This research article examines the difficulties encountered by learners and teachers of Arabic in contemporary French state schools, taking into account the heavy political context, the obstacles on personal and professional levels, and the various perceptions associated with this language. Despite these difficulties, teachers still have much hope for the future of the Arabic language in France.


I have been learning Arabic for thirteen years now. This work is based on my personal experience of a learning journey still ongoing and full of difficulties. I can write Arabic used in the press, known as “standard Arabic”. I can understand a simple dialogue. But I’m still unable to communicate in my ancestors’ language. Even if I learned to read Arabic at the same time as I learned French, in a French school in a country where Arabic is an official language. I joined an English-Arabic bilingual class at a secondary school in France, which enabled me to continue taking Arabic until the Baccalauréat, and then in higher education. Drawing on my experience as a learner in different contexts, I asked myself about the difficulties of teaching Arabic in French schools. I also interviewed some people involved in the teaching of Arabic : Arabic teachers at secondary schools, parents, and high school and university students. Each of them experiences these difficulties in their own way, trying to understand and resolve them, whether they be pedagogical, practical, cultural or identity-related.

Arabic is the second most widely spoken language in France today. Yet only 0.2% of students study it in class[1], which doesn’t stop the regular polemics surrounding its teaching. Beyond identity-related debates linked to the French political context, I look at how personal representations associated with the Arabic language affect its teaching and learning. These questions are linked to intimate perceptions of a language that is often associated with family history and migratory trajectories, and on which important expectations are also projected. The aim of this work is to show that difficulties associated with learning and teaching Arabic in the French context go beyond individual pedagogical obstacles and need to be considered structurally.

To begin with, we need to define what we mean by the “Arabic language”. A multitude of Arabic dialects exist, varying from region to region, and are used orally without being recognized as the official language of the countries where they are spoken. However, the Arabic taught in France is known as “classical”, “literal”, or “standard” Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is the first official language of the 22 member states of the Arab League. The Arabic language can therefore be considered as part of a “broad linguistic spectrum”[2] ranging from colloquial dialect to the language of literature. In France, Arabic is spoken by almost 4 million people (around 6% of the population)[3]. However, the system and organization of Arabic teaching in primary and secondary schools remain under criticism. First of all, we need to recall the media context surrounding the teaching of Arabic in France. A quick Internet search reveals the extent to which the association between the Arabic language, religion and terrorism is still prevalent, even in the discourse of some politicians. More objective criticism comes from teachers and advocates of teaching Arabic in French schools: too few resources are allocated to this teaching, which is not supported by any political will.

The aim of this work is to provide an overview. I’ve chosen to talk to Naïma, an Arabic teacher in secondary school; Mrs M., an English teacher; Iliès, a student who took Arabic classes from CM2 to Terminale; Nathalie, a parent representative committed to the teaching of Arabic in her school; Dalila, an Arabist who shared her memories of learning Arabic with us; and finally Nabil Wakim, journalist at Le Monde and author of L’arabe pour tous, pourquoi ma langue est taboue en France[4].

   1. A political context weighing heavily on teaching

The starting point for this research is the observation of failure, or rather the feeling of failure and powerlessness that affects many learners of Arab descents despite years, sometimes decades, spent studying Arabic in French schools.

“Why can’t we speak Arabic? Why can’t the children speak Arabic? I can see, my son, he’s learning verbs, he’s learning to conjugate, they’ve started taking the future tense. I mean, why can’t they speak?” – Nathalie

Nathalie’s questions reflect the incomprehension that surrounds learners when they struggle to master a language after several years of lessons. The frustration of not speaking Arabic and its personal consequences have been widely explored by journalist Nabil Wakim, who investigated the relationship of French Arab descents to the Arabic language.

