Language learning in the Middle East

Language learning in the Middle East

A fourth article in the Forum series on the role of language in international education, this piece looks at the situation of languages in the Middle East. Some language learning opportunities beyond English courses are beginning to open up, but it is slow progress, and there is not a great push for learning other foreign languages. The demand may exist, but the means to undertake additional learning are sparse.

My father used to say that learning another language is like owning another tongue, being another person and marching with a new costume. This is all true as languages represent the culture, tradition, way of life, simplicity, complexity and many more of these adjectives that are used to describe a country and its people. We cannot stop there; even the way people speak their language can be depicted on a canvas to show how the people behave or what kind of body language they would use.

Today I had a student in my office who wanted to go to Germany to study Medicine, I explained to him that he needs to have at least the first level of the language to make the visa process easier, however finding a school that teaches the German language is not easy, and if we do, the sessions are not as regular as we would like them to be. So I asked the student if he has a smart phone, he took it out of his pocket, and I asked him to download an app to teach himself the language. We did that at the same time, and soon both of us learnt a few words. What I noticed was that both of us were speaking in a very strict manner – our interpretation of how the Germans speak. We have other interpretations too: the French people move their shoulders and make noise from their mouths, the Italians shout, the Arabs scream, the Spaniards sing, the English roll marbles in their mouths, and there it goes for the rest of the languages. More often than not, you don’t only recognise a person by the way he or she speaks that he or she is from Germany, France, Bahrain or England, but also by the way he or she walks, eats, drink and even writes.

Lack of language learning

Our schools teach mainly in Arabic, we also study English and sometimes French but we are not privy to other languages; as much as I would love to see that we are taught Latin, Asian languages, other European languages, or even Portuguese, but this dream needs a long time to be fulfilled. The belief of owning another language is not on the ministry of education agenda, so if there are schools that will teach a language, it will be mostly English language schools, French schools and, of late, the Goethe institute and Berlitz have opened German language branches in the Gulf region. I haven’t seen many Korean or Chinese schools opening their doors, nor Turkish, Iranian, Indian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Bengali, or even Arabic.

My opinion on the lack of love for languages here stems from a few reasons:

  1. The Arab world is still busy in raising themselves to the level of OECD countries.
  2. The level of poverty is still high and people are busy fighting for their lives.
  3. The Democracy experienced in OECD countries is yet to evolve in the Arab world, and until then, most of the inhabitants will focus on only the basic educational necessities instead of indulging in learning another language.
  4. Most of the jobs that require a second or a third language are provided to the expat community that live in the Middle East, as there is an inherent deficiency in the recruiters’ mind which assumes that all the Arabs only possess one language.
  5. The illiteracy level needs to be eradicated first before we venture into studying another language.

Of course if we want to find more reasons we can by conducting a study on the tendencies and linking it with the behaviours of governments, companies and people in the Middle East, and align the curriculum taught in the Arab world to see any comparatives that are explicitly mentioned in it. I doubt though that a study of this nature would take place as every one may think that we have more pressing issues to think about instead of trying to discover why people do not take up another language.

Many of us here would love to learn another language at night and after work, travelling to another country is what most of us do, but language learning is costly and not possible for all. So if investors are clever enough, then opening up institutions in the Middle East will be the best investment they have ever entered into. If you want to ascertain this fact, do check the history of Eton Institute in Dubai. It started with a small classroom teaching English and has grown drastically into a large institute that teaches over 23 languages in a matter of years. The owner more than tripled his investment and is also indulging in organising charitable events and community engagement which is a refreshing way to do business in the Middle East.

By Suad Alhalwachi, Dubai Knowledge Village, UAE

Is your institution running any joint programmes in the Middle East? What’s your view on the role of languages in the region? Share your thoughts below!