Foreign demand for Arabic rising in Cairo
Cairo - The “Arab spring” events, affinity with Islamic culture and the desire to seek employment opportunities in Arab countries are reasons there is a rising interest in Arabic, especially in Europe and the United States.
Sayed Ramadan, a language specialist in his early 40s, has been teaching Arabic to foreigners since 1997 when he and friends founded the Arab Academy, one of several centres teaching Arabic in Cairo.
“Interest in Arabic has never been higher,” Ramadan said.
It is hard to gauge exactly how many people travel to Egypt to learn Arabic because the bulk of learners attend privately owned centres.
The chance to learn Arabic had been sought by a large number of people in many parts of the world — from South Korea, where universities have Arabic language departments, to the United States, where a sizeable portion of foreign language students opt for Arabic.
The “Arab spring” increased interest in the language as developments in Arab states made headlines in Western newspapers. Increased interest in Arabic in the United States started even before that, with the 9/11 attacks focusing many Americans’ attention on the Arab-speaking world.
Karin Nemri, an American learner of Arabic, said studying the language was an intuitive decision based on knowing that it would be beneficial in the future.
“Recent developments in the Arab region have contributed to motivating me to continue moving forward in my studies,” said Nemri, 60.
The same developments motivated Helena Salame, an American born in London, to study the language. She said her impetus for studying Arabic was spiritual and personal.
“Recent political developments combined with the ugly campaign rhetoric in the US and utter dismay at the scope of human suffering during the refugee crisis undoubtedly encouraged me to persevere in my studies,” Salame said. “Having had the exceptional opportunity of spending close to a year in Egypt many years ago, I know very well that, as humans, we have way more in common with each other.”
Some of the students live in Egypt already and seek to learn Arabic to communicate with locals.
Kriszta Veres, a 43-old Hungarian who has lived in Cairo for some time, said: “I need Arabic to communicate with people more effectively. Nevertheless, it is not easy to learn, especially the grammar, which seems totally illogical to me.”
Ahmed Samir, an Arabic language specialist, said he has seen the difficulties foreigners have while learning Arabic. Before he starts teaching, Samir suggests students familiarise their ears with the language.
“Listening is a very important initial step for learning,” Samir said. “When the learners’ ears are accustomed to Arabic sounds, this makes learning easy.”
The interest in Arabic has largely been from Europe and the United States, according to Ramadan, although “a large number of the learners also come from Asia and Latin America”.
US and UK students are often more ready to learn, according to Samir, because some of them may have been in contact with Arabs in their countries. Students from Latin America are far from the Arab region, which can steepen the learning curve, Samir adds.
Ramadan attributes this desire to learn Arabic to economic and business reasons.
“These learners know that the language can give them good access to the Arab market,” Ramadan said. “They can find jobs or do business in Arab countries if they learn the language.”
Even with this, Ramadan has seen Egypt lose its edge as an important centre for language learning.
Cairo used to compete with Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Rabat for foreign learners. With Baghdad and Damascus out of the equation because of the ongoing turmoil, Beirut and Rabat receive most of the learners because Cairo continues to suffer from the aftermath of its 2011 popular uprising.
“We lose a large number of learners because of political conditions here,” Ramadan said. “I try to convince people to come and learn but it takes more than just my assurances for these people to come.”
He and his colleagues try to make up for the decline in student numbers by creating an interactive website through which they teach Arabic to people still in their home countries.
The website features language tips and lectures delivered by skilled instructors.
“I am sure once the current political situation settles down, learners will come here in large numbers,” Ramadan said. “Compared with other places, Egypt is the most ideal place for learning Arabic, given that its people speak the language and that its dialect is well-known everywhere in the Arab world.”