Must try harder: France vows to end school neglect of Arabic

1 / 2
Lissane said that the religious component of its Arabic course is “very light.” (AFP)
2 / 2
A teacher writes on a board during a class of Arabic language for young children at the Institut Lissane private school in Le Kremlin-Bicêtre on the outskirts of the French capital Paris. (AFP)
Updated 29 October 2018

Must try harder: France vows to end school neglect of Arabic

  • Demand for schools teaching Arabic in France far outstrips supply
  • Arabic is France’s second-most spoken language, and one used by over 430 million people worldwide

PARIS: In the ethnically mixed Paris suburb of Kremlin-Bicetre, a group of children sit quietly at their desks while outside their classmates frolic in the autumn sunshine.
“Ayna yaskunu Adel? (where does Adel live)” teacher Hanan asks the children, pointing to a textbook drawing of a boy and girl in a village with a school and a mosque.
Hands shoot up, and a little girl replies that he lives behind the “madrassa,” or school.
Welcome to Lissane, one of a growing number of private language schools where the children and grandchildren of North African immigrants go to learn classical Arabic on Wednesday afternoons, when schools are closed, and on the weekend.
While Hanan’s students, aged 7 to 10, study interrogative pronouns in one of seven classrooms housed in a former office building, a group of four-year-olds next door is singing a nursery rhyme about the parts of the body.
So far, so normal, with the notable difference that female teachers wear the Muslim headscarf, a garment banned along with other religious symbols in state schools.
But it is not so much the headscarves as the “Islamic sciences,” or religion lessons, conducted at Lissane and many other private Arabic language schools, that have drawn scrutiny in a country that has an uneasy relationship with its Muslim minority, the largest in Europe at an estimated five million.
Lissane’s co-founder Abdelghani Sebata, a 37-year-old Algerian law graduate, says that the religious component of the course — which includes learning verses of the Qur’an — is “very light.”
“We leave the religious side to the families,” he told AFP.
But at the many mosques that also teach children to read and write the Arabic used in official communications, literature and media across the Arab world, as well as in the Qur’an, Islam is the main focus.

A report on radicalization last month by the Institut Montaigne, a respected liberal French think-tank, warned that Arabic classes had become “the best way for Islamists to attract young people into their mosques and (private) schools.”
In response, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer — one of centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s most combative ministers — announced plans to take back control.
Arguing that classical Arabic should be treated like all other “great languages” such as Russian and Chinese, he vowed to develop its teaching in state schools in order to combat “the drift toward self-ghettoization” in private institutions.
His proposal drew a furious reaction from rightwingers who view the use of Arabic by North African immigrants with hostility, seeing it as evidence of a failure to integrate.
Luc Ferry, was was education minister under former center-right president Jacques Chirac, questioned whether the government was bent on “fighting Islamism or bringing it into public education” — suggesting that by giving Arabic more prominence it was doing the latter.
“We’re in a logic of submission,” fumed Louis Aliot, a lawmaker from the far-right National Rally (formerly National Front) party, echoing the title of a novel by controversial author Michel Houellebecq, “Submission,” which imagines a France ruled by Islamists.

Hakim El Karoui, author of the Institut Montaigne report which revived a long-running debate about France’s insistence that immigrants ditch their ethnic identities on arrival and embrace Frenchness, said he was “not at all” surprised by the reaction on the right.
“Everything to do with Arabs drives them a bit mad,” El Karoui, a Tunisian-born geography scholar and former government adviser, told AFP.
He points to the increasing scarcity of schools offering Arabic — France’s second-most spoken language, and one used by over 430 million people worldwide — as evidence of their reluctance to teach a subject associated with “problematic” immigrants.
Only 567 primary schoolchildren studied Arabic last year, a third of the number who took Chinese as their mandatory second language. Most chose English.
In secondary school, just 11,200 pupils studied Arabic, which is offered in a handful of schools in each city, mostly elite city-center colleges.

With demand far outstripping supply, parents have turned to mosques, religious associations and private schools like Lissane, which together attract some 80,000 students, according to a government estimate cited by the Institut Montaigne.
Ines Kridaine, a 35-year-old Tunisian living in France for the past 13 years, enrolled her daughter Ikram in classes at Lissane at the age of four.
Five years later Ikram can understand her Tunisian relatives, follow Arabic news channels and read the Qur’an. But Ines, who wears a headscarf and a loose abaya robe, still wishes Arabic was taught during class time.
“It should be treated like any other language,” she said.
Writing in Le Monde newspaper last month, the head of the prestigious Arab World Institute in Paris, former Socialist minister Jack Lang, defended Arabic as the language of “Arab Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists, bloggers, social media, young people, writers, poets, artists, singers, hip-hoppers, scientists, researchers, journalists, companies and innovators.”
It’s a view shared by Jerome Gercet, principal of an international secondary school in the southeastern city of Grenoble that has to turn away applicants for its Arabic section each year.
After graduation, most of his students go on to study political science, medicine, business, engineering, arts or administration.
That’s proof, he said, that Arabic is “a subject of excellence.”


New York outshines lead stars in festive season offering ‘Dash and Lily’

Updated 23 November 2020

New York outshines lead stars in festive season offering ‘Dash and Lily’

CHENNAI: The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has proved to be a boon to streaming giants and the usual string of holiday movies and shows have captured a captive audience due to stay-at-home measures still in place in many countries. One of Netflix’s latest offerings in the festive feel-good category is “Dash and Lily,” a series comprising eight short episodes. It is based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel, “Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares” and was repurposed for TV by Joe Tracz. In true teenage style, it is a little sweet, a little sour, with laughs and tears along the way. Cynical Dash (Austin Abrams) and bubbling-with-optimism Lily (Midori Francis) find themselves all alone in their respective homes having been abandoned by their parents, who go off on holidays they have been dreaming of for years. The plot kicks off when Dash finds a notebook written by a mysterious girl at his favorite bookstore in New York. What follows is a mad dash across the city as the pair communicate via the little red notebook, leaving it at various spots throughout the city for each other to find. What is more, Dash and Lily find that the notebook helps them discover things about themselves — it becomes a voyage of self-discovery and both realize that had they met face-to-face, they would have never been able to reveal so much. Other characters, such as Lily’s stern grandfather and Dash’s friend who works at the bookstore, add variety to the narrative and they have also been smartly written. While the series offers a novel take on teenage romance, there is not very much that is new or unexpected about the storyline. The performances are nothing to write home about in this saccharine story, but New York, in all its festive season flair (the series was shot in December 2019), stands in as an appealing lead character and will, at the very least, offer travel-starved viewers the chance to enjoy winter in the Big Apple.