Defying prejudice, more Americans learn Arabic

The Middle Eastern language fares surprisingly well in the US as more students attempt to master it.

[James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
On World Arabic Day this December 18, Al Jazeera found Arabic is a surprisingly popular language in the US [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

New York, United States – Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric tells one story about the modern day US. But, students painstakingly learning Arabic’s right-to-left script in classrooms across the country tells another.

While fewer Americans speak Arabic than English, Spanish, Chinese or even Tagalog, it is perhaps the nation’s fastest-growing language and is increasingly being studied in kindergartens and colleges from the boondocks to big cities.

“Some people study Arabic for professional reasons or to get a government job, but most are the true Americans who are open to other cultures,” Mahmoud al-Batal, a Lebanese-American Arabic professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told Al Jazeera.

“They are not convinced by what Donald Trump tells them or by the two-minute media reports of car bomb explosions they see on the news. They want to understand the culture and language for themselves.”

According to the Modern Language Association, the number of students enrolled in Arabic college courses tripled to more than 32,000 from 2002 to 2013. Analysts point to a spotlight on the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks.

College enrolments slumped slightly after US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, said al-Batal. Also, the chaos following the Arab Spring in such Arabic-learning hotspots as Syria and Egypt made it riskier for Americans to set up study trips.

Language immersion

The “new frontier” in Arabic tuition is school-age learners, with scores of programmes launching over the past five years, he added. Arabic teachers trained with post-9/11 government funding are trickling into classrooms.

Al Jazeera visited one such centre, Mary White Ovington School in Bay Ridge, a waterfront Arab-American area of New York where Middle Eastern immigrants mix with Asians, Latinos and white families.

There were no signs of unease in classrooms, where children from Arab and other backgrounds read aloud from Arabic story books, scrawled cursive script and chatted about kebabs, humus and other Middle Eastern snacks.

Each class of 25 pupils is evenly split between children who speak Arabic at home and those who use English, Spanish or another tongue. Aimed at creating bilingual pupils, half the curriculum is taught in English, the other half in Arabic.

Merilla Deeb, a Lebanese-American teacher, said the school has avoided the protests that have dogged Arabic tuition in other places with a rigorous, academic style that steers clear of touchy subjects.

“We stay away from politics, we stay away from religion,” Deeb told Al Jazeera.

“We immerse our kids in the language by teaching mathematics, science and social studies lessons in Arabic. Classes are fun, with lots of activities, and the students get out there and speak with their friends in Arabic.”

Tough learning

Arabic teachers have it tougher elsewhere.

When Khalil Gibran International Academy opened a few kilometres away in 2007, protesters at the gates decried the “Madrassa in Brooklyn”. It has since struggled to attract enough teachers and Arab-American pupils.

In March, an upstate New York school received complaints after a student recited the US Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic. In August, locals rallied at the new Arabic Immersion Magnet School in Houston,Texas, decrying Arabic, Islam and the 9/11 attacks.

One protest sign read: “Qatar out of our school,” in reference to Qatar Foundation International (QFI), a state-backed charity that spends between $2m to $5m each year on Arabic classes in 19 US schools, including those in Bay Ridge and Houston.

“We’ve seen criticisms of our programmes, but they tend to appear on private blogs of right-wing conservatives who just hear the word Arabic and object,” QFI spokeswoman Sara al-Hemaidi told Al Jazeera.

“One of our goals is to normalise and mainstream the teaching of Arabic and Arab culture and tackle stereotypes and misrepresentations.”

School Arabic programmes are centred on Arab-American populations and cosmopolitan, urban areas. They only reach one percent of pupils at the US’s 33 million elementary schools, leaving room for growth.

“Arabic is listed as a critical language by the US State Department and is useful for jobs in business, engineering, development, academia and diplomacy,” Carine Allaf, who runs QFI’s schools programme, told Al Jazeera.

“Most of our students are non-heritage, non-Arab children, although we do see an uptick in the number of Arab-American and heritage families who want their children to hold on to their roots.”


The students come from all walks of life.

Coumba Gueye, 17, started learning Arabic at Washington Latin Public Charter School, a QFI-backed school in the capital, four years ago and recalls her first two-year slog through the 28-letter alphabet, tricky grammar and pronunciation subtleties.

It paid off. She won a scholarship to George Washington University and plans to join a charity or the US State Department after graduating. She tested her speaking skills during a debate-team visit to Qatar last year.

“Learning Arabic demystified the Middle East for me. Contrary to popular belief, it is inclusive, welcoming, and more similar to America than people think,” Gueye told Al Jazeera. “A teenage girl in Doha has almost the same likes, interests and desires as one here.”

Other learners are less conventional. William Scannell, 10, launched into Arabic after a family trip to the Holy Land four years ago. There are no Arabic classes where he lives in Anchorage, Alaska, so he studies online and at summer camps.

“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” his dad, Bill, told Al Jazeera.

Scannell is now an intermediate-level speaker who reads Arabic translations of Harry Potter books for fun. He launched a postcard-writing charity to raise the spirits of displaced Syrians and chats regularly, in Arabic, with refugees in Lebanon via Skype.

“Inquisitive kids will always find something to do, but Arabic has been the vector. He connected the dots between a foreign language and an international community, reaching out across the world to communicate with people,” added his dad.

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According to Mouna Mana, an Algerian-American expert in Arabic teaching, more students like Gueye and Scannell – with decent skills and experience in the Middle East – are a challenge for US universities, which are used to teaching Arabic to newbies.

They often want to study regional dialects, rather than the modern standard Arabic on offer. “It makes you sound like a highly-educated person who won’t get off their high horse and speak the language of the street,” Mana told Al Jazeera.

Fastest growing language?

It is not only growing in US schools. According to census data, Arabic was the fastest-growing language in the US overall, with a 29 percent rise of 252,000 speakers from 2010 to 2014. There are 1.1 million Arabic speakers in the nation of 319 million people.

Mana doubts these numbers. US census data counts few undocumented Hispanics, so Spanish could be a faster-growing tongue. Nevertheless, Arabic makes gains despite widely-reported hostility towards Islam, the Middle East and its people.

Arabic’s current popularity may be fleeting. Students packed into Russian courses during the Cold War, and took up Japanese during the booming 1980s. Arabic learning may similarly slow as its geostrategic value declines. It is already far outpaced by Chinese.

For Kristen Brustad, an Arabic professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Muslim-bashing by Trump after this month’s killing of 14 people by a Muslim couple in San Bernardino, California, could hurt Arabic learning more immediately.

“What we’re seeing now is worse than after 9/11. There’ll be more protests against teaching Arabic and reactions by Americans to burn the books and get it out of schools,” Brustad told Al Jazeera.

“Arabic teaching has been mainstreamed. I just hope that this latest wave of insanity doesn’t turn the tide on that.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera