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Arabic Instruction on Rise in U.S. Schools Since 9/11

In exploring changes in the classroom since the 9/11 attacks occurred a decade ago, one notable development is growth in the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language. To be clear, it's still rare in comparison with most other languages, but the study of Arabic has been gaining ground in U.S. schools, in part with federal assistance.

I reported on this development in a recent story pegged to the 9/11 anniversary, but wanted to expand on the topic here. (With the anniversary only days away, I've been blogging on issues connected to 9/11, whether directly or indirectly.)

In my story, I featured a Chicago public school, the Lindblom Math & Science Academy, which offers only Chinese and Arabic. Most students there take Chinese, but about 200 are in the Arabic classes, the principal Alan Mather told me. Like others, he emphasized that, as with any language instruction, learning a language invariably also includes some cultural issues as well.

When parents ask him about why the school offers Arabic, he explains: "We're heavily involved in the Middle East and North Africa. The more we understand about the language and culture, the better off we're all going to be."

Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there is no current national data on how widespread K-12 instruction in Arabic is in U.S. schools. But several experts assure me that it is growing. And they do see a connection between that increase and the events of 9/11, both because of heightened interest among educators and students in better understanding the Arab world and language and because of the launch by President George W. Bush of the National Security Language Initiative in 2006. (More on that in a moment.)

The most recent national survey data I could find was from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Data on public schools collected for that survey suggested that Arabic instruction in public schools nearly tripled between the 2004-05 year and 2007-08, to almost 2,400 students studying the language. Those figures, however, pale in comparison with the 60,000 who were reported as studying Chinese and the millions studying Spanish.

Meanwhile, as of November 2009, one list counted 93 public schools (in 22 states) and 220 private schools teaching Arabic, according to data compiled by the National Capital Language Resource Center at George Washington University in Washington.

I did find a few samples of more recent state and district data. For example, nearly 1,000 students took Arabic at the elementary and secondary levels as of the last academic year in the 178,000-student Fairfax County district in northern Virginia. In Utah, about 450 students take Arabic across nine public schools.

Paula M. Patrick, the world-languages coordinator for the Fairfax school system, said Arabic was first offered in her district in the late 1990s, but it's grown rapidly in the past several years. More than half of those students come from two elementary schools where Arabic is taught to all children. She said the district relied upon surveys of local families to decide which language to offer. (The district offers elementary instruction in seven languages in all, including Chinese, German, and Spanish.)

Dora Johnson, an expert on teaching foreign languages who previously worked at the Center for Applied Linguistics, said she knows of examples all over the country. She estimates that at least a dozen Chicago public schools teach Arabic. (The district never responded to my request to get a full count.) She also pointed to examples in Boston; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Charleston, S.C., and Atlanta, among others. Maryland, as part of its federal Race to the Top plan, is also working to develop Arabic programs in local schools.

Another prime example, Johnson said, is Dearborn, Mich., however, this is something of an exception, she said, since most of the students taking the language there are "heritage" speakers of Arabic descent. They often can speak the language but cannot write it. (In Fairfax County, too, about 60 percent of the students studying Arabic last year were heritage speakers, Patrick said, but most of the recent growth is among students who are not heritage speakers.)

President Bush singled out the teaching of Arabic for emphasis when he announced the National Security Language Initiative in 2006, a multiagency undertaking to promote the teaching of "critical need" languages. In his speech, he invoked the war on terror and the nation's needs in defense, intelligence-gathering, and diplomacy. He especially dwelled on the last point.

"In order to convince people that we care about them," he said of those in the Arab world, "we've got to understand their culture. ... I mean, somebody takes time to figure out how to speak Arabic, it means they're interested in somebody else's culture."

He added: "It really is a fundamental way to reach out to somebody and say, I care about you, I want you to know that I'm interested in not only how you talk but how you live."

Experts say one challenge in expanding Arabic instruction in U.S. schools is finding certified teachers. But that is beginning to change. In fact, at least two universities—Boston University and Michigan State University—this fall for the first time are offering new teacher-certification programs in Arabic at the secondary level.

"We are one of the few places" that offer the certification, said Wafa N. Hassan, the outreach director for the Arabic program at Michigan State University.

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