NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania—Seidi Ahmed, a 30-year-old graduate of the University of Nouakchott Faculty of Law, speaks his mother tongue, Arabic, and has added to that a mastery of French. But he could not get a much-coveted government job until after he enrolled in one of the English teaching institutes found everywhere in the Mauritanian capital.
His investment paid off with a job as a translator in the Ministry of Justice.
English teaching institutes are spreading rapidly around Mauritania as the nation’s young people are eager to learn it to get jobs in local, Arab, and African markets. In Mauritania, teaching English is a new business, which still suffers from chaos with the absence of a specific educational strategy and certified curricula.
According to the Mauritanian constitution, Arabic is the first educational language, while French is taught beginning in the sixth grade. (Mauritania was under French rule from 1920 to 1960.) The teaching of English was introduced in secondary schools just ten years ago.
The Mauritanian government has encouraged the study of English. The Ministry of Higher Education during the past years offered licenses to about 20 institutes teaching English and required them to hire teachers from international universities with adequate English teaching experience.
“English departments are the main source of these informal institutes, because a great number of English university professors and graduates have established these institutes to meet the growing market needs,” said Sheikh Saad Booh, a professor of English at the University of Nouakchott, the biggest university in Mauritania.
Students’ mastery of English opens new job opportunities for them in different companies, such as the companies that exploit the nation’s mineral resources, including iron, copper, and gold. Those companies offer high salaries for translators.
“The keenness of Mauritanians to learn English stems from the fact that it is the first internationally certified language, especially when traveling all over the world,” said Amna Ment Aaly, a student in an English teaching institute.
The increasingly crowded English teaching institutes can be chaotic, as they are not really supervised by educational authorities.
“These institutes still need development,” said Al-Waly Weld Seidi Heiba, an education expert based in Nouakchott. He said the curriculum of the teaching institutes should be improved after some discussions with them.
Many of the institutes are hoping to create international partnerships with U.S. universities and institutes to strengthen their curricula. In parallel with these private institutes, the U.S. embassy in Mauritania opened an English learning center along with a library of books and magazines for new English learners. This center attracted Mauritanian youth wanting to prepare for international tests, such as TOEFL and IELTS.
About 100 Mauritanians are enrolled in this center. The embassy organizes 10 cultural exchange trips annually for Mauritanian students to the United States including visits to some universities.
Like other Mauritanian students, Seidi Ahmed participated in the embassy English programs. He established a group for English-speaking young people, who organized their first conference last April under the embassy’s auspices.
“We seek to communicate and open a new dialogue with international youth all over the world,” Ahmed said
In spite of the increasing number of students wanting to learn English, French remains the language instilled in the everyday life of Mauritanians and the working language of official authorities.
Weld Seidi Heiba, a journalist specializing in education issues, said that French still dominates administrative affairs in Mauritania, while English is increasingly dominating the educational scene.
Discussions are in progress among Mauritanian educational authorities about including both languages in the curriculum. Some people call for changing the language of Mauritanian curriculum from French into English, since English is now the most popular internationally spoken language.
Still, students have different views.
“The increasing number of students learning English does not endanger the status of the French language as the working language in Mauritania,” Seidi Ali said. “It just opens more job opportunities in the labor market.”