I promised some collegues I’d write this review of the Bourguiba Institute for Modern Languages in Tunis.  But it’s not for them, per se. It’s for the record, and indeed  for anyone searching a place to study Arabic in Tunis; be warned.

I feel it’s my duty; I searched for a review before I chose ‘Bourguiba School’, or the Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes, as a suitable place to study Modern Standard Arabic as a beginner. I didn’t find a good review with much detail. So I’ll give it a try now.

Tunis is not an ideal place to study Arabic. I came here as a journalist – and I did some great work (well, I would say that). But studying Arabic in a country where almost everyone speaks French is quite difficult, to say the least. If you’re like me – in that you speak basic French – it’s hard to force conversations into Arabic. Around half the time you are forced to battle someone who speaks better French than you speak Arabic – MSA that is, not ‘Tunsi’ – and who is keen to show their social status as a master of the French language.

Add to that the prevalence of French on shop signs, billboards, the media and more, and your poor eyes are always dragged to the Latin characters by instinct, thus delaying the onset of Arabic in one’s brain. Well, that’s one theory as to why I’ve learnt less Arabic than I hoped.

I also won’t go into detail about the difficulty of picking up Modern Standard Arabic when any conversation you are lucky enough to be part of – even on the side of someone else’s – is held in Tunisian, not MSA, with its dialectal and vocubalary differences. You’d have the same problem in any country if your goal is to learn to communicate in MSA.

I should have known something was up when struggling to communicate with the Institute from Australia, where I live. Responding to my emails was a rarity, and making phone calls (in French, of course) inevitably led to buck-passing and vague answers. When trying to find out whether or not I could live in student-halls type accommodation, it took some effort to confirm that unless it was during the summer term, the answer was no. Girls/women, on the other hand, can be put up at reasonable cost throughout the year. I found this out as they suggested the young girls dormitory as a place where I might want to stay, despite having been told that I was a man. Never mind.

On the first day, 16 or so keen students from around the world were crammed into the beginners’ class. It soon became clear that there was a huge variety in language skills, which immediately seemed unwise. We ranged from not knowing any basic greetings to near-fluency in Tunisian dialect (around half the class were ‘European’ Tunisians who perhaps couldn’t speak, or write, or both.)  It doesn’t take an expert to realise that this is going to be bad news for everyone. As someone in the middle (I’d learnt some Arabic on holiday and had taught myself the alphabet), I was constantly getting impatient at having to wait for those behind me, while being baffled at some tough sections of the lesson within the first fortnight, as the teachers strove to find a balance. There was a real need to split the class into two – 16 is far too many at any rate to gain any personal attention or help – but it never happened, and very soon the gaps were getting bigger.

Something I thought would be an advantage of the Bourguiba Institute was the fact that no languages other than Arabic are allowed in class. But it soon became clear that for beginners, hours are wasted because of this rule.

In practice, it meant several minutes of hand waiving – and occasional pitiful drawings on the whiteboard – to explain the most basic concepts or words. This was excruciating and time wasting. Worst of all, the teachers – who I do have some sympathy for due to sticking to the rigid school rules – frequently gave the meaning of the word – but in French! Now, this is no place to debate the role of the former colonial-power in a country which is having its own debate over identity.  But 5 or 6 people spoke no French (I’m not including myself in that, perhaps generously). If you’re getting twenty odd words a lesson where the meaning is given in French by the teacher, and its up to the goodwill of classmates to give you the meaning in English, for example, you’re going to fall behind. Well, it happened. Does this mean the answer should have been given in both French and English? Yes, I’d say so (at a push).

The teachers raced through the what I can only assume was supposed to be a structured curriculum, and if they felt like it they stopped to check you understood. If an explanation was taking too long, tough. We trudged on, sometimes angering the teacher in the process.  Once I pulled out a dictionary to find out the meaning of a word myself, when told we’d study it later. I was told to put it away, dictionaries are banned in class. Banned!

The books we did have were photocopied hunks of dry scenarios, sometimes with pictures, but seemingly lacking any structure, as the course did overall.  We would plough through grammar rules, but we would have to write the rules down, ourselves, in Arabic. This was the case from the second week on. We could barely write at speed  – we had done the alphabet in the first week, and, while this was successful for most, it was ludicrous to then move on this quickly – and were having to do this, before taking exercise at home which we were expected to know based on looking back at the rules which we had written down ourselves earlier, literally panic-writing before the teacher almost sadistically wiped the board clean.

This was near impossible for many people, and we weren’t allowed to take a photo of the rules with our mobile phones. Secret attempts to gain better material – rules clearly written by an expert – were made, USB sticks passed around clandestinely at the back of the class. Thank god for these illegal activities which actually resulted in rules and structure – or I’m not sure I would have learned any MSA at all in Tunisia. I (used to?) pride myself on picking up languages fairly easy, and while Arabic is no walk-in-the-park AT ALL, I learnt f*ck all at the Bourguiba Institute.

