LONDON: While many teenagers at UK schools are typically learning how to conjugate French verbs or practicing how to order a cheese sandwich in Spanish, young people in a Northern Irish grammar school are busy perfecting their Arabic calligraphy skills.
For the past year, the Belfast Royal Academy has been trialing Arabic lessons in an effort to encourage students to see the potential benefits of speaking non-European languages for their future careers. All pupils in Year 1 (11-12-year-olds) are required to study Arabic alongside their other subjects.
With the UK’s departure from the EU looming, the need for the next generation to speak languages such as Arabic and Mandarin Chinese could become even more urgent as the country looks to forge closer trade ties with non-EU countries.
The ‘Global Britain’ UK politicians are currently so eager to espouse will need to speak global languages.
“Post-Brexit, they might need languages that they haven’t thought of before,” said Paul Porter, head of modern and classical languages at the Belfast Royal Academy.
Porter led the initial efforts two years ago to obtain funding for the school’s Arabic program from the British Council. A total of nine schools in Northern Ireland won funding last September.
To engage students in the language, Porter said it was important to show them how relevant Arabic could be in running a business.
“We are known for green pastures, butter and potatoes — and we export that and it is bought by people living in places that are not so green — we are trying to show the students that we need those languages to go to that market,” he said.
Government organizations such as InvestNI have also given talks to the students to explain how Arabic can be a useful business tool.
Porter’s comments come after the British Council released a report in early November which drew up a list of what it considered the top five most important languages for the UK’s post-Brexit strategic interests.
Arabic was ranked in fourth place, with Mandarin in second place, alongside French, Spanish and German.
The report said that the UK was at a turning point, recommending that it was time to put into place “a bold new policy to improve foreign language learning for a transformed global Britain”.
It specifically called for UK governments to take a “strategic approach to building capacity in Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.”
Commenting on the report, Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, said: “It highlights that Arabic is not only one of the 10 most significant languages for international education — in response to economic growth and expanding political influence in a number of countries in the Middle East — but it is a key language for international diplomatic postings.”
While Arabic will have benefits for the UK’s economic future, said Porter, the language has offered far more than that to his students. It has opened them up to a culture that may be quite alien to their day-to-day existence and often misunderstood due some of the “negative connotations” students might see in the media.
“We had to change that. Change the whole mindset so we decided to use calligraphy to change that to show how beautiful the language is,” he said. “The whole school is decorated in Arabic calligraphy.”
He explained that the school opted to teach Arabic through art as well as via its culture and food as a way of engaging and exciting students about a language that can be difficult to learn for those used to Latin-based languages.
“We make it attractive for the children and we sow seeds that it is a beautiful language, a language that people use all over the world,” he said, adding that the school is non-denominational and had no religious or other reasons to teach Arabic apart from the language being “rich, varied and beautiful.”
The achievements at Belfast Royal Academy stand in contrast to the fairly limited teaching of Arabic seen in the rest of the UK. Just five or six percent of English secondary schools teach Arabic, though usually as an extra-curricular subject, according to the British Council report last month.
Arabic is often taught as a language option where a large proportion of the school is considered Muslim, and while Arabic may not be their first language, many of the students might be exposed to it at home or in mosques.
Arabic was first offered as a GCSE option in 1995 with 1,182 entries rising to 4,211 entries by 2016, according to the British Council report.
Research cited by the report suggested the growth in Arabic learning is likely mainly due to the expansion of Muslim faith schools, with few non-Muslim children having the opportunity to learn the language.
The way in which Arabic is taught in the UK needs improving, said Rabab Hamiduddin, teacher of Arabic and a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
She also runs the Arabic Club for Kids which runs Arabic classes on weekends across the UK capital. She said that when she first opened the school in 2007 she found that the Arabic teaching resources available to teachers were inadequate.
“I saw problems in Arabic when I first opened my school. There’s just no ability to rely on academic high-level solutions for literacy. Whereas there are for English and other languages, there definitely aren’t for Arabic.
“The resources fail in terms of providing what children learn from and enjoy. Many children come to our school and… (the parents) said my child used to hate Arabic and now they love it.”
With the need for better resources in mind, Hamiduddin spearheaded a research group that produced The Arabic Club for Kids Guided Reading Scheme, a series of 80 banded guided reading books in Arabic for children.
Sue Bodman, an expert from the international literacy center, Institute of Education at the University of London, also worked on the project.
“It is very effective and very child-centric. Its philosophy is based on how children acquire language. They are very colorful books and have a very strong semiotic value,” she said.
“We think our scheme has made the first step. Teachers want to do things but have nothing to latch on to. They want to inspire but they are dragged down by the resources,” she added.
She is currently working on a proposal to open a new bilingual school in Kensington, London next year to offer bilingual education in both Arabic and English to children aged between three and five years.
To further support the expansion of Arabic in schools, the British Council has recommended that governments and schools draw from the successes of the existing Mandarin Excellence Programme in England and the China strategy in Scotland.
The Mandarin program — which is funded by the government and delivered by the UCL Institute of Education with the British Council — has just started its second year of operation.
It will see 5,000 school pupils in England on track to gain fluency in Mandarin Chinese by 2020, said Katharine Carruthers, director of the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) Confucius Institute.
“What makes the program unique is that, on average, students will study eight hours of Mandarin — including four hours of taught lessons — every week,” she said.
“Feedback from students and teachers has indicated that studying Mandarin for an average of eight hours a week has really allowed them to explore the language in more depth — and pupils can see their own progress much quicker than usual, which appears to be very motivating.”
“Having advanced Mandarin skills will be a great asset for a young person to be able to put on their CV — both now and in the years ahead,” she said.
If the efforts seen in schools in Northern Ireland so far are replicated across the whole of the UK, Arabic language skills could join Mandarin Chinese as another skill young people are able to put on their CV, making themselves stand out in an increasingly competitive global job market.