Bourguiba Institute, an Arab education bridge to the world
Tunis - For half a century, thousands of people from across the world have learned Arabic at Tunisia’s Bourguiba Institute for Modern Languages, reflecting the changing interests of the outside world towards the Arab region.
First, there were the British who in the 1960s crowded the institute’s classrooms. Hundreds of Americans followed in the 1970s. Over the past 15 years Chinese and South Korean students were noticeable.
After being closed during the post-2011 tumult, the institute reopened in 2013 to find Iranians and Turks among those attending the school again.
“The Bourguiba Institute has known waves of foreign students learning Arabic [and interested] in dealing with the Arab region,” said institute Director Imed Ben Ammar. “It is safe to say that the institute is the mirror of the Arab world and its relations with the successive powers of the world.”
The institute — named after the late president Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern Tunisia — was intended to serve as a cultural platform to strengthen links between Tunisia and the outside world.
The institute’s curriculum includes, beside Arabic language training, trips throughout Tunisia to expose students to local culture, traditions, livelihoods, food, arts and music.
“After a low ebb following the events of 2011, students from Asia, Europe and other parts of the world are back again en masse to learn the language and revive the role of the institute as a centre for foreigners to reach out to the Arab world,” Ben Ammar said.
Italian student Francesco Ganialoto assessed his struggle with learning Arabic at the institute: “Arabic is not an easy language to learn quickly. When I arrived one year ago my level was almost zero. Now I can read the newspapers and listen to the radio in Arabic,” he said during a break between classes.
Joshua Fernandez travelled to Tunisia from the Philippines to study at the institute.
“There is a lot of interaction and immersion in the language because I live the language while studying it,” Fernandez said. “I’m interested in Tunisia since Tunisia was the source of the ‘Arab spring’,” he added.
Nadia Sia, from Burkina Faso, said: “I want to work as an Arabic translator and interpreter. I need to know the context and the environment of the language which is why I am here.”
Sonia Hamdi, a 30-year-old French woman of Tunisian origin, has another goal in mind for learning Arabic: “I do not need Arabic for my career. I’m learning Arabic to discover my country of origin, its culture and history, to renew with my roots.”
Turkey has ambitions to create a similar school in Istanbul and has been luring institute staff and teachers.
“They want to have a school just like the Bourguiba Institute,” Ben Ammar said. “We are open to cooperating with them but we are eager to maintain the institute as we know it and to develop it further to meet the increasing demand from abroad.”
More than 250 million people in the Middle East and North Africa speak Arabic in addition to languages such as Kurdish, Berber and Mehri. Arabic is used at varying levels of proficiency by the estimated 1 billion Muslims around the world. Arabic has been one of the United Nations’ official working languages since 1973.
However, in Tunisia and elsewhere in the region, Arabic is increasingly coming under competition from English and other languages as young people look for better careers and a future in a globalised economy where Arabic lags other languages in the sciences, technology, arts and culture.
The Bourguiba Institute also attracts hundreds of Tunisian students. For them, the institute is a place to learn English or other languages, such as Chinese and Korean, that can help them compete in the international marketplace.
“We have strong demand from Tunisians to learn English and increasingly Chinese and Korean as well. We have the capabilities to meet all demands to help Tunisia be an open country in both ways,” said Ben Ammar.