The Independent, Education Section
July 13, 2001
A -Z of A-levels: Arabic
By Lucy Hodges
What is it? At A/S-level you study the language only, but you also learn about the culture; at A-level you can do literature as well as more of the cultural stuff. All of it is targeted at non-native speakers. At A-level the topics broaden, and you can take some literature. You can study, for example, the Arabs in Spain in the Middle Ages, or Egyptian writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Ahmed Shawqi or Ibn Al-Muqaffa, who wrote a work that is quite similar to Aesop's Fables.
Why do it? Some do it because they are from families of Arabic origin and want to hang on to the language. Some are Muslim and fancy learning Arabic for that reason. Others want to work in the Middle East, and some are married to Arabs.
What skills do you need? It helps to have GCSE Arabic. Plunging straight into A/S-level Arabic would be quite difficult, though not entirely impossible for those who can already cope with the language or those who have an affinity to languages.
How much practical work is there? No essays in the A/S-level, though you do have to write a letter, a report or an article. Plus grammar tests, a comprehension passage and a translation from Arabic to English. It's all reading and writing, no oral or listening. At A-level you write two essays and you do a comprehension.
Ratio of coursework to exams: No coursework.
Is it hard? Most people tend to think that Arabic is an incredibly hard subject, because it involves learning a whole new alphabet. But, according to Nadia Abdelaal, the chief examiner to Edexcel exam board, it's not.
Is it enjoyable? Yes, you are meant to enjoy the A/S-level.
Who takes it? Mainly 17- and 18-year-olds. A-level Arabic is also taken by people who have some sort of Arabic background.
How cool is it? It's moving increasingly into the 21st century, says Nadia Abdelaal. People who have hitherto shown little interest in the subject are now sitting the exam. The number of students have almost doubled from 289 in June 2000 to 493 this year.
Added value: No trips. But you get to try plenty of foodstuffs, which can be brought into school from local ethnic grocers, foods such as mango and guava juice and apricot sheets dissolved in water.
What subjects go with it? French, politics, almost anything really.
What degrees does it lead to? It doesn't lead to a degree. Degrees in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies start from scratch, so students tend to do the subject either at degree level or at A-level.
Will it set you up for a brilliant career? Maybe, particularly if it enables you to do business with oil-rich countries or get a job translating at the United Nations.
What do students say? "I've been taking Arabic outside school for eight years now. I did Arabic GCSE in Year 8 and got an A* and I'm enjoying the A/S-level. I like the way it's taught through newspaper articles and discussing contemporary issues. It enables me not only to read the Koran, but to understand it." (Farah Roomi, 15, who is currently at Altringham Girls' Grammar School, but does her Arabic on Saturday morning at a separate supplementary school)
Which awarding bodies offer it? Only Edexcel.
How widely available is it? There are not many schools and colleges that offer Arabic. But you can study it independently of your school or college.