Rise of Arabic in US speaks volumes for war on Terror

By Betty LiuPublished: February 17 2004 4:00 |

Last Updated: February 17 2004 4:00


Last week, school officialsin an Atlanta suburb

approved the creation of a new elementary school

that,among other things, will require pupils to learn


While the news barely registered on the national

radar, its passage has excited foreign language

educators as further proof that Arabic, a language few

Americans have any knowledge of, is worthy of

attention. Amana Academy, which opens in August, will

be the first publicly funded elementary school in the

US requiring students to learn Arabic.

For decades, foreign language study has reflected US

immigration trends and the nation's view of the world

at large - German and Italian were first introduced to

schools after a rush of European immigrants arrived at

the turn of the twentieth century; Russian gained

popularity shortly after Sputnik, the first artificial

satellite, orbited the earth in 1957; and Japanese

learning leaped during the country's economic rise in

the 1980s. For Arabic, it has been the events of

September 11 2001, the "war on terror" and war in Iraq

that account for rising interest in the language.

According to the Modern Language Association, the

number of university students enrolled in Arabic

courses doubled from 1998 to 2002, to 10,584 students.

"We always have these waves of foreign language study

in the American educational arena," says Muhammad

Eissa, a former Arabic professor and educational

consultant to secondary and elementary schools. "There

was once such a demand for Japanese in college that

they had to expand classrooms and hire lots of

teachers in a short period of time - everyone wanted a

piece of the pie. You have these surges and then they

fade out again."

According to the founders of Amana Academy, white

Christians, African- Americans and Asians in the

community have all joined Arab-Americans in

championing the study of Arabic. "Less than a quarter

of the student population will be Arabs," predicts

Ehab Jaleel, a Jordanian-American parent who helped

establish the school. "We've been able to rally

parents to go to board meetings and say 'This is

something I want my kids to learn'. If my kids can

learn Spanish, French and Japanese, why not Arabic?"

Only a couple of people have asked if there is really

a need for this, he adds.

The US government - the largest employer of foreign

language speakers - still suffers from a shortage of

Arabic speakers in its operations against terrorism

and in Iraq. The Central Intelligence Agency has been

on a recruitment drive for Arabic speakers since last

year; the State Department employs fewer than 60

fluent Arabic speakers, and is likely to need hundreds

more in the next few years. The dearth brings about a

comedy of tragedies: a US army using an assemblage of

Arab "convenience store owners and cab drivers" for

intelligence operations, according to one of the

army's own reports; few Americans on Arab television

able to argue the US viewpoint effectively; American

troops on patrol in Iraq communicating with hand

gestures and rudimentary Arabic.

It was only in 2002 that the Department of Education

established the National Middle East Language Resource

Center, at Brigham Young University in Utah, to help

foster Arabic speakers. "I think that our government

has never made it very clear to the general public

that it's important to learn foreign languages," says

Dora Johnson, director of the National Capital

Language Resource Center.

Until now, most students of Arabic in the US have been

Arab-Americans, so-called "heritage students" who

simply want to understand their culture better. With

the recent emphasis on Arabic, the reasons become more

varied - and the potential for misunderstanding is

increased. Antonia Folarin Schleicher, a foreign

language teacher at the University of Wisconsin and

president of the National Council of Less Commonly

Taught Languages, recalls: "I remember one of our

students learning Arabic telling us he wanted to work

for the CIA all the time." Talking to another student

she mentioned that he had "a golden opportunity" to

work for the government. "He said, 'I don't want to

learn Arabic so that I can use my language to kill


Even as the US government seeks more Arabic speakers,

this recruitment is tempered by caution. Last year at

Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where hun suspected terrorists

are in US custody, three translators were arrested on

suspicion of spying. Which is why, perhaps, the

instigators of the Amana Academy have distanced their

school from political origins.

September 11 "had nothing to do with our pursuit", Mr

Jaleel stresses. And as religious education is

forbidden in public schools, there will be no teaching

of Islam. But Mr Jaleel says Arab culture and history

will be a part of the Amana curriculum. This column

appears every Tuesday


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