Equity & Diversity

‘Heritage Speakers’: Loss of a Treasure?

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 04, 2006 13 min read
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If the United States is going to take advantage of the linguistic skills of millions of children in this country who speak languages other than English at home, policy has to change at the district, state, and national levels, experts in the field say.

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Nowhere is that more evident than in the Dearborn public schools, located in this industrial suburb of Detroit.

Forty percent of the district’s 17,700 students are of Arab descent. Some moved here with their families from Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, or the Palestinian territories, after studying Arabic in school in their home countries. Others are “heritage speakers” of Arabic: They were born in the United States or immigrated here at a young age, but are growing up in homes where the language is spoken.

Though many heritage speakers here are fluent in a dialect of Arabic, they can barely read or write the language. Unless they’ve taken classes in community-run private programs or the relatively few classes available in the school district, they often can’t understand or speak Modern Standard Arabic, the formal dialect used in the Arab world.

Not many U.S. public schools provide the training to build on students’ home languages other than English, even when they have a critical mass speaking the same language. Instead, schools almost overwhelmingly focus on students who are learning foreign languages from scratch.

“At the same time we are talking about developing language proficiency in K-16, kids who are in schools who speak languages other than English are losing proficiency in those languages because it’s considered either irrelevant or detrimental to their academic progress,” said Joy Kreeft Peyton, the vice president of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a language-research organization based in Washington.

Sixteen-year-old Bidour Albiraihy of Dearborn, who moved from Iraq to the United States when she was 5 and speaks the Iraqi dialect of Arabic at home, recognizes how she’s benefited from formal schooling in Arabic. She says she wouldn’t be literate in her family’s language if it weren’t for a teacher at Dearborn Academy, a charter school.

“I never knew how to read and write, not even my name, until I started in 5th grade, and it’s all because of that one teacher,” she said. Ms. Albiraihy is now in her second year of Arabic at Fordson High School, Dearborn’s public secondary school with the most extensive offerings in the language.

Scattered Efforts

The U.S. government’s demand for employees who are fluent in both Arabic and English has skyrocketed with the war on terrorism and American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Music Video


2nd graders at Becker Elementary School in Dearborn, Mich., rehearsing a song in Arabic with enrichment teacher Sabah Beydoun in preparation for a spring concert.

QuickTime file: 4.2mb
Windows Media file: 2.9mb

To further that goal, President Bush has asked for $114 million in fiscal 2007 to support the teaching of “critical” languages, which include Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian, at both the K-12 and university levels. Of that amount, only $24 million would be devoted to K-16 model programs to develop a pipeline of fluent speakers, according to Ms. Peyton.

Not much else, meanwhile, has happened at the national or state level to support public schools in helping heritage speakers develop high-level proficiency in their home languages.

“We don’t have the structures,” Ms. Peyton said. “We don’t have the teachers and the materials, the curriculum, to teach the [heritage] students according to where they are in terms of language and culture.”

There are, of course, scattered attempts across the country to enhance the skills of heritage speakers. For example, the Center for Applied Linguistics, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, runs a program in which native adult speakers of critical languages study English intensively, with the goal of becoming fully bilingual and landing jobs in government, business, or industry.

Six states—Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—specify that students can earn credit in a foreign language by demonstrating proficiency. Such provisions can benefit heritage speakers who learn languages outside of school. Twenty-six other states permit students to earn credit in some subjects by demonstrating proficiency, though they don’t single out foreign languages.

The College Board plans to implement Advanced Placement language and culture courses and exams in Chinese and Japanese next school year, and is also designing a Russian course and exam. But it has no similar plans for Arabic.

Fordson High teacher Nabila Hammami reviews Arabic translations with students.

In public primary and secondary schools, growing but still limited efforts are taking place to recognize and improve the language skills of heritage speakers.

Some schools around the country now offer a Spanish for Native Speakers course, which teaches literacy more than conversational skills. They do so at a time when the number of students who took the AP Spanish-language test and said they hear or speak Spanish at home more than doubled—from 17,803 to 41,442—from 2000 to 2005. Heritage speakers of Spanish who took the AP Spanish-literature test, which is much more difficult, grew from 3,853 to 9,062 during the same period.

Keeping the Doors Open

The Arabic program here in the Dearborn district illustrates some of the challenges public schools face in improving the proficiency of heritage speakers.

