November 21, 2007
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Iraqi Kurds hunger for English

Private language schools flourishing as Iraqi youngsters see English as key to better career opportunities.

IWPR - By Barham Omar

For the last two years, Hunar Kamal has tried to learn English in the hope that his language skills will bring him a brighter future.

Kamal, 17, said he wants good enough English to enrol at the American University of Iraq - only the third such US higher education institution in the Middle East - which is expected to open this year in the northeastern city of Sulaimaniyah.

Kamal takes English courses at one of the growing number of private English-language learning centres in Iraqi Kurdistan, and always carries New Headway, an Oxford University Press curriculum that helps him build his vocabulary. His family has spent about 800 US dollars so far on English-language courses, books and CDs.

"My whole life revolves around watching and listening to English movies and music," he said. "I haven't listened to any Kurdish music in almost a year."

After decades of isolation, young Kurds are yearning to learn the most widely-used international language to improve their employment prospects.

Private English-language centres have boomed in Sulaimaniyah since the 2003 overthrow of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who had persecuted and isolated Kurds for decades.

English has been promoted by the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, which last year instructed schools to begin teaching the language to first grade students - four academic years earlier than in the past.

The demand for English tuition is also being fuelled by students’ frustration with teaching methods in Kurdish schools.

There are now seven private language schools in Sulaimaniyah, compared to just one in 1999, with their curricula and teachers considered superior to government schools and community non-profits that also teach English.

"The quality of [English teaching] is the reason why our students do not learn English, even if they study the language for 20 years," said Hussein Mustafa, who heads Sulaimaniyah's education directorate.

In English classes in Kurdish schools, reading skills are taught but speaking and writing are not encouraged. The private centres, which are far better resourced than state schools, primarily focus on aural comprehension and speaking. Moreover, English courses in the public education system are often taught in Kurdish, while the private centres teach in English.

"I have studied English for eight years [at school] but I haven't learned as much as I did during this two-month course," said Daban Mohammad, an 18-year-old student at the Nobel Institute, one of the new private language centres, who completed a basic course in English this summer.

Such institutions are non-existent in the south of the country, but here they are blossoming because Iraqi Kurds increasingly recognise the importance the language plays in international trade and commerce. "English has become a daily necessity," noted Bahroz Mahmood, who manages the licensing of the private centres for the KRG’s education ministry.

Courses at the new institutions are not cheap - they can cost up to 1,000 dollars - but demand is high, nonetheless. The Institute for Developing the English Language, the largest language centre in the city, enrolled 800 students this summer - 80 per cent of whom were under 18. But although the centres are popular, they have quite a high dropout rate, with students often quitting when they come to the English grammar modules of the courses.

Arabic and Kurdish are the official languages of Iraq, but Kurdish students only begin learning Arabic in the fourth grade. Many Kurds - and most Kurdish youth - can understand Arabic because of Iraqi and Middle East media, but cannot speak or write well and have little desire to learn. Road signs and many government buildings are marked in Kurdish and English, but not in Arabic.

"We've left it up to people to learn Arabic themselves through their social and economic relations with Arabs," said Mustafa.

Mustafa also acknowledged that Arabic is generally more difficult to learn than English. Students often complain about the complexity of Arabic grammar and the uselessness of studying Arabic texts that are hundreds of years old. They consider English much more practical, and as Iraqi Kurdistan increasingly functions to all intents and purposes as an independent state, Arabic appears to declining in importance.

"We haven't neglected Arabic, but we're paying more attention to English," said Mustafa.

Barham Omar is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah


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