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Breaking the Barriers: Accessible English for Arabic Speakers
British English Plus posts short, snappy videos for learners who lack the time and resources to take a full language course
Ahmad Al-Rashid smiles as he recalls his arrival in the UK. “There are some really lovely memories,” he says, describing Christmas dinner with the family that hosted him and trips to cultural sites. After the trauma of having to leave first Syria and then Iraq, followed by a grueling 55-day journey to Europe where he almost lost his life, it was the welcome he needed to rebuild his life.
For five months he lived with a host family, found via Refugees at Home, a volunteer initiative that connects refugees with Britons by offering spare rooms. “It was a great experience, it helped me learn about the language, culture, food, everything.” Already a competent English speaker with a degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Aleppo, he adapted quickly, making friends and securing a scholarship at SOAS followed by a job with the United Nations.
But his experience was not typical. Working in integration he saw firsthand the difficulties many refugees faced. “A lot of people struggle with English but the thing that helped me from day one was language. I lost my home, money, everything, but I had my education and my languages, they were vital every step of the way.” So, in 2021 he set up British English Plus and started posting free videos teaching English to Arabic speakers, covering everything from pronunciation to sentence structure.
Mainstreaming English learning
He doesn’t focus too much on grammar. “It can be off-putting to a lot of people and you don’t have to be perfect at the grammar, that part comes with time,” he says. Instead, Al-Rashid makes the videos engaging and subject-driven, avoiding dry textbooks and prioritizing an interactive style of teaching. With time pressure and diminishing attention spans to compete with, he keeps the content catchy. “I focus on one key message at a time so viewers can hit their target and move on,” he says.
The popularity of Al-Rashid’s approach is evident from the followers on his social media accounts, where he delivers most of his teaching, uploading videos from his mobile phone. Over 800,000 people follow him on Instagram and around half a million on TikTok. “I get a lot of comments saying the videos are great but lately people have asked me to upgrade the quality of the audio,” he says. Keen to keep the content free, Al-Rashid set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for audio equipment, and Ideas Beyond Borders got in touch.
“Within 24 hours they had donated a significant amount – enough for a camera, software, and a laptop,” Al-Rashid says.
The next step will be to develop his skills in video editing but in the meantime, he is already using the laptop to produce better videos in the hopes of reaching more people with his brand of easy access English. “During the pandemic, a lot of people lost the opportunity to learn English so I hope people will be able to use my videos to access the language for free.”
For Arabic speakers, it’s a difficult language to master with sounds like ‘p’ and ‘v’ that don’t exist in their own alphabet. The phonetic nature of English makes reading and pronunciation a challenge initially but with practice, learners can overcome that Al-Rashid says. His own English accent sounds native at times, honed before British comedies and BBC World Service broadcasts as a child growing up in a small village in Aleppo.
“Ahmad is giving people the means to educate themselves free of charge and develop the language skills needed to rebuild their lives in the UK or elsewhere in the English-speaking world,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “Without learning the language it is extremely difficult to access work opportunities and integrate into a society.”
Making friends in the UK and interacting with people daily is the key to Al-Rashid's fluency but a basic grasp is needed to gain access to the people and opportunities that can help refugees create a new life in the UK. That’s where the videos come in, offering bite-size English at all levels, from beginners to university students perfecting their academic level. “I hope to keep developing my material to help others learn, achieve and take their futures forward. English offers great potential for people to transform their lives,” Al-Rashid says.