Homework was an area where students could have put a bit more effort in themselves. I fail to see how adults would want to attend an Arabic course and be too lazy to do the set homework, nor turn up on time for that matter. But it happened. The teacher’s response was to wait, every morning, until enough people turned up to match her idea of how many she should be teaching. Often this was twenty minutes into the morning, which was often spent telling the people who had turned up how bad it was too be late. Well, duh; that’s why we’re here.

Yet the best part of five hours a day plus homework, and I would frequently realise I was unable to say basic things, at the expense of hours spent on grammar drills. And because I now did not have those grammar rules in easily accessible form (my own rushed Arabic scribbles not being good enough, clearly), I could not revise them and had thus wasted hours and hours.

I’m fluent in German after studying it for years, and know that the problem wasn’t me. I dropped out in week six of the three-month course, as did a friend who speaks four languages and was as keen on learning the language as I was – this was no case of not putting in effort. Last week, with several weeks to go until term’s end, former classmates told me the mood is low, and laughed when I asked who would pass the exam. Many are getting later and later and attending less and less – people, it should be pointed out, who were very keen at the start.

No doubt one of the teachers who used to chide the class for not yet being suitably proficient in Arabic will again say the class makes her ill at home. How encouraging!

It was pointed out to me by someone in a higher level of Arabic class that the teachers make a big difference. Some classes had similar issues as ours, but others (reportedly) were doing fine. It strikes me that the main problem lies with the beginner’s course and the approach to helping out total newbies; and it’s all I can talk about.

Yet sometimes it felt so 19th century it was unreal. Tunisia may have had a revolution, but it hasn’t reached the Bourguiba Institute. Everyone in Tunis knows the name of the place, yet they know of it based on a reputation which hasn’t been questioned for years. There aren’t any other language institutes of any size. I’m told by someone in the know that this is a matter of gaining the correct accreditation. Those running the Bourguiba Institute have it, while others aren’t permitted it.

Finally, drinks were not allowed inside the building. There was a tiresome man ensuring this was adhered to on the front door. Two floors up and smoking, however, was allowed in the corridors. But then I am from Australia….

I’ve informed the Institute of this review and if there’s a response, I’ll post it.

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  1. Ummer says:

    Damn, and I’m planning on going there this summer. Maybe you should have booked a room with a family.

  2. a says:

    A better (but more expensive) option for studying Arabic in Tunis is:


  3. Sara says:

    Hello! I’ve been interested for a while of just read the course MSA. But it’s very difficult to get hold of they .. They respond to either phone or email. As I understand it seems like you would not recommend this. But do you think it’s easier if you from the beginning could little Arabic. I live in Sweden but my parents are from Tunisia, so it might be easier?
    I also noticed that their website is not updated, then you can only read in French, which I can not ..
    I wonder did you read in three months, and if so, how much did it cost?
    Would be really happy if you could answer, so I can decide if I’m going to study there or not. Thanks in advance!

    • billcode says:

      Yes, they’re very bad at responding. I wouldn’t recommend it for studying standard Arabic based on my own experience of putting the effort – lots of it – and getting little out of it. It’s also not at all the first language I have studied…It’s a fair point you make about having Tunisian parents. Unfortunately, many of the people on my course also had Tunisian parents and also struggled just the same as I did. If you already speak basic Arabic, it may be easier – but that won’t, I think, be enough to get you past the poor teaching methods, and unfortunately poor teachers (well, the ones I had). If you speak no French, it is also not ideal. Explanations are often given in French (yes, it is Tunisia…). It is not expensive for Europeans, maybe it was E400 (or E800? I forget) for several months – and for Tunisian passport holders there is a discount. The best part was meeting other people (ie, making friends if you are new in the city) which you would not get from a private tutor. But a private tutor would teach you Arabic, and perhaps not in an archaic manner. The overwhelming number of people when I studied at Bourguiba Institute were disappointed – some very much so – at what they achieved here. I’m sorry…come to Tunis by all means to study, but find a tutor.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to have to say this, but I also attended the Bourguiba Institute this past summer and a lot of what is written parallels my experience. I was also in a beginners class and after four weeks, I felt I had not learned as much as I had the potential to. Little things such as the variance in language skills in a single class setting to the professor wasting time on forcing students to figure out the most simple of concepts and words made the course drag on (sometimes for 5 minutes or so, yet saying a simple word in English or French would of been sufficient). While I walked away reading more fluently than previously, speaking practice could have been increased and studying the language in Tunis in general may not be the best. I can totally relate to the billboard comment and French speakers discouraging you from practicing. Unfortunately next time, I’ll have to choose a school in the Levant or elsewhere. The teachers, with all do respect, put in a lot of effort and were very patient with the newbies. They had their own sense of humor which lightens things up at times. Yet I still think the teaching style could be altered a bit. Than again, maybe I’m in the wrong as I know nothing about teaching a language!

