ARABIC is a “perfect, smooth and rich language”, wrote Ernest Renan, a 19th-century French thinker, who praised its “extensive vocabulary, the accuracy of its meanings and the beautiful logic of its structures”. Today Arabic is considered the second-most-spoken language in France, and is the source of rich street slang. An estimated 5m French citizens have family roots in the Arab world, mainly in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Yet the teaching of the language in schools is regarded in many quarters as suspect, if not dangerous. A mere 13,000 French pupils study Arabic—just 0.2% of all secondary-school students who take a second language.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of French pupils choose English as their first foreign language, with fully 5.5m pupils enrolled in classes in secondary school. Although German was once the traditional second choice, it has long been overtaken by Spanish. The fastest-growing option in France is now Chinese. The number of its students has tripled, though admittedly still to only 39,000, over the past decade. Today there are three times as many French pupils studying Chinese as Arabic. Few French schools offer Arabic at all. “Why on earth would you want your children to learn Arabic?” was the tart response to inquiries by one French diplomat, returning to Paris after a spell in an Arab country.
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