Dearborn public schools provide classes in Modern Standard Arabic to about 870 students, enrolling more in Arabic than any other district in the United States. But educators here say budget restrictions and policies that don’t emphasize the teaching of foreign languages make it hard to turn out students who are truly bilingual.

Student Voices at Fordson High

Sixteen-year-old Bidour Albiraihy has studied Arabic for six years in public schools. She moved from Iraq to the United States when she was 5. The sophomore always speaks the Iraqi dialect of Arabic with her parents, but can understand almost all dialects of the language. Ms. Albiraihy first learned to read and write Arabic in 5th grade, when she started taking Arabic at Dearborn Academy, a charter school. Listen to an interview with students Bidour Albiraihy and Riehab Omar:
Windows Media file: 0.65mb : MP3 file: 3.93mb

“People understand the need, but there aren’t the dollars,” said Kathleen McBroom, the teacher-leader for foreign-language classes in the Dearborn district. “We barely have the money to keep the doors [to such classes] open as it is.”

In her view, Dearborn schools could justify more language classes, including Arabic, if the state required all students to study a foreign language. The Michigan legislature is considering such a bill. In addition, Ms. McBroom would like the state to offer certification for Arabic teachers, which isn’t available now.

“It’s finances, tradition, and policy” that keep Dearborn public schools from expanding its foreign-language offerings, said Cheryl Delaney Kreger, the associate superintendent of the district, who oversees curriculum and instruction.

She said the picture in Dearborn schools would possibly change if the United States had a national curriculum requiring children to study foreign languages or if the No Child Left Behind Act emphasized the study of foreign tongues.

As it is, she said, “anything optional is going to fall by the wayside in lieu of core subjects that have to be tested.”

Mahmoud N. Hussein, the Arabic teacher at Lowrey School, a Dearborn middle school, says the community has the human resources to establish a comprehensive Arabic program from kindergarten through college. But so far, he contends, it hasn’t had the political will to do so.

In Demand

Henry Ford recruited Lebanese to Dearborn to work in his automobile factories as early as the 1920s, but by the 1970s, the Arab-American community here still wasn’t big, say longtime residents. Waves of immigration from the Arab world in recent decades have inspired a revival of Arab culture and language in this city of 95,000, however.

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In downtown Dearborn, signs on restaurants, sweet shops, family-run businesses, and charities are written in Arabic as well as English. Last year, the city opened the Arab American National Museum, which features the contributions to U.S. society of such Arab-Americans as the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the journalist Helen Thomas, and John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush. Kibbee—a Lebanese dish of sautéed lamb baked between cracked-wheat layers—is a popular restaurant entrée, and gift boxes of baklava are readily available in bakeries here.

Fordson High School started offering Arabic classes in the 1980s, after a group of Arab-American teachers and parents pushed for them, according to Wafa Shuraydi, the head of bilingual education at Fordson and a Lebanese-American who graduated from the school in 1979.

Junior Zeinab Hojeij works on an assignment.

Fordson High is the top school in a feeder system that offers the strongest thread for Arabic study. Students learn Arabic in kindergarten through 5th grade at Becker Elementary, can study the language in two of three grades at Lowrey School, and then take more-advanced levels at Fordson. At all three, more than 90 percent of students are of Arab descent.

Nada Dakroub Fouani, a Lebanese-American, brought back the teaching of Arabic at the elementary school level when Becker discontinued an Arabic-English two-way immersion program in the 2001-02 school year after a federal grant for the program ran out. When Ms. Fouani became the principal of Becker Elementary two years later, she set up a program in which all the school’s 260 pupils take Arabic for at least two 40-minute periods a week. In the two-way program, students had been taught half their subjects in English and half in Arabic.

Even if Ms. Fouani’s school had the money to re-establish the two-way immersion program, it would be hard given the 90-minute reading-block requirement of the federal Reading First program that Becker participates in, Ms. Fouani said. The Dearborn district is operating under the assumption that instruction must be in English.

Double the Number

Lowrey School offers Arabic as an elective for 7th and 8th graders. But Principal Samir Makki said he could double from 50 to 100 the number of students studying the subject there if the district would pay for another foreign-language teacher. He would also like to see the language offered in 6th grade.

Students come into middle school able to speak Arabic, and some can read and write it, said Mr. Makki, a Lebanon native who is fluent in Arabic, English, and French. “Why should we lose that treasure?” he said.

