Until now, there has been no internationally recognized standardized test to measure proficiency in the Arabic language in non-native speakers. Students of Arabic could only depend on the reputation and value of the qualification issued by the institution where they studied. This is unlike in English, for example, where students have such widely recognized tests as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).
To fill this gap, the Institut du Monde Arabe, a Paris-based organization that promotes Arabic language and culture, has introduced the Certificat International de Maîtrise en Arabe, or International Certificate for Arabic Language Proficiency. A newly-designed examination to qualify for the certificate can be taken starting this month at institutions, mostly private high schools, in a number of cities in the Arab region—Rabat, Tunis, Cairo, Alexandria, Doha, Jeddah, Manama and Amman, among others—as well as cities in France and Switzerland.
The introduction of the certificate is welcomed by professional teachers of Arabic such as Ilham Salimane, who heads the Diploma in Communicative Arabic program at SOAS, University of London. “There is definitely a need for a qualification of this kind,” she says. “There are a lot of employment opportunities for people who have studied Arabic and reached a certain level, but there has not until now been an internationally accepted certificate to show their proficiency.”
The new certificate is based on a common measurement of proficiency in a language known as the Common European Framework of Reference. Whatever language one is studying, a code can be given to the level of proficiency in that language, and this code is widely understood and accepted. For example, Level A1 precisely describes the ability required of a beginner in the study of a language, while Level C2 describes mastery of a language.
The certificate is known by its French acronym, CIMA, which converts into an Arabic word—sima—that can be translated as “visa.”
CIMA tests proficiency only in Modern Standard Arabic, the universal literary form of Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is used in parallel with the many local dialects of colloquial Arabic that are spoken in the countries and regions of the Middle East and North Africa. The certificate does not measure proficiency in any of those.
“This is mostly due to the wide variety of flavors of colloquial Arabic, even within the same country,” said Patrick Bergeot, CIMA’s project manager.
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It is difficult to explain why a common standard for Arabic has not emerged before now, Bergeot said. “This is a tough question,” he replied in an e-mail interview. “There is no natural leadership [in Arabic] as for other languages.”
The Institut du Monde Arabe took the initiative in meeting the need. The organization is the result of a partnership between the government of France and the Arab League, and its mandate includes teaching the Arabic language. “The Institut du Monde Arabe aims to be a pan-Arab organization,” Bergeot wrote. “So it has no legitimacy issue.”
The institute offers classes in Arabic to about 1,500 students every year, and developed the CIMA project in collaboration with language specialists in the French ministry of education. Work on the project accelerated in 2016 when the company Nokia France offered support and project management.
The CIMA test is to be offered commercially to interested institutions that can comply with an accreditation and authorization procedure, Bergeot said. Institutions that want to administer the CIMA test must obtain a license to do this, but “the reselling price [of the license] today is free.”
Mark Critchley, director of the Centre for Foreign Language Study at Durham University in the United Kingdom, who has been working on developing common standards for language learning for universities, welcomes the introduction of CIMA. “We are very supportive of it, and it is very necessary to have an internationally recognized standard for Arabic. Time will tell what the uptake will be like,” he said.
A sample beginners’ exam, which includes tests in reading, writing, listening and speaking, can be seen here.