For people wishing to learn a foreign language, the list of options to pick one from can be daunting. However, often they end up selecting safe options such as French, German or Spanish.
Due to historic and economic reasons, European languages have dominated the linguistic map of the world. “There is definitely a bias in not just the West, but around the world, towards European languages and away from other languages,” says Mursal Hedayat, founder and CEO of Chatterbox, a UK-based organisation which employees refugees to teach foreign languages such as Arabic, Korean, Hindi, Farsi, Dari, Kurdish and Swahili.
The UK economy loses £48 billion every year because it does not have enough language skills, points out Hedayat. She thinks the UK’s language deficit is going to be exacerbate in the post-Brexit climate as the country gets ready to leave the European Union. “The most strategically important language for the UK to learn was German. Next probably is going to be Arabic.”
There is talk of forging greater links with non-European countries. “People are looking more further afield in North Africa, in Middle East, in Asia, to get the trade that used to happen with Europe,” she says. After UK exits the EU, the demand for non-European languages could increase.
Chatterbox started six months ago. At the time Hedayat was doing a postgraduate programme in social innovation and entrepreneurship called “Year Here”. With all the coverage about refugees in the media, she wanted to do something to help. She was inspired by her own family’s experience.
Hedayat’s mother was an engineer from Afghanistan who arrived in the UK as a refugee in the 1990s. For many years she struggled to find work. One problem was people didn’t believe her degree was genuine. “When you are fleeing war and Afghanistan is blowing up right now, Kabul University doesn’t exist any more. How easy is it to get a transcript in that setting? So she didn’t have a transcript. She had children so she couldn’t go back to study. There were all these barriers to her going back and using these skills.”
She remembers that her mother was very frustrated because she was far more skilled then the work she was able to get. “All of her hard work into developing herself professionally was just wasted,” she says. “Because of something she didn’t do. Something out of her control. So with that insight I wanted to build something that could help people like my mum, people who I knew would be facing a difficult time in the labour market in the UK.
Hedayat speaks Dari and is now learning some of the languages offered at Chatterbox. “I am currently learning a few words of Arabic — Marhaba! I am learning Chinese. My French is getting to an okay level. It comes with the territory. You run a language business, you are going to learn a few languages.”
She feels by learning languages she is testing out what’s on offer. “I am using lots of different products, apps, websites. [checking] out the competition.”
At a young age she finds herself in charge of highly-qualified professionals. “I think the age thing, it effects me more.” Hedayat confesses to feeling intimidated sometimes in an interview. “We have tutors who are famous political activists. we have people who have fought for human rights in various countries. we have architects. These are people who in any normal situation I would be working for, it is just the perverseness of what happens when you become a refugee that has led to the other way around.”
The refugees who work at Chatterbox include a Hindi film actress, director and producer who teaches Farsi. There is a dental student from Syria who teaches Arabic.
There is also Fatima, a human rights lawyer from Sudan. “In her trying to improve the situation of women in Sudan, she was made a refugee for the rest of her life and that sort of thing. And now in the UK she is unemployed. This human rights lawyer, someone who is astoundingly intelligent, hard working, reliable is unemployed in the UK.”
Hedayat spent the first few months at Chatterbox approaching refugee organisations as well as refugees directly. Now these people are coming to her. Chatterbox currently has around 29 teachers, with 130 people signed up to use the service. My interview with Hedayat took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Chatterbox, which is a pilot project, has a contract with SOAS to deliver 40 hours of language practice every week. Their next target is to replicate the model in other universities. “We have seen the tremendous impact it has on the confidence, the connections and the careers of the refugees and asylum seekers we work with,” she says.
Arabic is by far the most popular language among the students learning at Chatterbox. “I don’t know whether that is because people sort of now identify refugees as being Arabic [speaking] because of the famous examples of Iraq, Syria, but also because it is one of the top most in-demand language at work places, and one of the UN’s spoken languages. So it is a very important language around the world.”
The second most popular language is Persian. “Farsi in particular is quite popular. Trade links are opening up between Europe and Iran. So there is the business case to learn the language as well. It is a very beautiful language.”
At Chatterbox , the focus is on the spoken word. “What we are doing here at SOAS, for Arabic students particularly, is providing them with a way to learn about the way people talk on the streets of Lebanon, Syria, or Iraq, and not just the stuff they say on the news or that is written in the books.”
The types of people learning Arabic include journalists, lawyers and charity workers. People want to learn because they work in an industry that is involved with Arabic speaking clients, says Hedayat, or because they are going away on holiday.
What is her personal motivation for learning Arabic? “The motivation for anyone when they learn a language is to connect with another human being on a deeper level. I want to be able to understand and communicate with my language tutors. And also I want to speak a language that is very strategically important in the world.”
With new economies developing, other languages are gaining in importance. “The bias towards English and other European languages can only last so long. The world is growing in markets where other language is spoken. The most widely spoken language in the world is Chinese, not English. The second most widely spoken language is Spanish.”
Business-minded people will want to speak the languages of the markets of the future, says Hedayat. “These are Arabic speaking countries, Hindi and Urdu, there is Chinese, Korean, and very soon with Africa blossoming it is going to be languages like Lingala, Swahili. So we offer the languages of the future.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.