Language barriers

A report published this week sets out to identify 10 foreign languages that British people are most likely to need during the next 20 years. Not surprisingly, the list includes Arabic and Mandarin Chinese – two languages which are not much studied in Britain at present.

The report, from the British Council, also makes the familiar point that Britain lags far behind many other countries when it comes to learning foreign languages. French is the most commonly-taught language in Britain – and yet only 15% of the population are capable of holding a conversation in French.

One reason for that, of course, is that British people have less incentive to learn, since English is currently the world's leading international language.

The British Council's report makes an economic case for learning Arabic – presumably in the hope that this will persuade the government to allocate more resources for teaching it:

"Six Arabic speaking countries appear among the UK’s top 50 export market in goods, with a combined value to the economy of over £12 billion in 2012 – more than the value of UK exports to Spain, China or Italy. The Gulf economies are booming as they diversify away from oil and gas, open up their economies and bring down barriers to trade and investment. 

"Significant opportunities exist for British companies, particularly in supporting the vast infrastructure work planned in the region. 

"Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all been identified by the Confederation of British Industry as priority markets. This is endorsed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills."

All that may be true, but I'm not sure it demonstrates a need for business people to learn Arabic since Middle Eastern companies engaged in international trade are almost always accustomed to doing business in English. Knowledge of Arabic may bring some advantages, but it's probably less important than knowledge of local markets and business practices.

Then there's the Arabic-for-travellers argument:

"Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia are popular holiday destinations for tourists from the UK though Arabic speaking countries have not been prioritised for tourist links. The World Cup will be hosted by Qatar in 2022 and will attract large numbers of visitors."

Er, well ... Egypt isn't exactly a tourism hotspot at the moment, though it may recover. But anyone who goes on holiday in Morocco or Tunisia is more likely to end up speaking French than Arabic. French is an official language in both countries and even native Arabic speakers often struggle to understand the Moroccan dialect.

There are, however, certain types of job where Arabic can be very useful indeed:

"Arabic has emerged as one of the priority languages for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is their intention to increase the number of diplomats trained in Arabic by 40 per cent."

Even so, the range of jobs where Arabic might be considered essential is, I think, rather limited – which brings us to the much-discussed question of whether journalists writing about the Middle East ought to know Arabic.

A few weeks ago I received an email from one of my former Arabic teachers at Westminster University in London, where I graduated in 1992. She wanted me to go back and talk to some of the current students, linking my Arabic studies at the university to my subsequent work as a writer specialising in the Arab countries.

I suggested a few titles for the talk (which is scheduled for next week), and the one we settled on was "Can you really understand the Middle East without understanding Arabic?"

The short answer to that, in my opinion, is no – but not quite in the way that most people imagine. The usual assumption is that it's all about fluency – being able to converse with Arabs in their own language. That is certainly useful but the most important benefits are much more subtle and difficult to quantify.

The British Council report touches on this in a quote from Britain's Consul-General in Jerusalem, who says:

"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. Knowledge of Arabic – I am far from being fluent, but that’s not the point – helps understanding what is going on around me."

The act or process of learning Arabic can be just as important as the outcome, if not more so. I didn't fully appreciate this at the time as I ploughed through endless texts in Arabic, but you absorb a lot of things unconsciously along the way. You start to see how Arabs view the world and become more comfortable relating to them.

This kind of cultural understanding seems to me essential if you are trying to interpret events in the region and explain them to others, though it doesn't necessarily make a journalist's task any easier: editors back home, with a different view of the region, may have different ideas and expectations about what is worth reporting.

The Consul-General's point about Arabs respecting people more if they have made an effort to learn some Arabic is also a good one. Once they hear you say a few words – it doesn't have to be much, but a bit more than "as-salaamu alaikum" – attitudes change, and usually for the better.

For reporting day-to-day events, a knowledge of Arabic helps but many visiting journalists get by without. Interviews with politicians and officials, for example, are often conducted in English. If not, there's usually an interpreter – though I have always been wary of quoting words said through an interpreter: their translations tend to be shorter than the interviewee's answers in Arabic and not necessarily accurate.

One practical dilemma for a reporter is how to take notes when someone is speaking in Arabic. Do you take notes in Arabic (which I have never been able to do fast enough) or attempt to translate on the hoof and write the notes in English? For that reason I've always found it simpler to do interviews in English if possible, with less risk of inaccurate reporting.

Arabs generally assume that a visiting foreigner will have no knowledge of their language and if you don't inform them otherwise, the results can be interesting – sometimes amusing and sometimes alarming.

People may start talking about you behind your back, and if a tourist guide drags you into a perfume shop you may hear the guide asking the shopkeeper how much commission he'll get if you make a purchase. 

On one occasion in Yemen, I hired a driver to visit an old fortress outside Sana'a. After we had been there for a few minutes a man approached and started questioning the driver in Arabic about who I was and why I was there.

"Is he a Muslim?" the man asked.

"Yes," said the driver.

"From which tribe?"

"The Bani Matar."

Having no idea where the Bani Matar stood in the tribal politics of the area, and not wishing to pretend to be a Muslim or a tribesman, I decided it was best to leave before things got complicated.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 21 November 2013