I have never regarded myself to be much of a “language person,” having acquired a humbling C at GCSE level French. Thus, the announcement of my ambition to learn the intimidatingly cryptic language, Arabic, came as quite a surprise to those who know me best.
So often I am asked, why?
I first developed an interest in Arabic at the impressionable age of 18. Working high up in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, I recall being quite affronted by the realization that not one person spoke a word of English. The choice of languages available to me being Amazight, Arabic and a sort of pigeon French, meaning I had to rely on my meek GCSE C grade. Suffice to say, I have two brothers and a medium sized dog called Luna doesn’t get you all that far.
During the three months I spent in the remote Amazight village (Berber, as the less politically correct among us may better understand), Talat N’Yacoub, I came to understand the importance of communication.
Confusion, uncertainty and miscommunication characterized my days. And I quickly came to begrudge my 14-year-old self for turning up to all those French vocab tests with reels of adjectives scrawled across the back of my hand.
Mostly, I lamented the limit in cultural understanding I was able to acquire, at the girl’s boarding school I was working at, due to the insurmountable language barrier.
The boarding school was a necessity, not so much jolly hockey sticks and tuneless renditions of Jerusalem, as a shed-like place that many of the pupils had to walk up to 12 hours to get to — the girls slept there and returned home at the weekend to help their parents farm.
Retrospectively, I failed to comprehend the significance of the girls living in the building and attending the school. Though Morocco has recently raised the legal age of marriage to 18, judges maintain a significant amount of discretion in granting permission to marry.
This discretionary power is used frequently in the sparsely populated Atlas Mountains, where judges tend to be more conservative and favor Sharia over Moroccan civil law. Education for them is a sacrifice as well as a means of escape. Girl’s boarding houses have a tawdry reputation, and are regularly compared to brothels.
As such, many the girls I knew, at the age of 11, were making a decision. Their attendance at the school would result in their empowerment but equally result in them becoming pariahs in their own communities. I failed to grasp this fundamental aspect of my brief home until my final week there.
Understanding a language is the first step in understanding another culture. These are times of much uncertainty, and if we wish for global relations not to be blighted by confusion, uncertainty and miscommunication we, as a nation, must actively work to break down the existing language barriers.
Approximately, only one quarter of British adults are able to sustain a conversation in a foreign language. Fewer and fewer students are opting to take a language at secondary school, let alone at university level.
I am currently taking Arabic at a master’s level at the University of Edinburgh. There are only two other British students taking Arabic at this level from a class of 15.
This I believe is reflective of British people’s reluctance to learn other languages. This not only has profound economic consequences, but in an increasingly diverse and multicultural society, social and cultural consequences too.
In order to strengthen the social cohesion in British society and more fully understand the array of cultures that exist here today, communication is key. British people must look past the ascendancy of English in order to combat a plethora of socio-cultural inequalities.
Inter-community communication is the responsibility of all of society, and not just incoming minorities.
Increasing the amount of adults that speak a foreign language would strengthen Britain’s economic position, and ensure that multiculturalism in this patchwork nation continues to be a success.