Arabic ‘crucial to the UK’s future’

The language has become more important to the UK's 'future prosperity, security and influence' than any language except Spanish, according to a new report from a British cultural and educational body. Colin Randall reports

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LONDON // Arabic has become more important to the UK’s future than any language except Spanish, according to a new report from a British cultural and educational body.

The British Council, a UK government-funded charity, says the growing role of Arabic in the modern world makes it essential more is done to ensure it is taught in the country’s schools and universities.

The report assesses languages according to their perceived value in boosting Britain’s “prosperity, security and influence in the world in the years ahead”. In order of priority, those considered most useful to learn are Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese.

In recognition of Arabic’s growing importance, edging ahead of French in the table, the British foreign ministry has already sets itself a target of increasing by 40 per cent the number of diplomats taught the language.

The British Council’s conclusions were reached using a complicated scoring system, including analysis of current UK exports, the language needs of business, government trading priorities, the emergence of new high-growth markets and diplomatic and security issues.

The report, Languages for the Future, also takes account of levels of proficiency in English outside the UK, destinations chosen for holidays or overseas visits for other reasons, the public’s own preferences and the prevalence of other languages on the internet.

Spanish emerges top because of its huge number of native speakers – 400 million, the largest after English – and substantial trading links between Britain and Spain and Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America.

The British Council admits, on the basis of a survey it commissioned for the report, that three-quarters of the British public are unable to hold a conversation in any of the top 10 languages.

The proportion drops to one per cent for Arabic, a striking illustration of the work that remains to be done in schools and universities if the importance attached to it is to be translated into wider usage.

The report points out that Arabic is the world’s fourth most widely spoken language, with 230 million native speakers and a further 100-200 million people across northern Africa and western Asia for whom it is the second tongue.

Its relevance to trading issues is made clear in a series of tables and charts. The UAE is listed with Egypt and Saudi Arabia among priority trade markets identified by the Confederation of British Industry and the UK government’s department for business, innovation and skills.

The UAE is already the most prominent of the six Arabic-speaking nations appearing in the top 50 of UK export markets, with a combined value of £12 billion (Dh71.21 billion) in 2012.

Official UK statistics put the UAE in 14th position overall, with imports from the UK in 2012 worth £5.36 billion (Dh31.83 billion).

The report found that 16 per cent of UK companies judge Arabic to be useful to their organisation’s needs. This is equal to the score of Cantonese with only five languages – French, German, Spanish, Polish and Mandarin Chinese – placed higher.

John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, says an analysis of teaching does not suggest the British are learning the wrong languages, but shows the need for a wider range on the curriculum.

“French, Spanish and German will continue to be important but we also need significantly more Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Portuguese speakers as well as speakers of Italian, Japanese, Russian and Turkish,” he says.

Mr Worne quotes words of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid campaigner who became South Africa’s first black president, which he spotted on a poster in a Beijing university. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

One man who has discovered truth in this message is Vincent Fean, the British consul general in Jerusalem.

He is quoted in the report as saying: “In my work, Arabic has enabled me to relate to contacts in the Middle East and North Africa on their own terms. People respect the fact that I have invested time and effort in their language and culture.”

Though “far from fluent”, he says his knowledge of Arabic is sufficient to help him understand what is going on around him – and to ask the way if lost.

“At the personal level, Arabic allows me to feel at home in Beirut and Baghdad, Damascus and Tripoli and now in Jerusalem,” he says. “It means I can now make lasting friendships.”

The teaching of Arabic in British schools is sparse but is growing.

Only four per cent in the secondary sector include the language, often as an extra-curriculum subject, the report says. However, it is taught in 172 establishments belonging to the Association of Muslim Schools.

On a brighter note, Arabic has become the eighth most common language taught as a secondary school examination subject since its introduction in 2002. In 10 years, the number of entries at that level grew 82 per cent, with a total of 3,236 - typically pupils aged 15 and 16 - in 2012.

The number taking Arabic at the higher “A level”, broadly equivalent to the baccalaureate, has also risen, from 299 to 604 in the same period, making it the 10th most popular language at that level. Fifteen universities offer degree courses.

The report concludes that while millions of people around the world learn English, the UK has “fallen behind by not devoting sufficient time, resources and effort to language learning”. It makes a number of recommendations for tackling the resulting “language deficit”, with a more strategic approach linking policy to “aspirations for international engagement in business, education and culture”.