Working in the Middle East last year, I met a Spaniard who spoke impeccable Arabic. It seemed perfect down to his earnest expressions, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealously. Especially since he was also very tall, undeniably handsome, and sang Cat Stevens beautifully as if he was an understudy.
He probably had other secret abilities concealed up his neat sleeve somewhere; free-diving in the Arctic, perhaps, or designing space stations for fun.
There isn’t much I can do about raising my height (Tom Cruise shoes perhaps), and I’m probably a little old for serenading anyway, but a few lines in Arabic are likely to turn a head or two at some stage in life. (My looks are fine, I should add.)
The same applies to the other influential languages in the 21st century – Spanish, Chinese, German, Japanese, Russian, French, Hindi and Portuguese.
Fortunately I was exposed to Mandarin while living in China. Regrettably I didn’t give it maximum attention, learning only the basics and resorting to mostly calling a friend and asking for help at times of need.
I’m not alone. Two years ago, concerns were raised in the UK that that there wasn’t enough language learning.
This is a pity, as China, Cat Stevens Tribute, and my experiences as a lifelong Spanish speaker have shown me that knowing another language is incredibly useful if you want to make friends and influence people.
This is particularly true in this changing world of ours: Arabic and Mandarin might both come in especially handy if working on Belt and Road, the new Silk Road through Central Asia and beyond.
But there are signs of change.
According to reports, Qatar is donating 400,000 pounds to a British Council programme that promotes Arabic teaching in British schools. While slightly short of the 198 million the oil-rich state splashed out on Neymar, it’s not to be sniffed at.
The financial contribution, paid for through Qatar Foundation International (a name no doubt familiar to keen La Liga watchers), looks to rebrand Arabic so that it “captures the imagination” of schools and parents. The British Council meanwhile aims to increase the number of learners and teachers of Arabic and build a better understanding of the Arab world in the UK.
Similarly, the UK government is aiming to have 400,000 people enrolled in Mandarin classes by 2020. Efforts appear to be working. An increasing number of people in the UK are learning Mandarin, according to the FT:
- there are now 160,000 students registered through Confucius Institutes (think China’s soft power arm, like the Qatar Foundation) and Confucius Classrooms
- 45 percent of the UK’s private schools have established a Mandarin education option
- 6,237 British students signed up for HSK – the Chinese Standard Exam – by July 2017, 5 times the number of that signed up in 2011
Furthermore, new Kensington Wade is the UK’s first primary school to offer an immersive education in English and Mandarin for 3 to 11 year olds. (I’d be keen to know what Naughty Wall is in Chinese.)
While these are official facts and figures, there are probably many others learning through other means – digital especially. I myself have an Android app called ChineseSkill offering an entertaining way of learning survival phrases such as “The two girls are eating watermelon” and what not. Truly every little helps, and it’s not that difficult really.
And that’s probably the ultimate challenge.
How do we get more people like myself, who are either very busy or very lazy (I’ll let you decide), learn even a few words in Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and other important languages? English can only get us so far.