  5. Yasmine says:

    I have studied at the Bourgeiba School and enjoyed the experience and would recommend it. My arabic was reasonably advanced before going to Tunis, I am half arab but hadn’t been in an arab country for 30 years and only learnt arabic formally as a child for 4 years at an english speaking school. Having said that I got a lot out of the course. But it was hard and intense, you needed to study quite a bit outside of class and it helped if you had people who spoke better arabic than you around you to ask questions of. I found when I studied the class material beforehand I got a lot more out of the class. It was hard to keep up with study at times though due to the fact that Tunis was such a wonderful place. I found tunisians fantastic and patient, especially when they found out you were learning arabic. I also speak some french and had no trouble getting people to talk to me in arabic, although at times I would find both arabic and french spoken in the same conversation and I got to the point where it would switch form one to the other without noticing – which was quite cool.

    The immersive style really worked for me – I don’t think it’s archaic. It’s pretty standard when you are going to a country to learn their language that you be immersed in that culture and language – that’s why I went I would have been disappointed if they had spoken to us in english in class. Although that did happen a few times when the teacher really needed to. There is a methodology behind it, and it appeared sound to me, and meant the language was absorbed by your body rather than having you translate form one language to another. I found I retained a lot more with the immersive style.

    If you want to be able to converse with people in arabic day to day then you need to learn the dialect of the country you want to be able to speak in, – not Modern Standard Arabic as this isn’t really spoken, it’s used as a formal language, although it will help as the dialects are based on it.

  6. A says:

    The beginners classes are famous for it. You get European Tunisians (it used to be free for “us”, but they changed it now) who are coming to spend a nice time and serious full-time students who want to learn Arabic in an Arabic country because they study it at home.
    However when you leave the beginning classes and go to the more advanced ones (even middle level is fine) you find much more dedicated students. I am now talking about MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) at Bourguiba school. I am Tunisian and did Bourguiba school twice, 2/3 years before the revolution and after. And both experiences were from an educational point of view very positive. I skipped the beginning MSA classes because I already have a basic understanding of it, including grammar and its rules. Both my classes were full of serious students, it was not uncommon to find at least 4 to 5 who already studied Arabic in Syria or one of the Gulf states..all leading to the fact that the teachers had an easy time dealing with all of us. The class was full, almost 18 persons, but we learned alot and many of my colleague students were positive about the institute at least. I have also met students that were in the advanced classes and they were also very positive. Many times when I went back to the hostel I found many students revising their courses or preparing for the one next day.

    At the same time I became friends with people studying at a beginners level and most of them were dissapointed indeed. As mentioned before, there are some obvious reasons for it.

    I would advice anyone to prepare himself/herself well at home so you can take an Arabic language test at Bourguiba school and they place you at the level they think suits your knowledge. It is a written test and you should be able to understand and apply grammatical rules as well have some vocabulary. If you get placed in an intermediate or advanced class you will find alot of dedicated colleagues.

    Here in Tunis especially you find many people who speak French and it is indeed a “social class” thingy. Anyone who wants to learn Arabic (dialect or MSA), it is better to pretend as if you do not understand any French at all. Although that might be kinda difficult.

    Regarding the website….thats something typical Tunisian and in many Arab countries. Never up-to-date or responding to emails very late. Dont forget that many people here (including institutions) are not used as Westerners are to get important information from the internet. Therefore they do not respond that much. The best thing is to give a call.

  7. inssaf says:

    I’m planning to go there too this summer. Both of my parents are Tunisian, maybe it will be easyer…
    I’ve notices also that they don’t answer to mails…

  8. Salma says:

    Thanks a lot for these comments. I was going to book at the Institute for a summer course, but after reading your blog I changed my idea. It is sad to say, but I had exactly the same experience in another context. Last summer I have been in Bethlehem at the Palestinian Arabic Language Institute of the local university. When I dared to ask a question, the teacher just did’nt respond, just stared at me silently and then turned his back. I walked away after some days and found a private tutor. Several students did the same. It is hard to find a good place tu study Arabic. The books are mostly bad and the teachers consider themselves as belonging to un upperclass of intellectuals. I previously studied several languages, I had a lot of fun with Spanish in three different countries, with teachers that loved what they were doing and treated us respectfully.
    Fortunately I have a lovely lebanese teacher in my home country . I guess I’ll try Marocco. Has anybody an idea?
    Thank you very much!

  9. George says:

    You took a course that started from the beginning, but do you know if there was a placement test to put people in the right level? In the letter they sent me (after I asked for more information) it says there is a placement test a day before class begins. Was there one, that you know of? My Arabic is at an intermediate level, so to start from the beginning would be a waste of time. I really hope they have a placement test.

    • billcode says:

      Yes there was a placement test. Although I thought I was not an absolute beginner the test was, for me, very hard, so I went with the absolute beginner class. This was not a bad thing – the problem was the disparity – the levels and experiences in the group were so varied. If you want a challenge I would recommend revising your written and read Arabic a lot before that test to ensure you go in the intermediate group – the beginner’s group had an awful atmosphere.

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