Arabic makes surprising gains in US classrooms
New York - Some Americans are fearful of Arabic. Airline passengers have raised alarms upon hearing the language spoken. Anxious parents have rallied outside schools that teach Arabic to youngsters, even if it is just showing examples of its calligraphic script.
It is surprising, then, that Arabic has made remarkable gains in the United States in recent years. Students, would-be diplomats and budding entrepreneurs have joined a growing number of Americans who speak or are studying the Middle East’s major language.
“Some Americans study Arabic to get jobs in business and diplomacy but many just want to learn about a unique culture,” said Mahmoud al-Batal, a Lebanese-American professor of Arabic at the University of Texas at Austin.
“They are not dissuaded by media outlets that tend to only report on the latest car bomb blasts in Middle Eastern cities. They want to learn about and understand the Arabic culture and its language for themselves.”
According to the Modern Language Association, whose membership includes foreign language professors and scholars, the number of US college students enrolled in Arabic courses tripled to more than 32,000 from 2002-13. Analysts point to an interest in the Middle East following the 9/11 attacks.
The next growth area for Arabic is among younger learners, with dozens of school programmes in large US cities and rural areas, Batal said. Arabic teachers, many of whom were trained thanks to government funds made available after 9/11, are trickling into classrooms.
At Mary White Ovington School in New York, Arabic teachers explain the 28-letter cursive alphabet to children from a mixed community of Arab-Americans, Asians, Latinos and white families.
They aim for truly bilingual students by teaching the immersion method: Each class is split evenly between pupils who speak Arabic at home and those who use English, Spanish or another language. Half the curriculum is taught in Arabic and half in English.
Merilla Deeb, a Lebanese-American teacher, said the school steers clear of controversy to avert protests that hamper Arabic teaching elsewhere. “There’s no politics, no religion in our classrooms,” she said.
Arabic teachers can have a hard time. An entire Virginia school district was closed in December after a backlash against a lesson in which students were asked to write the Shahada, the Muslim oath of faith, in Arabic calligraphy.
When the Khalil Gibran International Academy opened in New York in 2007 with plans to teach Arabic, demonstrators decried the “Madrassa in Brooklyn”. The school has struggled to entice enough teachers and Arab-American students.
An upstate New York school received complaints in 2015 after a student recited the US Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic. In August, locals rallied outside an Arabic immersion magnet school in Texas, denouncing Islam and the 9/11 attacks.
Protesters also blasted the Qatar Foundation International (QFI), a government-backed charity that spends $2 million-$5 million a year on Arabic classes in US schools, including those in Texas and Bay Ridge.
“Our programmes have faced some criticism but typically from conservative right-wing bloggers who object as soon as they hear the word Arabic,” said QFI spokeswoman Sara al-Hemaidi.
“One of our goals is to make the teaching of Arabic and Arab culture more mainstream and to tackle the kind of stereotypes and misrepresentations that are all too common.”
Less than 1% of students study Arabic at America’s 33 million elementary schools but the number has grown rapidly in the past 15 years and scores of new courses were launched from 2006-11, according to a QFI study.
Growth is happening elsewhere. Census data reveal Arabic as the fastest-growing language in the United States overall, with 29% growth from 2010 to 2014. There are 1.1 million Arabic speakers in a country of 323 million people.
These numbers may be incomplete, because census researchers count few undocumented Hispanics, so Spanish could be underreported. Nevertheless, Arabic has made impressive gains despite widely reported hostility towards Islam, the Middle East and its people.
This trend may be short-lived, however. Students flocked to Russian classes during the Cold War and studied Japanese during the 1980s boom. Both languages have since become less popular with American students. Arabic learning may similarly slow as the strategic value of the Middle East and its hydrocarbon reserves diminishes.