Why Brexit means Brits should learn Arabic

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Arabic-inspired work produced by Year 9 students at Belfast Royal Academy. (Courtesy of Belfast Royal Academy)
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Updated 02 December 2017

Why Brexit means Brits should learn Arabic

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.

Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh get doves of peace from the Middle East

Updated 21 September 2018

Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh get doves of peace from the Middle East

  • A Dubai NGO has paired up with one in the UK to distribute toys made from upcycled refugee blankets
  • It’s one initiative marking the UN’s International Day of Peace on Friday, at a time when the world is in conflict

DUBAI: Eight-year-old Anjuman, living in Camp 7 at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, has received the most beautiful gift. “I am very happy to have received this dove. I like it so much,” she said.

She is among 150 children in the camp who have received “peace doves” from Dubai after winning an art competition organized in the camp.

To celebrate the UN-declared International Day of Peace on Friday, a Dubai-based NGO, NRS International, and a UK-based NGO, Empathy Action, have given wings to a message of hope, peace and reconciliation. 

Both these organizations have come together to make dove toys (symbolizing peace) to distribute among children, who are among the first victims of conflict in any part of the world.

And while peace isn’t something the world often associates with the Middle East, there are plenty of ways in which countries in the region are trying to make the world a better place, from smaller initiatives such as the doves in Bangladesh to major efforts such as the peace deal brokered this week by Saudi Arabia between Ethiopia and Eritrea. 

The peace doves were handmade by women at NRS International’s factory in Pakistan. As many as 650 dove toys have been stitched and handcrafted from upcycled offcuts of refugee blankets and tarpaulins.

“Each dove, made from excess blanket material that normally keeps refugees warm, is a symbol of peace,” said Wieke de Vries, head of corporate social responsibility at NRS International. It is the leading supplier of humanitarian relief items such as fleece blankets to UN agencies and international aid organizations.

Sandy Glanfield, innovations manager at Empathy Action, said the doves will carry a reminder that for 68.5 million displaced people worldwide, a blanket or tarpaulin is a basic necessity to survive. “The passionate and skillful women who made the doves add the love into this story,” said Glanfield.

About 150 larger versions of peace doves have been distributed to Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh camps, with the support of the Danish Refugee Council. 

S.M. Atiqur Reza, who is a child protection assistant at the council, said that the peace doves have put smiles on the faces of the children in the refugee camp. 

“The children were so excited, and they loved these doves and making plans to take it back home (whenever they go back home).” 

But in a world of conflicts, there is still much to be done. Anjuman is just one of nearly 25.4 million refugees in the world, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

Dr. Hadia Aslam, who sets up health care systems for refugees in Europe and the Middle East, is not hopeful about world peace in the near future.

“I feel we have desensitized entirely to any atrocity that happens now. Nothing shocks us. I do not see a future for peace, but I do see conflict. Our systems are geared to hosting this,” said the young doctor, who is the founder of a charity that has treated thousands of refugees in Europe. 

For her, human rights violations by Israel are a major threat to world peace. “I don’t know a lot about politics, but I can categorically raise concerns about Israel’s human rights track record being astounding and the world silently watching. Their only motive is occupation and apartheid. There is no space for peace in such a place.”

Vidya Bhushan Rawat, a leading peace activist based in New Delhi, said that the biggest threat to peace is injustice and growing inequalities.” I don’t think that the world has become a peaceful place at the moment. There is a steady growth of right-wing politics the world over, where minorities and immigrants are considered a threat to the nation.

“To protect the only planet we have we need to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, hunger, malnutrition, gender disparity and superstition from our societies.”

Dr. Kamran Bokhari, director of strategy and programs at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, does not see peace becoming the norm any time soon.

 “We constantly hear about peace talks. But seldom do these efforts produce actual peace. The rise of nationalism is undoing the internationalist order that we thought would gain ground after the end of the Cold War a quarter of a century ago. Meanwhile, non-state actors are filling the vacuums left behind by weakening states, which suggests greater, not less, global conflict.”

Dr. Shehab Al-Makehleh also believes that the world is less peaceful now than it has been in a long time. “Right now, peacefulness is at the worst level of any time since 2012. By the end of 2017, 1 percent of the world population had been refugees and displaced,” said the executive director of Geostrategic media in Washington, DC.

He does not expect things to improve unless decision-makers in the international community give this matter attention as the world will be witnessing new economic and financial crises that could turn major countries into enemies.

“Unless the UN takes necessary measures that the world does not fall into anarchy due to populism and nationalism, the domino effect will cross borders, causing insecurity at all levels, toppling some regimes and changing borders with hundreds of thousands of people dying of poverty and terrorism,” Dr. Al-Makehleh said.

All the more reason to bring hope to children such as Anjuman. As Reza said of the Rohingya children in the camp: “They want peace. They say they want to go back home. They want to go to their schools and study. They find the camp is a very small place to live. They are really sad here.”