In a recent House of Lords debate, Baroness Coussins, Co-Chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, lamented the lack of access to Arabic. She began: ‘My Lords, language is the key to understanding different cultures, so the importance of Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages is obvious’. She went on to say, ‘Language is a gateway to cultural understanding and hostility is largely bred through ignorance. But only 6 state schools teach Arabic on the timetable and only 16 of our 130 universities’.

As language learning advocates, we can surely only agree. We know that language and culture are inextricably linked and would love to expose students to ever more languages – if only there were the space on the timetable! Whilst understanding that not all pupils want to be shoe-horned into language learning (at the age of 14 I myself was not receptive to the merits of physics, for example) we do believe that it’s important to show pupils early on how languages provide a passport to many and varied jobs, travel, understanding other cultures (many of which co-exist with our own here in the UK) and taking their place in a global society.


Regarding employment opportunities, Baroness Coussins quotes this statistic:


‘…15% of British employers want staff with Arabic and an understanding of business behaviour.’


In my other job, as Language and Culture Adviser for UK Trade & Investment, the Government Department tasked with helping UK companies to export, this is made evident to me on an almost daily basis as companies request information about business etiquette in the Arab world and my Business Arabic for Beginners courses are always over-subscribed. Sometimes it seems I am surrounded by closet linguists: business people who wish they had understood the value of language learning at school and lament their inability to say even the basics to their overseas customers.


In the meantime, the RAF, amongst many others, has to self-serve. They badly need able linguists who, even if they don’t currently speak the priority languages required by the forces, can be trained up to do so. To that end, their recruitment and outreach departments are busy showcasing the work of the service, engaging with schools to tell pupils that there is more to the RAF than flying (similarly, we are busy telling pupils that there is more to languages than teaching and translating).


Our Into the Arab World event is designed to address many of these matters. We have worked closely with colleagues based at RAF Cranwell to create an exciting day – a fairly accurate representation (with some liberties taken!) of the kinds of disciplines needed by RAF linguists working in the Arab world; a language taster mixed with a pinch of code-breaking, a handful of survival techniques and a sprinkle of coordinate plotting, all concluding with a (knee-trembling) presentation to your commanding officers. The day will be challenging but fun, eye-opening and memorable. This is the importance of language learning in the modern world. We would love you to join us.


Baroness Coussins’ final question remains, to my knowledge, unanswered: ‘We need a long-term strategy covering all ages and stages of education. Will the Government work with schools and HE to develop this?’ Inshallah…


For further information about Into the Arab World, please contact Sally@business-language-champions.co.uk.