In the case of French people of North African or Middle Eastern descent, the relationship with the Arabic language is often complex. For first-generation migrants, parents have not always ensured that their language is passed on to their children. The latter find themselves trapped between two injunctions:  not basing their identity on their origins in order to fully “integrate” in France, and not “losing their roots” by forgetting arabic. Following these injunctions, language is seen as both a threat to the child’s integration and necessary to the respect of a family tradition ; as the same time devaluated and considered important. However, valuing and devaluing positions are not strictly distinguishable from one another. In fact, the dynamics of rejection but also of attachment combine in both family and school spheres, in the gaze of others but also in the individual experience of the learner. This paradox testifies to a complex situation, between a social and political context with a negative view of the Arabic language, and family, identity and emotional logics attached to the language. One could speak of a “love-hate” relationship towards a language that children may feel obliged to learn, but whose learning is far from being valued. Naïma, now an Arabic teacher, illustrates this paradox very well, recounting a discussion with her aunt when she wanted to start learning Italian in high school.

“‘But Naïma, if you’re going to learn a language that’s useless, why not learn Arabic?’ And there you have it, it’s because of my aunt that I’m where I am today, and it’s because of that thought. And what’s paradoxical is that she was able to say in the same sentence that it was useless and that it was still good that I was going to do it rather than Italian.” – Naïma

It is interesting to note that the perceived utility of the Arabic language, and therefore at the same time its valorization, varies according to context. In primary and secondary education, the teaching of Arabic in France is highly controversial, constantly devalued, and restricted to a majority of students of Arab descent. The situation is somewhat different in higher education[5] : Arabic is taught in the French Grandes Ecoles[6] in classes where learners of Arab descent are absent, and enjoy an elitist image stemming from a long-standing tradition of Franco-Arab erudition.

“It’s one of the languages studied in the Grandes Ecoles… I mean, it’s crazy that the Grandes Ecoles can see the stakes involved in a very objective way. The Grandes Ecoles are not mistaken… and on the other hand, at secondary school level, at no time have they been able to move this learning from an individual project to a school project to give meaning to this language in a collective way. ” – Nathalie

The “Agrégation d’arabe” (highest teaching exam) was one of the first to be created in 1906, and the École des Langues Orientales (University of Oriental Languages), forerunner of today’s INALCO, was opened in 1795[7], while François 1er had already instituted the teaching of Arabic in the Collège Royal (french higher education and research institution)[8]. Echoing the ambivalence of personal representations, we find a broader “French paradox”. Nada Yafi speaks of a “fascination-rejection” surrounding a language that is “sometimes celebrated, particularly in the academic world, and sometimes denigrated in the media world”[9].

   2. Marginalized teaching comes up against institutional obstacles and personal barriers

“It’s quite a long road, full of pitfalls. I didn’t see school as an inclusive context… that could welcome the fact that I could speak or hear or be in contact with the Arabic language, that I might want to learn to write it, for example. It wasn’t welcomed.” – Dalila

The role of the educational establishment in supporting students who wish to learn Arabic has evolved in recent years. Standard Arabic is taught in 330 schools, corresponding to 3% of schools in France (far more than when Dalila was in primary school). In 2017, there were 13,721 students from 6e to Terminale (grade for students aged 11 to 18), all subjects included. This means that only 0.2% of students study Arabic. The number of Arabic-speaking students has doubled since 2005, reflecting the relative political acceptance of the demands of citizenship. Nevertheless, Arabic remains a rare language in the French educational landscape. Three times as many students study Chinese (41,829 in 2017); 894,020 are taught German and 3,900,000 learn Spanish[10]. If the current low priority given to teaching Arabic within the national education system is a problem, it is because of a significant unmet demand.

“We need more. That’s what will also enable us to have more diverse classes, with different socio-professional profiles, not necessarily just Arab descendants… But I think we need more classes.” – Naïma

In an article published in 2009, Bruno Levallois, former Inspector General of the French Ministry of Education, makes the link between low enrolment and the difficulties facing Arabic teaching in schools. He speaks of “management difficulties that work against optional subjects that have not reached critical mass”, and identifies a certain resentment against the institution among students and those around them: “These students, and their families, have the impression that this teaching is not really welcome in the institution, that it is marginalized, conceded”[11].

“There’s an institutionalization of the precariousness of the relationship to language.” – Nathalie

For Nathalie, this is more an observation than an impression. She observes difficulties in “getting into the language” for children from secondary school onwards, and identifies various factors that place the teaching of Arabic in a special situation within the school itself. This raises questions of visibility, linked to the notion of recognizing and valuing learners’ progress. For the parent interviewed, the devaluation of Arabic is such that the project is “stigmatizing” for students at school, whereas in her eyes it should be rewarding on the contrary.

