties in the case of Arabic and some other languages because the gap between the spoken and written languages can be vertiginously wide.

The linguistic competencies involved in enjoying a television soap opera in Arabic or even having a casual chat may not necessarily be very helpful in making sense of books or the opinion pages of newspapers.

Anyone embarking on the study of Arabic will soon come up against such issues and will want to prioritise aspects of their language-learning as a result. But how does this situation look from the perspective not so much of language-learners as from those engaged in teaching Arabic as a foreign language in different settings? What sort of Arabic should they be teaching, and which linguistic competencies should be promoted by the educational systems in which they work? How should these be examined or academically recognised?

It was with such questions in mind that Al-Ahram Weekly set out to investigate the contemporary teaching of Arabic abroad, looking particularly at Arabic in schools and at experiences in Europe.

What this revealed was that whereas in the UK the teaching of Arabic has been increasing, with more students taking the subject at school, even if from a low base, in France it seems that the teaching of Arabic has become more caught up in debates irrelevant to language-learning to the detriment of both learners and teachers.


The teaching of English as a foreign language has a standard acronym — TEFL — that will be familiar to anyone who has come across it as part of their education. TEFL exams are commonly required for people wanting to work or study in the United States, for example.

But what about TAFL, the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language? While figures for the number of non-native learners of the Arabic language worldwide are hard to come by, some indication of Arabic’s growing popularity among school students can be gleaned from national statistics and the numbers of students taking state exams.

A survey of exam entries in the UK produced for the British Council in 2017 reported that entries for GSCE Arabic had increased by 11 per cent between 2015 and 2016, bringing the total number of students taking the exam in secondary schools and other institutions to 4,211, a 74 per cent increase over the previous decade. Entries for A Level Arabic, a significantly higher standard, had risen by 15 per cent to reach a high of 749, still a disappointingly low number. GSCE exams are typically taken by school students around age 16, A Levels at 18, though they can also be taken by adults.

In France, on the other hand, while there has been a significant increase in the number of students taking Arabic as either a second or third foreign language in secondary schools and high schools (lycées), going from 6,512 in 2007 to 11,174 in 2017, only 6,601 out of 2.3 million French sixth-form students were taking Arabic for their baccalaureate, the French equivalent of UK A Levels, in the same year, less than the number taking Chinese.

A moment’s reflection suggests that these figures, useful as they are as an indication of what takes place in schools, are likely to underestimate the true number of Arabic language-learners. Other learners in other environments may be learning Arabic for other purposes not related to passing exams, sometimes for religious reasons including for studying the Quran, sometimes in order to communicate more effectively with friends or family members, sometimes for work, and sometimes out of sheer pleasure or interest.

These Arabic language-learners, perhaps the majority, will likely not show up in educational statistics, and they may be learning in a wide range of settings outside of national education systems, from private schools, to mosques or religious institutions, to online or other forms of tutoring. However, they will be adding to the demand for Arabic teachers and Arabic teaching materials, and they will be contributing to the overall size and economic importance of the Arabic teaching industry.

Such learners may also achieve proficiency even if this is not recognised by state or other exams. However, should they wish to have their achievements sanctioned, then in addition to courses offered in secondary schools there has also been an expansion in the number of higher-education colleges and universities offering either Arabic alone or as part of Middle Eastern or Islamic Studies.

In the UK, while a handful of universities tend to offer the lion’s share of Arabic teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, many others have started to offer Arabic either as part of a dedicated degree or of a joint or mixed course of studies.

The British Academy’s Arabic Mapping Project, a survey of Arabic provision in the UK higher-education sector, naturally highlights certain well-established institutions, including the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Oxford and Cambridge Universities, as offering significant levels of Arabic provision when measured by the number of undergraduate and graduate students and dedicated teaching staff, for example. But other perhaps less well-known institutions in the UK are also offering growing levels of Arabic, though usually in the context of other courses of study.

In France, some two dozen universities offer Arabic teaching up to the level of license (the French undergraduate degree) and beyond, with the country’s grandes écoles, its parallel system of selective higher-education institutions, also offering Arabic to a similar degree. The Institut national des langues orientales (INALCO) in Paris, the French equivalent of the UK’s SOAS, offers a gold-standard education in Arabic and other languages.

However, while French universities offer as much or more instruction in Arabic than is to be found in the UK, they do not always attract qualified students wanting to make use of them. While more secondary school students take Arabic in France than in the UK, a figure that may not surprise given France’s close contemporary links to the Arab world, this does not necessarily mean continuing study at university level.

This, together with the disappointing enrolment at secondary school level, has caused some scratching of heads in France.


The subject of Arabic teaching and the low number of students taking the language in schools hit the headlines in France in late 2018 when Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer announced that he wanted to increase the number of students taking Arabic.

