Eastern promise fulilled

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Arabic might seem like a tall order for leisure language learners, but increasing numbers are sampling it

"?Donde estan los tocadores?" and "Je voudrais un cafe" may be the stock-in-trade of language night classes, whether you need the lavatory in Spain or fancy a coffee in France. But now there's a new kid on the block in the world of leisure language lessons.

Arabic hardly seems the obvious choice for the leisure learner, however.

The Middle East is not yet the most popular holiday destination and, with Arabic being a script-based language rather than using the familiar Roman alphabet, it is not an easy choice for a spot of self-improvement.

But it is an increasingly popular subject with full-time higher education students interested in a diplomatic, political or cultural career, so universities have offered Arabic as an academic subject in the evenings for some time.

Now a growing number of local authorities are starting to offer the language alongside the holiday Spanish and yoga lessons.

Edinburgh City Council has been running Arabic classes at St Thomas of Aquin's High for three years. Not only are the classes established on the syllabus, but they have also grown in popularity.

Nicola Djeala made it to the class this year after missing out in the past.

On a windy, wintry evening, she told The TESS: "This is the only class I could find. I've been trying to get into it for a few years, but they're always full."

The 35-year-old is learning Arabic so that she can chat with her Algerian in-laws. She met her husband, Hamid, five years ago in a nightclub, and the couple married two years later. She was at the class with her eight-year-old daughter, Jasmine.

"We are learning it as much as we can together. I want to be able to speak to Hamid's family when we go there. I could learn French but some of his family don't speak French, and I like the idea of learning Arabic and travelling around the Middle East," she said.

Ken MacLean has a very different reason for joining the class - he's been inspired to learn Arabic by current affairs. The 75-year-old says: "I'm trying to understand what's going on in the world just now. It is getting more and more confusing, what's going on in the Middle East."

Mr MacLean worked in Qatar when he served with the merchant navy in his younger days and has been learning Arabic since October. He says it has opened his eyes: "If I manage to learn the alphabet, it will make a big difference, because you see signs all over the place in Arabic which I wasn't aware of until I started looking."

Classmate Anna Everatt, a psychologist, hopes learning the language will make her wedding day extra special. "I wanted to learn Arabic because my fiance is Egyptian. I started to learn through him, but he was rubbish - it's hard to learn from someone you know," she says.

She met her fiance, Bander, a doctor, when they worked together in England.

She wants to learn Arabic "more to speak to his family than anything else.

It's nice to make a bit of an effort".

For her, evening classes run through the local authority are the ideal choice. After years of studying for her career, she baulked at further formal learning. "I was finding it really hard to find anywhere that offered it, apart from the universities. I didn't want to do something intensive. This is more relaxed - also, the university courses were expensive."

On the night I visited, the teacher was Anita Shanley. As well as giving classes in Arabic, she acts as an interpreter for the council. Born in Jerusalem before the state of Israel was created in 1948, Dr Shanley grew up in Lebanon and moved to Scotland in the 1970s to gain her PhD in English literature at Edinburgh University. After graduating and moving to London, she began teaching Arabic and spent three years in community education there.

As an interpreter in London and Edinburgh, she has helped diverse groups of Arabic speakers to cope in an English-speaking country, including asylum seekers and the families of Libyan students who could not speak English.

She finds that demand from English speakers keen to learn Arabic is growing in Scotland to the levels she first experienced in London 30 years ago.

"In London, I taught many Harley Street consultants, doctors and their receptionists who wanted to be able to communicate with their Arabic-speaking clients," she says.

British women marrying into Arabic families have been a regular source of language students - a trend she has also seen grow.

"The women find they cannot communicate when the men start to speak Arabic with their friends and family. Unless the woman makes an effort, she's left out. This is why I go very fast in teaching, and it's why I use a practical, rather than book-orientated approach," she explains.

As Middle Eastern affairs increasingly dominate the news and immigration in Scotland rises, conversational Arabic classes alongside tourist Spanish look set to become increasingly common.

The 15-week beginners' class in Arabic starts on January 22 at St Thomas of Aquin's School. www.egfl.myed.org; T 08458 502502

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