Arabic Offerings Rare in Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — May 26, 2004 8 min read
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Since terrorists from Arab countries attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has been desperately seeking to hire Arabic speakers. But even now, more than 2½ years later, the nation has only a small pool of students who are seriously studying the language.

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View the accompanying table, “Teaching Arabic.”

“The government is saying through every channel it can possibly say it through, ‘We need people who know Arabic,’” said Roger Allen, a professor of Arabic and comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Yet only a smattering of public elementary and secondary schools across the country—perhaps no more than two dozen—teach the language as part of the regular curriculum. And while enrollment in Arabic classes at the college level nearly doubled from 1998 to 2002, from 5,505 to 10,584 students, Arabic is still one of the nation’s least commonly studied languages of those spoken worldwide, according to the Modern Language Association.

Some Arabic teachers question the depth of the federal government’s interest in the preparation of people to speak the language and whether even the present level of interest will be sustained.

If the U.S. government really wanted to increase the number of Arabic speakers, argues Ahmed Elghotni, a native of Egypt and an American citizen, it would provide more grants for programs such as the one he runs at North Atlanta High School.

In his 18 years of teaching Arabic at the Georgia school, Mr. Elghotni has produced students who have landed top scores on the Arabic test of the International Baccalaureate program. He’s also shown he can increase the number who sign up for the courses and perform well on the test if given a little extra money to send some students to U.S.-based summer language institutes and abroad for a few weeks.

But in almost two decades, North Atlanta High’s Arabic program has received such funding—seed money from the U.S. Department of Defense—only once, and it lasted only two years. With 45 students enrolled, the program now has fewer students than it did five years ago, when it peaked at 106. “You cannot build a program in two years,” Mr. Elghotni said. “I distrust the seriousness of the continuity for [Arabic].”

Some language experts say that cultural issues explain why few public schools offer Arabic, or most other languages as well.

“This is the most devoutly monolinguistic nation in the world,” maintained Mr. Allen, who is British-American. “If you are talking high school, you are talking about a country that teaches Spanish and rather little else. This shows a massive national lack of imagination and or interest in anything but the Americas or Americans.”

Arabic Teachers’ Network

At the same time, the U.S. government is paying for efforts that some believe might have a lasting influence on the teaching of Arabic at the K-12 level.

For example, the Center for Applied Linguistics was awarded a three-year grant of $305,000 last fall from the U.S. Department of Education to set up a network for precollegiate Arabic teachers.

Dora E. Johnson, a program associate for the Washington-based center, said it’s not clear if the number of Arabic programs in public schools is increasing. Her organization has identified 15 such schools. Education Week turned up another eight, for a total of 23 public schools that are known to be teaching the languageabout the same number that a federally sponsored survey found in 1991.

The Education Department runs a $16 million annual grant program for foreign-language assistance. It has favored Arabic along with Russian and Chinese in its past two cycles. But that preference translated into grants to only four school systems or schools for Arabic classes, totaling $510,000, for fiscal 2003 and 2004.

Some Arabic educators began this year to write the first-ever national standards for what Arabic teachers should know and what students should learn in their classes at the K-16 level. The work is being paid for by the Language Collaborative Group, an umbrella organization of foreign-language teachers’ associations.

Wafaa Makki, a native Arabic speaker from Lebanon and the principal of DuVall Elementary School in Dearborn, Mich., said she interprets the new funding for such efforts as a sign that the teaching of Arabic in elementary and secondary schools is getting a little more attention on the national level than it once did.

“After 9/11, more attention is given to it, unfortunately because of the safety issue,” she said.

Students should also study Arabic, she added, to increase understanding between the United States and the Middle East.

“Maybe there will be bridges built,” she said. “If you know the language and something about the culture, you will be the first one hired to go to those places.”

Imad Fadlallah, a Lebanese-American who is the principal of Stout Middle School in Dearborn, argued that Arabic programs should be started in public schools only to promote cultural understanding.

“If the motive is to get a job with the FBI or CIA and pick up a phone and listen to what’s going on, I don’t think this should be the motive of learning Arabic,” said Mr. Fadlallah, a native speaker of the language. “If learning Arabic is for the sake of understanding that part of the world and being a fair broker in what’s going on, by all means we can do that.”

Religious Understanding

Mr. Elghotni teaches four Arabic classes at North Atlanta High, part of the 51,000-student Atlanta district, with differing levels of difficulty. The students come from varied backgrounds.

Some are immigrants or second-generation Americans. Others are African-American. About a third who take Arabic at North Atlanta are Muslim. Three of the five students in Mr. Elghotni’s Arabic 3 class say they are taking the course so they can better understand their religion, Islam. The Quran is written in Arabic, and Muslims believe it should be read in that language.

But Porcia Morton, an 11th grader who is not Muslim, said she signed up for Arabic because she wanted to study a language that was different from the French or Spanish that most of her peers were studying.

Shamima Begum, a Muslim who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh four years ago, learned to read Arabic as a child. Ms. Begum said she’s studying Arabic in high school because “I want to know more about other countries.”

Zein Baghdadi is the only student in the class who has Arabic-speaking parents. Mr. Baghdadi was born in the United States, but his father is from Lebanon and his mother is Syrian. A Muslim, the 11th grader is studying Arabic for religious reasons as well as to be able to read the language well and speak properly.

The two others in the class who said they are studying Arabic to understand their faith better are members of Atlanta’s African-American Muslim community.

Even in this advanced class at North Atlanta High, students have acquired only a rudimentary command of Modern Standard Arabic, the kind that is used in the news media and in business in the Arabic-speaking world.

Language experts say that it’s best for people to start studying Arabic as young as possible because it is a difficult language to learn. The students struggle, for instance, to translate into Arabic the following sentence: “I went to Emory University last year.”

The high school students can read simple sentences and lists of vocabulary words out of their textbooks, which were written for college students.

In a recent class, Mr. Elghotni led them through drills of verb conjugations and called on students individually to compose full sentences using a particular verb. The students seemed eager to form sentences, and they chuckled at their pronunciation or grammar mistakes.

Richard Marcus said his four years of Arabic at North Atlanta High served him well. He tested out of a level of the language at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is a sophomore majoring in Arabic and economics.

Teacher Shortage

Some educators say their schools are struggling to maintain Arabic programs because of a lack of enrollment. Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, for instance, began a program last school year, but has already opted to teach beginning Arabic only every other year because of low turnout.

Finding Arabic teachers certified at the K-12 level can also be an obstacle. That’s the case at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, where the Muslim students’ association has helped raise $15,000 to launch an Arabic program. Rolf M. Schwagermann, the assistant principal supervising foreign languages for Stuyvesant, said, “We want to run the class, but I cannot find a qualified teacher at this point.”

It’s no coincidence that the school system with the most students enrolled in Arabic classes is in Dearborn, Mich. The 17,600-student Dearborn district is located in the greater Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest community of Arab- Americans. Six public schools in the district offer Arabic, with 1,000 students participating.

Arabic is also offered in some schools with little ethnic diversity, such as at Green High School in Green, Ohio, whose 1,400 students are almost all whites of European descent.

Learning Arabic, said Faith I. Andrus, the teacher who started the program there, opened her eyes to how much of what is taught by U.S. public schools is from “a Eurocentric point of view.”

Besides teaching her students a new language, she says she’s also teaching them cultural knowledge about Arabic-speaking countries.

“My students—I hope nicely—will correct teachers or other students when they say things such as that all Muslims are Arabs, or vice versa,” she said.

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 26, 2004 edition of Education Week as Arabic Offerings Rare in Schools


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