The 2,350-student Fordson High offers four years of courses in Arabic, along with similar offerings in European languages. The lower levels of Arabic fill up quickly. Enough students to make up another class are turned away each fall, estimates Rosa M. Scaramucci, the head of the foreign-language department at Fordson. But enrollment drops off significantly between the first and fourth years of study. Only 14 students are taking Fordson’s most advanced Arabic class.

Niyaz Chahine helps Becker kindergartner Kasem Chami with an Arabic writing exercise.

Yet five students tested out of the top level last fall, according to Ms. Scaramucci. “What I’d like to do is add an additional advanced Arabic-literature course and a separate advanced composition course for students who have the ability to test out of all four years and would like to pursue Arabic in college,” she said. Ms. Scaramucci said she has recommended that arrangement numerous times both at the school and district levels, but nothing has come out of it.

When students finish four years of Arabic at Fordson, they can read short articles in the language, said Nabila Hammami, one of two Arabic teachers there.

Almost all the students studying Arabic as a foreign language in Dearborn schools speak a dialect of Arabic at home, but their skills in Modern Standard Arabic are all over the map.

Mr. Hussein at Lowrey School says the most challenging aspect of teaching heritage speakers is reaching the different levels.

In a recent Arabic class of 8th graders, he sweeps his hand through the air to encompass about half his 18 students and says, “This side here recognizes the alphabet, and they are trying to put sentences together.” Then he gestures to the rest of his students and says, “This group is new to Arabic. They can understand some dialogue.”

Mr. Hussein says the Arabic program in Dearborn could be improved if Arabic were taught at all the district’s elementary schools and if the study of a foreign language were made a part of the core curriculum, not an elective, at the elementary and middle levels.

“I was raised in Lebanon. I had to learn French. I couldn’t pass to another class until I spoke French,” he said.

Mistrust of Government

Arab-Americans in Dearborn are well aware of the U.S. government’s need for employees who are fluent in Arabic and English, but they are of mixed minds about filling that need.

Ms. Shuraydi, the bilingual education head at Fordson, says 10 of her former students have worked or are working as translators for the U.S. government in Iraq. Those students, all recent immigrants to the United States, don’t have as many job options as their counterparts from families that have lived in Dearborn for a long time, she said. The heritage speakers who take Arabic as an elective at Fordson “have more opportunities to go to college or get a scholarship,” Ms. Shuraydi said.

Only a small percentage of Arab-Americans will work for the federal government because of a lack of trust in U.S. foreign policy, according to Mr. Hussein, the Arabic teacher at Lowrey. “They will work for companies,” he said, “but not for the government.”

Most students in the elective Arabic classes say they are studying the language to speak better with family members or because they want to communicate with people in Dearborn in future careers, such as medicine, dentistry, or social work.

“My whole family knows how to speak Arabic. Sometimes, I have problems speaking with them,” said Hussien Raychouni, an 11th grader who is taking the most challenging Arabic class offered at Fordson.

First grader Ali Tohme searches in the coat closet of this classroom at Becker Elementary School for the folder containing his Arabic work before the start of the 40-minute language lesson.

His cousin occasionally teases him if he makes a mistake in Arabic. Mr. Raychouni said he wants to be able to speak his family’s language well.

Students make distinctions when asked if they’d be willing to use Arabic to work for the U.S. government.

“I would like to stay here in the United States and maybe help the government. They may need people in research,” said 17-year-old Mohamad Abdallah, who is also taking the most advanced Arabic class at Fordson High. The 11th grader said he would consider working in diplomacy for the government, but not to support a war. “No war, please,” he said.

Ms. Albiraihy, the young woman who immigrated to the United States from Iraq when she was 5, said she has two brothers and a cousin who are translators for the U.S. government in Iraq, but she’d only be willing to work for the government as a translator if she could stay on American soil.

Regardless of their future occupations, students said Fordson High should provide higher-level classes in Arabic.

Fifteen-year-old Ghadear Shukr, the American-born daughter of Lebanese immigrants, for instance, was placed in the most advanced Arabic class at Fordson this school year after testing out of three years’ worth of Arabic classes. She plans to study the language in college, but will be left with a gap in her studies in the public high school.

“Here I am a freshman,” she said, “and it’s my first and last year of Arabic.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Heritage Speakers’: Loss of a Treasure?


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