“There’s no visibility for this language, in other words, it doesn’t have a dedicated class, so it goes back to the symbolic place of the language.” – Nathalie

“There’s always that special status: we have very small numbers, and if the timetable’s a bit complicated… You’re just passing through, and some students don’t know who you are. And I think it’s important to be present in the life of the school in a different way” – Naïma.

As we can see, Arabic’s status as a language of limited diffusion within the French education system gives it a special status, linked to a lack of visibility and promotion. These elements are perceived by families and teachers alike, who are the first to observe on a daily basis how they impact on language learning and the perceptions of students, especially the younger ones.

“They don’t put the same intention into it, and don’t perceive it as a living language. No matter how many times we tell them, “You can do it in English, so why not in Arabic? “Arabic is too difficult. And then to forbid themselves to do badly, and so to stop doing, for fear of the difficulty. I realize that there are often tears, there are far too many tears in Arabic, especially in middle school. I also see that there’s pressure on certain students from their families, and then I think they accept this pressure, and they take it on board… but it’s… it causes a lot of sensitivity, in fact, I find.” – Naïma

One might think that this difficulty in grasping the language is due to the weight on learners’ shoulders. A weight linked to family expectations, to a form of personal demand linked to a socially assigned identity, to a sacralized image of the language. Not to consider Arabic as a living language is to cultivate the image of a fixed, difficult, inaccessible language. The right to make mistakes, a fundamental component of learning, is threatened. The weight of family history and the social assignment to preserve one’s roots thus crystallize a significant emotional charge around language learning for students of Arab descent[12].

“The emotional burden for the Arabic teacher, to be managed by the pupils, is considerable. There’s the student’s own perception of his duty to know and speak the language, or the pressure he puts on himself.” – Naïma

   3. The hopes of a civil society mobilized for teaching that is valued and rewarding

“I’m aware of what’s at stake and I’m ready to face it. And it makes sense.” – Naïma

Despite the difficulties associated with teaching Arabic in French schools, it is worth noting that in all the interviews conducted, there was a desire to improve the current situation and, above all, a concrete projection towards teaching Arabic “as it should be” : valued, source of social and cultural emancipation, and openness to the world.

“Before, I was the teacher in the cupboard with my few pupils, always the same ones, and there weren’t many of us. And now, all the students know who I am, they know that I’m the Arabic teacher, that there’s one at the school, that there are Arabic speakers. That’s what contributes to the influence of teaching. We’ve got to take our place… so we’re not just the little Arabic teacher in the classroom at the end of the day… And what made me laugh was that the students were proud too. ‘Well, you see, she’s the Arabic teacher.’ And that’s precious. It’s another way of shining.” – Naima

This commitment is motivated by personal convictions, but also by the hope of one day seeing the status of the Arabic language in France reinvented. Among their demands is a desire to break away from the special status of Arabic : it should be taught like any other language at school.

“It would be great if this could lead to a real use of this language as a commonplace language. That’s it, a language like any other that responds to opportunities like any other… Well, that’s what’s at stake for me.” – Nathalie

However, and this is the paradox, we may well wonder whether it is really desirable for Arabic to be taught simply as a “banal” language, judging by the important symbolic function it occupies in the representations of the people interviewed. This point comes up in our interview with Nathalie, who shares her wishes for her child:

“And you, would you prefer him to learn Arabic like any other language ?

– I was going to say yes, but then I said no. I think I’d like him to make it his own even more. I’d have liked it to be something that would also carry him forward, towards a desire to learn about that culture… that would lead him to a real openness to the Arab world… I myself realize that I’m not trivializing it and that I’m also putting a meaning into it, perhaps one that shouldn’t be there. That’s something to think about.” – Nathalie

Clearly, expectations for teaching Arabic go beyond the framework of “ordinary” teaching. This raises the question of the legitimacy of this demand on the educational institution. But it is also possible to think that these two dimensions are not incompatible : learning a language may also include cultural aspects. As Stéphanie Condon and Corinne Régnard remind us, “Beyond their function as a means of communication, these languages have a symbolic function: they are a means of cultural transmission of family or group heritage”[13].



