Oui, je parle français: We speak to Saudis who speak French

Special Oui, je parle français: We speak to Saudis who speak French
13 year old Saudi student in Disney Paris last year. (Supplied)
Short Url
Updated 15 July 2020

Oui, je parle français: We speak to Saudis who speak French

Oui, je parle français: We speak to Saudis who speak French
  • Learning languages provides benefits to all age groups

RIYADH: The French language has always captivated people around the world with its sophisticated phonology, eloquent phrases and beautiful literature – and Saudis are no exception.

The bridge between cultures starts with a word, or perhaps a sentence, and more and more Saudis are keen to learn French, be it to broaden their horizons, for job opportunities, out of love of its culture and history or to communicate better with their Francophone counterparts.

Elham Al-Bahouth, a Saudi diplomat, got her bachelor’s degree in French at King Saud University, Riyadh. “I knew that the workforce wasn’t in need of French speakers, but I love to stand out and French was my passageway. English is easy to attain, but I strived to learn that beautiful language.”

Since her childhood, Al-Bahouth has vacationed in France every year, so it was a natural transition to learn the language. “As Saudi Arabia is opening up, more opportunities are arising for Saudis who speak French,” she added. “A window has opened up for Saudis to shine in, and (it’s) an opportunity to serve our country.”

There are more than 150,000 French speakers in Saudi Arabia today, and there is no shortage of opportunities for people to pick up the language. The Alliance Francaise in Saudi Arabia, part of a worldwide network of French cultural centres, trains thousands of students every year in French, including adults, teenagers and children.

The French embassy also organizes many cycles of continuous training for instructors on a regular basis. Likewise, the French government provides scholarships for around 20 instructors and students to go to France for professional development or linguistic training courses every summer.

More than 15,000 students learn French in Saudi or international schools or by following a French program system; and more than 5,000 students learn French every year in Saudi universities. Moreover, there are three French International Schools in the country, in Riyadh, Jeddah and Alkhobar.

Abdulaziz Al-Arifi is the father of 12-year-old Mohammed, who studies in a Saudi school that provides an intensive French program in Riyadh.

“We hope that learning a new language will open Mohammed’s horizons to the world and also to new literature,” Al-Arifi told Arab News.

While Mohammed speaks fluent French, his parents have yet to master the language, but that is not a hindrance as they are proud of him and it has often proved useful when they have been abroad.

“This winter we went to Niseko in Japan and there was a French bakery there,” Al-Arifi explained. “Mohammed used to go there and speak to the lady in French and on the last day she gave him an ice cream as a treat.”

Hanadi Al-Mosallam, a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has passed on her love of the French language to her four children.

“I enrolled my children in the French program (at their school) because it’s a wonderful experience which I personally went through during my childhood,” she said. “I learnt French even before learning Arabic or English, and it was a very helpful asset during my academic journey and my career. It even made learning English easier for me.”

Al-Mosallam was exposed to the French language for 14 years growing up in Switzerland, where her father was a diplomat. “Learning different languages is a beautiful experience, especially during childhood, for you grow up feeling that this language is a part of you. My siblings and I had a very wonderful and successful experience, which I wished to pass on to my children, so that in the future they would know how to speak several languages and have wider options, whether traveling or opening up to new societies and other cultures,” she said.

Al-Mosallam later learned Arabic by attending private schools and going to King Khalid’s mosque each week in Switzerland.

“I acquired Arabic as a second language, but I didn’t master it as well as French. I was not fully aware of the beauty of the French language till I came back to the Kingdom. It’s hard to sense the true beauty of a language when one lives in a community where everyone speaks the same language, but once distanced, it becomes very evident.”

When she returned to Saudi Arabia, she found that very few people spoke French. “I felt blessed to be able to speak an uncommon language which made it easier to learn English,” she said.

Languages open doors to other cultures, and anyone wanting to broaden their knowledge and experiences should learn new languages, said Al-Mosallam. She hopes that French can help them reach this goal, in addition to widening their knowledge and experiences in life.

“I will not stop at the French language only, I plan on learning Spanish as well, because as I previously mentioned, we get an important cultural outcome with each language we learn, as well as new opportunities to add to our knowledge. I am passionate about languages and I am very happy to have conveyed this passion to my children, which I get to experience during their conversations, or when they are watching shows in foreign languages or reading French books or traveling. I’m very grateful that I made the decision to teach them French.”

Speaking French is prevalent in her household. “What is funny is that my husband has picked up a few words and can now understand us and answer humbly, due to us speaking French around the house all the time,” Al-Mosallam said. “Till this day, my mother and siblings also speak to me in French whenever they wish to draw my attention or convey a certain private message. French is really beautiful; it creates a certain connection that is really hard to describe.”

When she is traveling abroad with her young children people are often surprised by their fluency in the language. “I believe that the true secret is ‘early start, grow smart,’” she said. “It is something I have personally experienced, and I am grateful that my children had the chance to go through a similar experience and learn French at a young age at the best schools.”

43-year-old Noura Majid has been infatuated with French for as long as she can remember. “Since I was young, it was my dream to learn French. I used to read about their culture, their history and the French revolution.”

Majid started private classes at the age of 16. She enrolled at the Alliance Francaise Riyadh in 2011 for five years and completed the required course when she received her B2 certificate.

Majid’s former instructor at the Alliance is now a good friend. They meet every week to catch up and also to practice French… and Arabic. “Two years ago, I started to teach her Arabic since she is living here in Saudi,” Majid explained.

35-year old Amani Al-Wazzan picked up the language in elementary school and fell in love with it. “I like the richness of its grammar; it’s difficult but very similar to Arabic grammar. I also like the melody of the language. When spoken, it is like music playing: So romantic!”

Beyond self-fulfillment, learning French also had a practical application. “It helped me a lot when travelling every summer to Paris and other French-speaking countries,” Al-Wazzan said.

They say practice makes perfect, and Mozon Safar, a former pastry chef at Al-Faisaliah Hotel in Riyadh, relentlessly practices her French every summer when traveling to France with her family. She said it helped her connect with French people and bridges gaps that would otherwise be lost in translation.

“French is not the easiest language to learn, but there are 76 million native speakers around the world, so the ability to understand them gave me access to many cultures and new ideas.”