Learn among the chickens

Observations on lessons in Arabic

With 300 million native speakers scattered across 20 countries, Arabic is the world's sixth-largest language. Yet British ignorance of and indifference to the Arab world remains startling: of 737 postgraduate students in Islamic or Middle Eastern studies funded by the Economic and Social Research Council last year, 12 were British nationals.

Aware of these problems, savvy young graduates now head to Cairo - cheap and easily accessible from London - and to the language schools in the affluent, boutique-lined streets of the Mohandiseen district. The trouble is that learning Arabic takes time and money. Like Chinese, it is not one language but several. Fusha, the formal written language of diplomacy and the media region-wide, is governed by precise grammatical rules. However, the ten main dialects - or amiyyas, literally "popular languages" - spoken across North Africa and the Middle East vary to the point of mutual incomprehensibility.

Aspiring diplomats, regional analysts and development workers need one or more amiyyas, as well as Fusha. And a four-month intensive course in Arabic at the American University in Cairo costs $6,000. Tuition at smaller private schools costs between $1,400 and $2,500.

Many teachers of Arabic argue that, without a closer understanding of the region's culture and politics, Britons will not succeed in forging business and diplomatic relations. "Secularised methods of teaching Arabic fall down," says Ahmed Saddiq, tutor/researcher at the American University in Cairo. "For real understanding, you can't separate Arabic from Islam," adds Adel Abd el-Munim at the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo. "It's very hard for foreigners to achieve immersion in an Arab community."

Some, however, try to do just that. At Cairo's Egyptian-run Fajr Centre, students pore over their textbooks while chickens scratch in the road outside and the sound of Koranic recitation filters in from the next room. Here, teaching in Arabic is in an entirely Egyptian-style environment, where male and female students are segregated. "It provides much more of a cultural context than American University classes," explained one 23-year-old Briton.