With sights set on overseas, Tunisians hone foreign language skills

Broad language capacities are more important than ever and many professionals are seeking to hone fluency in French and English or pick up a new language, such as German, Italian or Turkish.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Students take a picture with their teacher (2nd L) at the Amideast in Tunis. (Amideast)
Key training. Students take a picture with their teacher (2nd L) at the Amideast in Tunis. (Amideast)

TUNIS - Frustrated by limited career opportunities and a declining standard of living in their country, young Tunisians are increasingly looking to work abroad, fuelling a demand for language training in the North African nation.

Each year, hundreds of young Tunisian doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals study to improve foreign-language fluency needed to pursue career paths abroad, especially in Europe, Canada and the United States. The trend has helped make Tunisia, where most citizens are multilingual, a regional hub for languages.

There are dozens of language-training centres in Tunis that provide courses in English, French, German and other languages. There are also a growing number of private tutors offering individual sessions to supplement in-class learning.

Outside of Tunisia’s Bourguiba Institute, which focuses on teaching Arabic to foreigners but also provides courses in dozens of other languages, there are a range of options for Tunisians pursuing top-notch language training. The US non-profit Amideast and the United Kingdom’s British Council, among others, provide highly sought-after certified English courses, including in business English. For prospective German speakers, there is the non-profit Goethe Institut and Getusion academy.

Often described as a crossroads between Africa, the Middle East and Europe, Tunisia draws on a variety of cultural and linguistic influences that make citizens versed in a variety of tongues.

Apart from Derja (Tunisian Arabic), Tunisian students are trained from an early age in Modern Standard Arabic and French, and public school pupils begin taking English classes at the age of 10. A small percentage of the population also speaks Shelha, a traditional Berber language found primarily in southern villages.

With young Tunisians increasingly setting their sights abroad, broad language capacities are more important than ever and many professionals are seeking to hone fluency in French and English or pick up a new language, such as German, Italian or Turkish.

Ameni Kthiri, who helps organise a language exchange programme in Tunis, said Tunisians’ main motivations for learning foreign languages are “living and finding a job abroad” or being hired at home “with an international company.”

“The most commonly sought-after languages are English and German,” she added.

German is in especially high demand among aspiring Tunisian doctors and engineers, who say work conditions and opportunities for career advancement in Germany are better than in Tunisia.

Farah Ben Cheikh, a Tunisian medical student planning to work in Germany, said she prefers it to other countries because its system affords her the option to pursue a specialised career path and begin working quickly.

“I prefer Germany because it offers the opportunity to specialise, which is not the case in France,” said Ben Cheikh. “The procedure is also much less complicated than the one in the US or Canada. When you go to Germany, you need to pass the medical German exam and then the knowledge verification exam but you can start working in the hospital before passing any exams.

“This makes it easier for doctors who don’t have enough money to stay without work for three years preparing for their exams.”

Germany, in need of young workers to help accommodate its ageing population, has good reason to attract skilled professionals from abroad, especially in the medical and engineering fields. A study stated that more than 1 million highly skilled foreign workers are in Germany’s labour force, more than one-quarter of the international workforce.

Another reason German has likely gained traction in Tunisia is because of Germany’s deep engagement in cultural and political affairs. The Goethe Institute, a non-profit cultural association, hosts regular outreach events in Tunis that are open to the public and have helped promote the German language and fostered cultural exchange. There are also numerous German political foundations that work with — and hire — Tunisian nationals.

Apart from Germany, many Tunisian professionals travel to France, Italy, Canada and the United States. A smaller number travel to other European countries such as Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and the United Kingdom.

It is estimated that each year hundreds of Tunisian doctors and more than 1,000 Tunisian engineers take their skills abroad, a trend that is likely to expand in a globalised job market.

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