Why was it, the minister asked, that whereas France had a long and distinguished history of the teaching of Arabic at both school and university level — it goes back at least to the 16th century and the country has produced some of the world’s most distinguished orientalists — the country was experiencing such problems in interesting its young people in studying Arabic?

Numbers were falling, or at least not rising, schools were not expanding their provision, and the number of posts in French schools open to Arabic teachers was either stagnating or falling, with this having a negative impact on the profession as a whole and the capacities of the educational system. Fewer students taking Arabic at school mean fewer taking it at university, and fewer teachers in schools eventually translate into fewer university professors and less capacity to train future generations of learners.

“We should develop the learning” of Arabic in France, Blanquer said. “We have to make these languages [Russian and Chinese, as well as Arabic] more prestigious. Arabic is a major literary language that should be learned, and not only by people who are of Maghreb origin or originate in countries where Arabic is spoken. It is this qualitative strategy [to increase the teaching of Arabic] that we are going to pursue,” he added.

Unlike some other countries where educational provision is often private and in any case is mostly decentralised, in France the state plays a major role, with decisions taken in the Ministry of Education in Paris affecting everything from the pictures on the walls of rural primary schools to the marking schemes for educational certificates.

As a result, an education minister’s words cannot be taken lightly. However, perhaps Blanquer did not realise the extent of the polemic to which his remarks would give rise, with commentators pitching in either in support of increased Arabic provision in French schools or, more surprisingly, vehemently against it. In addition to arguments about the amount of Arabic teaching the country’s schools should be providing and up to what level, there was also controversy about the content of the Arabic language curriculum and the place of the subject in the larger educational system and wider society.

Blanquer and his supporters provided the traditional arguments in favour of expanded provision, with everything from France’s close historical and contemporary links to the Arab world to the economic and commercial interest of producing competent Arabic speakers playing a role along with arguments less dependent on utility and emphasising the language’s intrinsic interest. However, his opponents seemed only to be interested in what they saw as the likely societal impacts of increasing the teaching of Arabic, with these, they held, being largely negative.

It was here that the minister’s desire to extend the opportunities available to French students by providing increased support for the teaching of Arabic ran up against arguments that either had nothing to do with language-learning or were part of an extreme right-wing political agenda. President of the extreme-right Rassemblement National, formerly the National Front, Marine Le Pen announced that Blanquer was paying lip-service to the “politically correct” in wanting to extend the teaching of Arabic in French schools, while French MP Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, quoted in the newspaper Le Monde, warned against what he called “the Arabisation of France”. Former education minister Luc Ferry said that by increasing the provision of Arabic teaching in French schools the minister was running the risk of “introducing Islamism into the education system”.

But as president of the Arab World Institute in Paris Jack Lang, himself a former French minister of education, then pointed out in an article in Le Monde, later expanded into a book earlier this year, such arguments, muddling up language teaching with everything from extreme-right conspiracy theories to dubious political positions, should have no place in deciding educational policies, perhaps particularly when these have to do with teaching languages in schools.

“The Arabic language has the fifth-highest number of speakers in the world today, with more than 430 million native speakers. Can it be considered acceptable that it has such a marginal place in schools in France, as a result of stiff-necked prejudice and the fantasies of political populists of every stripe,” Lang asked. “The situation is pitiable, with only one [French] child in every thousand studying Arabic at primary school and only two in every thousand studying it at secondary school,” he said.


Even so, Lang’s arguments, based on Arabic’s social utility as well as its intrinsic interest, might also be felt to be muddying the waters, or at least to be accepting the terms of a debate vitiated in advance by considerations that have no place in the teaching of languages.

As Lang himself wrote, “to claim that the teaching of Arabic will encourage communitarianism [seen as damaging social cohesion in France] and the Arabisation, or even the Islamisation, of society is absurd. Would one ever claim something similar of teaching Chinese or Russian?” However, he then went on to argue for what he called the “secularist teaching of Arabic”, something that presumably would not make sense for other languages, done “according to the values of the French Republic”, as if the teaching of Arabic was desirable not so much to help individual students extend their intellectual horizons, surely the point of increased provision, but to advance collective social goals.

“If we give up our intention” to extend Arabic teaching in France, Lang wrote, “we will be handing the teaching of Arabic over to Islamist groups… and at worst helping to prepare the terrain for identity politics and dangerous radicalisation. We must have the courage to say that developing the teaching of Arabic in our schools is a matter of urgency for pupils, for society, and for the Republic” as a whole.

Sceptical about a debate that seemed to slip so easily from a desire to improve language-learning in schools to achieving goals that have nothing to do with learning languages, the Weekly approached Arabic teachers in France for comment. How far did such warnings reflect what goes on in French classrooms? Were there other ways of seeing the debate and bringing about improvements in the teaching of Arabic?

