Bourguiba Institute, an Arab education bridge to the world

Institute’s curriculum in­cludes, beside Arabic language training, trips throughout Tunisia to expose students to local culture, traditions, livelihoods, food, arts and music.

2016/10/30 Issue: 79 Page: 22

The Arab Weekly
Lamine Ghanmi

Tunis - For half a century, thou­sands of people from across the world have learned Arabic at Tuni­sia’s Bourguiba Institute for Modern Languages, reflecting the changing interests of the out­side world towards the Arab re­gion.

First, there were the British who in the 1960s crowded the in­stitute’s classrooms. Hundreds of Americans followed in the 1970s. Over the past 15 years Chinese and South Korean students were no­ticeable.

After being closed during the post-2011 tumult, the institute reo­pened in 2013 to find Iranians and Turks among those attending the school again.

“The Bourguiba Institute has known waves of foreign students learning Arabic [and interested] in dealing with the Arab region,” said institute Director Imed Ben Am­mar. “It is safe to say that the insti­tute is the mirror of the Arab world and its relations with the succes­sive powers of the world.”

The institute — named after the late president Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern Tunisia — was intended to serve as a cul­tural platform to strengthen links between Tunisia and the outside world.

The institute’s curriculum in­cludes, beside Arabic language training, trips throughout Tunisia to expose students to local culture, traditions, livelihoods, food, arts and music.

“After a low ebb following the events of 2011, students from Asia, Europe and other parts of the world are back again en masse to learn the language and revive the role of the institute as a centre for foreigners to reach out to the Arab world,” Ben Ammar said.

Italian student Francesco Gan­ialoto assessed his struggle with learning Arabic at the institute: “Arabic is not an easy language to learn quickly. When I arrived one year ago my level was almost zero. Now I can read the newspapers and listen to the radio in Arabic,” he said during a break between classes.

Joshua Fernandez travelled to Tunisia from the Philippines to study at the institute.

“There is a lot of interaction and immersion in the language because I live the language while studying it,” Fernandez said. “I’m interested in Tunisia since Tu­nisia was the source of the ‘Arab spring’,” he added.

Nadia Sia, from Burkina Faso, said: “I want to work as an Arabic translator and interpreter. I need to know the context and the envi­ronment of the language which is why I am here.”

Sonia Hamdi, a 30-year-old French woman of Tunisian origin, has another goal in mind for learn­ing Arabic: “I do not need Arabic for my career. I’m learning Arabic to discover my country of origin, its culture and history, to renew with my roots.”

Turkey has ambitions to create a similar school in Istanbul and has been luring institute staff and teachers.

“They want to have a school just like the Bourguiba Institute,” Ben Ammar said. “We are open to co­operating with them but we are ea­ger to maintain the institute as we know it and to develop it further to meet the increasing demand from abroad.”

More than 250 million people in the Middle East and North Af­rica speak Arabic in addition to languages such as Kurdish, Berber and Mehri. Arabic is used at vary­ing levels of proficiency by the es­timated 1 billion Muslims around the world. Arabic has been one of the United Nations’ official work­ing languages since 1973.

However, in Tunisia and else­where in the region, Arabic is increasingly coming under com­petition from English and other languages as young people look for better careers and a future in a glo­balised economy where Arabic lags other languages in the sciences, technology, arts and culture.

The Bourguiba Institute also at­tracts hundreds of Tunisian stu­dents. For them, the institute is a place to learn English or other lan­guages, such as Chinese and Kore­an, that can help them compete in the international marketplace.

“We have strong demand from Tunisians to learn English and in­creasingly Chinese and Korean as well. We have the capabilities to meet all demands to help Tunisia be an open country in both ways,” said Ben Ammar.

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

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