Posts Tagged ‘languages’

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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Telling Westerners you’re learning Arabic leads to a number of recurring responses. These range from raised eyebrows and a generic ‘hmm/interesting’ response, to the occasional ‘you’re a journalist so – nod nod wink wink – they do tend to fight a lot don’t they – handy!’

But the most common retort I’ve received since I ventured on this scheme is a general well-meaning but predictable humorous throat-clearing (generally a more thorough throat-clearing than the type I received for years on telling English-speakers that I was studying German). This week I started a course at an institute in Tunis where a number of students – myself and the other English and Italian mother tongue speakers especially – are being forced to grapple with the variety of throat altercations required for correctly pronouncing Arabic once and for all.

So it’s in that light that I post this fantastic guide to which bit of your mouth and throat you should be doing some serious damage to, courtesy of the former hectare of woodland which makes up the mass of photocopied educational material we’ve been given.

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Note that little bastard    ه  which is created right at the bottom of the throat. I would actually contest this guide and suggest it needs to come from the bloody stomach. But I’ll get there, insha’allah, even if the neighbours think I’m killing the local dogs as I practice it.