While ending this non-exhaustive overview of representations linked to the teaching of Arabic in French schools, let us remember that this teaching cannot be detached from a heavy socio-political context. The latter, which conveys a negative image of the Arabic language itself, degrades public debate and weighs heavily on the representations of learners, teachers and those around them. The difficulties associated with teaching Arabic in the French education system take the form of a lack of resources and political will, reflected in very low cohort numbers in relation to the importance of the Arabic language in the country. These difficulties are compounded by specificities linked to intimate conceptions of the Arabic language. Those conceptions are marked by family histories and migratory routes carried by Arab descendants, who are still today in the majority represented in Arabic classes at secondary level in french schools. These two dynamics give special status to the teaching of Arabic in French schools. However, far from being stuck in a problematic situation, the interviewees are dreaming of the success of Arabic language teaching in France: increased enrolment, democratization of access, mixed intake, cultural role… The projections for the future of Arabic language teaching are ambitious, and bear witness to a true conviction: that Arabic must find its place as one of the languages of France, for the well-being and cultural enrichment of all.

“I felt like I was almost defying the laws of gravity, like I was reconnecting with a part of myself. And to take pleasure in reading and understanding, deciphering, accessing meaning. And to be able to speak, to express myself. It gave me a lot of pleasure on a personal level. So, once you’ve managed to get out of this morass in which we’re placed, either in a family setting or, unfortunately, in the societal environment in which we evolve, when you get out of this stagnation where there are contradictory injunctions, well, in fact, you can rediscover the pleasure of learning and discovering. And that’s the most important thing. In fact, what would be nice is if we could waste a little less time being trapped in that kind of morass.” – Dalila



[1]Paul-Olivier Gasq, Les langues vivantes (sections internationales, bi-nationales et européennes) et régionales dans le second degré public et privé sous contrat : France métropolitaine et DOM (Paris : Publication de la DEPP, Ministère de l’Education nationale, de l’enseignement supérieur, de la recherche et de l’innovation, 2017-2018).

[2]Nada Yafi. Plaidoyer pour la langue arabe, (Montreuil : Éditions Libertalia, 2023), 48.

[3]Enquêtes Pratiques culturelles en France métropolitaine (2018) et dans les territoires ultramarins (2019-2020), (Paris: DEPS, Ministère de la Culture, 2022).

[4]Nabil Wakim, L’arabe pour tous, pourquoi ma langue est taboue en France, (Paris : Seuil, Paris, 2020).

[5]Nabil Wakim, L’arabe pour tous, pourquoi ma langue est taboue en France, (Paris : Seuil, Paris, 2020), 110-113.

[6]French prestigious school

[7]Joseph Dichy, Les enjeux du centenaire de l’agrégation d’arabe : présentation générale du colloque. Le Centenaire de l’agrégation d’arabe, (Paris : 2006), 13-16.

[8]Yves Guena, Allocution d’ouverture. Le Centenaire de l’agrégation d’arabe, (Paris : 2006) 11.

[9]Nada Yafi. Plaidoyer pour la langue arabe, (Montreuil : Editions Libertalia, 2023) 27.

[10]Paul-Olivier Gasq, Les langues vivantes (sections internationales, bi-nationales et européennes) et régionales dans le second degré public et privé sous contrat : France métropolitaine et DOM (Paris : Publication de la DEPP, Ministère de l’Education nationale, de l’enseignement supérieur, de la recherche et de l’innovation, 2017-2018).

[11]Bruno Levallois, “L’enseignement de l’arabe dans l’institution scolaire française” in Langue et Cité n°15, (Paris : Ministère de la Culture, 2009).

[12]Catherine Pinon. « Gérer la charge émotionnelle liée à la langue arabe : un défi pour le professeur de langue étrangère » in Lidil, 48, 2013, 115-135.

[13]Stéphanie Condon and Corinne Régnard. Les pratiques linguistiques : langues apportées et langues transmises in Trajectoires et origines : Enquête sur la diversité des populations en France, (Paris : Ined Éditions, 2016).



  • Books :

Nabil Wakim, L’arabe pour tous, pourquoi ma langue est taboue en France, (Paris : Seuil, 2020).