The Covid-19 crisis made it difficult to identify teachers and their students, since all French educational institutions have until recently been closed in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus. But one French Arabic teacher who consented to answer questions was sceptical about such arguments.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that “if we see the desire to improve the teaching of Arabic in France through the lens of combating Islamism, we have not seen the problems clearly.” These had to do less with promoting a “republican Arabic” in French schools in order to combat the “Islamist Arabic” allegedly being taught in some private settings than in improving the training of Arabic teachers such that the subject becomes more attractive to young people.

As the Weekly’s interlocutor put it, whereas France had some of the best university-level study of Arabic in the world, it lacked a commitment to teacher training or pedagogy — probably a complaint that speakers of other languages, among them English, will be familiar with, since French educational institutions can seem to specialise in making languages incomprehensible even to their own native speakers.  

As a result, while there was a “strong demand” for Arabic instruction in France, and not only among French citizens of North African origin who often send their children or grandchildren to private tutors, this demand did not translate into students taking Arabic in French schools. There was still “a gap between institutions and population” in the way Arabic was taught in schools, still very patchy provision since Arabic was usually not available outside larger schools, and still a problem in the way that Arabic was offered as a language “given to Arabs” (students of Arab background) but not always considered to be of interest to the wider population.

In fact, he said, the debate was “mixed up with the idea of a language thought to be of interest only to people of Arab descent and with attempts to achieve political ends.” If France really wanted to improve and extend the teaching of Arabic, then Arabic “should be a language offered to all and not only to Arabs.” There should be a delinking of the teaching of Arabic and the achievement of other ends. In the same way that it was a “fantasy” to suppose that Arabic teaching was somehow “encouraging Islamism or communitarianism” in France, as the country’s extreme-right has claimed, it was also a fantasy to suppose that teaching the language, or any language, could have predictable social results, even if these were positive ones.

The problems facing the teaching of Arabic in France were not so very different to the problems of teaching Arabic in other countries, including in the Arab ones, the French Arabic teacher said. There was a similar difficulty in the division between the written language and the dialects, with some French students of Arab descent, fluent in a dialect if they speak one at home, sometimes not wanting to invest in the written Arabic learned in class. There was a similar lack of attractive instructional materials — though this had been overcome in recent years — and similar problems in attracting teachers and providing up-to-date teacher-training.

The latter problem was getting worse, not better, he said, since the attractiveness of school teaching as a career in France was not high, with ministerial pronouncements suggesting otherwise rarely being cashed out on the ground.


In the UK, while Arabic is a growth subject in schools, the picture is not wholly rosy, as the British Council’s 2017 survey revealed.

Once again, there has been official support for the teaching of Arabic in schools, but historically negligent policies on the teaching of foreign languages, made worse by the country’s national curriculum, have meant that while Arabic has been making headway more needs to be done to put it on a sustainable footing.

A 2016 report, “Teaching of Arabic Language and Culture in UK Schools” produced by the communications agency Alcantara, noted that “changes in the external environment” had impacted “the context for developing the teaching of Arabic in the UK” and that the “EU referendum campaign [the campaign to leave the European Union] gave rise to… negativity and suspicion expressed towards the languages and cultures of immigrant communities of all origins.”

While initiatives to counter this are of course welcome, there has been a concern, like in France, that educational policies, including on the teaching of Arabic, may have been being asked to do too much, substituting the achievement of social goals, however laudable, for ones aiming to improve the educational opportunities available to students.

The council’s report also bore witness to the existence of a gap, like in France, between the discourse handed down from above and the concerns of teachers in schools. There had been pressure on teachers to reduce the “negativity and suspicion expressed towards the languages and cultures of immigrant communities,” whereas any teacher’s first priority must be to teach, not make up for the shortcomings of government policies.

Moreover, like in France, there has been an assumption in the UK that Arabic is of interest only to “native or heritage speakers.” As one Arabic teacher, speaking anonymously, said, “the GSCEs and A level were designed for native speakers, heritage speakers, because that is the main market. This is because in Britain we have a catastrophic public examination system where exam boards [responsible for school exams] are private companies.”

It would be interesting to extend the analysis to other countries. What is the situation of Arabic teaching in Spain, one wonders, a country that has one of the closest relations of all European countries to the Arab world owing to its historically Arab character? Perhaps the situation of Arabic teaching is better in the German-speaking world, historically the homeland of many of the world’s leading orientalists.

Whatever the case may be, perhaps there should be more investment on the part of the Arab countries in encouraging others to learn the Arabic language. While China has invested heavily in its international network of Confucius Institutes in recent years, and Russia has historically supported a network of centres teaching the Russian language, there has been no equivalent investment in the teaching of Arabic.

Could one day there be a network of Arabic-teaching centres supported by the Arab states worldwide, with these being as unremarked as the British Council language centres supported by the British government, the Alliance Franҫaise centres supported by the government in Paris, and the Goethe Institut centres supported by the Berlin government?

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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