All private schools in the UAE offer daily foreign language classes in Arabic, and there are different options within the primary and secondary years to study German, Spanish, French and many other languages.
Learning a new language is compulsory for most students up to the age of 16, whether taking I/GCSEs or following the IB Middle Years Programme; post-16, the IB Diploma Programme requires all students to study an additional language. And for very good reason. There are countless benefits to learning a second, third and fourth language, and the UAE has successfully prioritised languages alongside STEM subjects for many years. By comparison, language skills in the UK, where languages have not been compulsory in England’s curriculum beyond the age of 14 since 2004, are in decline.
Language teachers and leaders at Raffles International School (RIS) and Nord Anglia International School Dubai share their top five reasons for studying a language, from Early Years through to Sixth Form.
Learning a new language helps students to develop important life skills, such as problem-solving skills, improved memory, concentration, and mental flexibility.
Languages are central to the International Baccalaureate programme offered at many private schools in the UAE, as they go "hand in hand" with the IB's emphasis on creating inquisitive, open and culturally competent thinkers.
Louise Nolan, Head of World Languages at Nord Anglia International School Dubai, explains.
"Soft skills, or as we like to refer to them, people skills, are core to language learning and encourage our students to consider how we communicate and not just focus on memorising facts for tests.
"Much research references the mental flexibility that comes as a result of learning foreign languages. Cognitive functioning and reference of brain efficiencies are supported by data which outlines improved performances on standardized verbal testing in English, math and logic skills. It is hardly surprising that multilinguists have a competitive edge in education and with career opportunities when often they display improved social, emotional and interpersonal interaction skills including self-confidence, problem solving skills and creativity."
Languages are also the best introduction to a new culture. At Raffles International School (RIS), the focus is on learning languages within a ‘real life’ context; students are not just learning grammar, vocabulary and communication skills, but also discovering the culture and traditions behind the target language.
Principal Tim Richardson says:
"It is important to us that they understand that to truly appreciate another language, they must also understand the culture and history behind the language, which enriches their learning. On a more practical level, by learning about where the language is spoken, pupils can also see the relevance of their learning. To do this in a very real context, we have arranged overseas trips to France and China where the opportunity to apply learning is provided.
Employees who can speak more than one language add value to businesses, and students who can speak common languages like Spanish, Mandarin or French are in high demand as they have the ability to communicate directly with international clients, which can set a company apart from the competition.
Sophie Pennington Edwards, Spanish and French Teacher at NAS Dubai says:
"We are living in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual world where languages can help in any job that needs good communication skills (all jobs!). Being a good linguist means that you are experienced in communicating with people across the world and understand cultural differences. The skills needed to be a good linguist are applicable in any job."
As Mr Richardson (RIS) explains, languages help students to develop a wide range of life skills, and there's "almost an expectation that new graduates be multi-lingual."
"If companies are going to invest in an employee, they want to know that individual could serve them globally and if operations have to shift from Germany to Mexico, that the employee would be able to adapt. Multi-lingual candidates are perceived as more articulate, more versatile and more open to new ideas and opportunities.
"Quite simply, candidates that demonstrate an aptitude for language are perceived to be more employable, even if the languages in which they have fluency do not serve the principal markets for the employer. "
Bilingualism can open up a world of opportunities. Learning a language goes far beyond being able to converse in that language, and students are encouraged to understand the languages they are learning within a global context.
Amelie Langdon, a French teacher at NAS Dubai, says;
"It is about discovering places, understanding the people from that country in a deep and meaningful way, knowing about their history and their experiences that forged their identity. It is also about becoming familiar and respecting different customs and traditions from our own."
Mr Richardson (RIS) highlights the importance of students studying both their home language and an additional language.
"As a truly international school, RIS pupils are highly internationally minded very aware of different cultures, traditions and beliefs around the world. This is a carefully planned part of our taught curriculum which is supported by pupils’ interactions with each other and their teachers.
"Language learning enhances this appreciation, whether it is in the context of the modern foreign language framework or our diverse Mother Tongue programme in which pupils see their peers learning French, Spanish, German, Russian, Hindi, Swedish or Italian to maintain their linguistic and cultural connection with home."
Not only do students learn the communicative skills necessary for learning a second language in other parts of the school curriculum, but learning a language can also help children to make sense of the world around them.
Mr Richardson (RIS) explains.
"This cannot usually be done through an understanding of one subject area in isolation, rather it depends on a combination of areas of learning. Understanding the connection between language and identity, for example, supports learning around the nature of conflict in history, for example."
Sarah Medina, a Spanish teacher at NAS Dubai, says:
"The earlier we learn a language the better, as we are like little sponges when we are young children, able to absorb information at a much faster speed than when we are older. However, it is never too late to learn a language, and learning a language should be encouraged as it is great exercise for the brain and can be great fun too!"
While research suggests that the critical age for learning a new language as a native speaker is between two and four years old, there isn’t a hard and fast rule where age is concerned.
As Mr Richardson (RIS) explains, "true fluency certainly seems more prevalent in young people who started learning languages from a very early age." However, to meet the needs of its diverse, international community of students, the school focuses on English development in the early years before offering other language options.
"New pupils joining our school with limited English fluency at any age are provided with English language support through our EAL team and the outstanding progress these pupils make, regardless of their age at joining, is clear evidence it is never too late to learn a language."