Nada Yafi, Plaidoyer pour la langue arabe, (Montreuil : Éditions Libertalia, 2023).

Centenaire de l’agrégation d’arabe, Actes du séminaire national, (Paris : Formation continue publication – Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, 2008), URL : Le centenaire de l’agrégation d’arabe (

  • Academic articles :

Stéphanie Condon and Corinne Régnard. Les pratiques linguistiques : langues apportées et langues transmises in Trajectoires et origines : Enquête sur la diversité des populations en France, (Paris : Ined Éditions, 2016). URL :

Brigitte Dumortier, “L’arabe dans l’enseignement secondaire français” in Espace, populations, sociétés. Les populations du monde arabe – People of the Arab Middle East. 85-94. (Université des sciences et technologies de Lille, 1997), URL :

Yahya Cheikh, « L’enseignement de l’arabe en France » in Hommes & migrations, 2010.

Alexandrine Barontini, « Valorisation des langues vivantes en France : le cas de l’arabe maghrébin » in Le français aujourd’hui, vol. 158, no. 3, 2007, 20-27. URL :

Bruno Levallois, “L’enseignement de l’arabe dans l’institution scolaire française” in Langue et Cité n°15, (Paris : Ministère de la Culture, 2009).

Catherine Pinon. « Gérer la charge émotionnelle liée à la langue arabe : un défi pour le professeur de langue étrangère » in Lidil, 48, 2013. URL :

Joseph Dichy, “Les enjeux du centenaire de l’agrégation d’arabe : présentation générale du colloque” in Le Centenaire de l’agrégation d’arabe, (Paris : 2006).

Yves Guena, “Allocution d’ouverture” in Le Centenaire de l’agrégation d’arabe, (Paris : 2006).

  • French national statistics :

Paul-Olivier Gasq, Les langues vivantes (sections internationales, bi-nationales et européennes) et régionales dans le second degré public et privé sous contrat : France métropolitaine et DOM (Paris : Publication de la DEPP, Ministère de l’Education nationale, de l’enseignement supérieur, de la recherche et de l’innovation, 2017-2018).

Chiffres clés, statistiques de la culture – 2022, (Paris : DEPS, Ministère de la Culture, 2022).

Jacques Legendre, Rapport d’information fait au nom de la commission des Affaires culturelles sur l’enseignement des langues étrangères en France, (Paris : Sénat, 2003), 54-59.

  • Press articles :

Miren Garaicoechea, Enseignement de l’arabe à l’école : «On est dans la même misère qu’avant», (Paris : Libération, 2022).

Miren Garaicoechea, Enquête : « Apprendre l’arabe à l’école, «c’est un combat» », (Paris : Libération, 2020).

Caroline Tahhan, « Tribune : Loin des clichés, les classes bilangue anglais-arabe », Libération. 21 mai 2015.


  • Videos :

Patrick Lovett and Elom Toble, Emission « France : poussée de fièvre autour de l’enseignement de l’arabe à l’école », (France 24, 17 janvier 2017), URL :

Guillaume Meurice, Podcast Le Moment Meurice. « La langue arabe à l’école », (France Inter, 14 octobre 2020), URL :

J. Percheron and JS. Maurice, Reportage « Besançon : une classe bilangue anglais-arabe au collège Voltaire », (France 3 Bourgogne, 3 septembre 2018), URL :

Reportage « Dans ce collège, l’arabe est enseigné en deuxième langue », (Brut, 19 novembre 2018), URL :

Vidéo « Langue arabe à l’école: échange tendu entre un auditeur et Jean-Jacques Bourdin », (RMC, 11 septembre 2018), URL :

  • Websites :

« La pétition “Yakfi”; Pour une vraie politique de l’enseignement de l’arabe en France », (Paris : Association française des arabisants, 10 mars 2004), URL :

Nora SENHAJI RHAZI is a French and Moroccan student at Sciences Po Paris and at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris.

One Reply to “Perspectives on learning Arabic in France”

  1. Illustration by Alice Gilles, on the cover of Nabil Wakim’s book L’arabe pour tous, pourquoi ma langue est taboue en France, (Paris : Seuil, 2020).

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