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Arabic and me

Thierry Vallat - Quai d’Orsay, Paris, France - 26 novembre 2014

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On returning to France and searching for a place where my children could continue to learn Arabic, I was faced with the problems one might expect in such a situation, regarding distance, class times, and quality of teaching.

What I did not expect, though, was the astonishment, incomprehension, or even suspicion which I sometimes encountered during my search. “But why do you want your children to learn Arabic ?" was probably the question I heard most often, in many different forms and sometimes accompanied by a question about my religious beliefs.

I never faced such questions when we signed our children up for English lessons and I do not think I would have if I had wanted them to learn Spanish, German or even Chinese.

So what is the problem ? Is Arabic not a language like any other ? Is wanting children to learn it dangerous for their future ?

I am fully aware that the image of this language has been tarnished by the way it is used by certain terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and Daesh, to name only the most recent and well-known. Yet reducing Arabic to a language spoken only by some fanatical, ultra-marginal groups would be as idiotic as claiming that German is a Nazi language.

Arabic is, first and foremost, one of the main languages of international communication. It is spoken by over 300 million people and used as one of the six working languages of the United Nations. It is also the official language of several economic, financial and geostrategic regional powers. Indeed, that is the reason why Arabic-speakers are specifically recruited by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and why many of them have remarkable careers within the Ministry.

It is also a language that our country is close to, making it incontestably the most familiar of the most foreign languages, as illustrated by the many French words that come from Arabic. Geography, history and the realities of human life no doubt explain the ambiguous relationship that we have with this language, which currently ranks as the number one foreign language spoken fluently in France.

To learn it is therefore to equip oneself with an irreplaceable tool for communication with an equally crucial part of the world, as King Francis I acknowledged as early as 1530 when he created the first chair of Arabic in France.

I admit, however, that I do not want my children to learn Arabic solely to help them find their place in tomorrow’s multi-polar world, but also, and perhaps above all, because Arabic is, to my mind, a marvellous language, at once poetic, mathematical, artistic and philosophical. Its grammar is extremely logical. The forms and sounds of its alphabet are incredibly beautiful. It has an infinite vocabulary and its structure gives rise to concepts that send you journeying far and wide.

Even as a child, I was fascinated by Arabic, which I saw as a kind of secret code, leading those who learnt it to certain hidden treasures. In the end, this was not far from the truth. It was an immense pleasure for me to open the first doors to this sacred temple one by one and I feel that everyone should have the opportunity and patience to do the same.

Since it requires discipline and rigour and can leave you feeling frustrated and discouraged, learning Arabic can be like learning Latin. However, with its remarkable ability to adapt, Arabic is very much a living language. Thanks to its thousand and one faces, it is as capable of evoking the sacred, singing of love and portraying exile as it is of describing a revolution.

Knowing all this, how could I ever deprive my children of the opportunity to learn Arabic ?

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