Want to do something patriotic? Learn Arabic.
Roosevelt High School sophomore Nasro Mahamud loves how Arabic is written, practicing its calligraphy, and its religious importance. Arabic, the language of the Koran, has always been important for Mahamud, a Muslim.
ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.
That’s why Mahamud has been taking Arabic since second grade, and is in Arabic language class this year at Roosevelt, she said.
The Minneapolis Public School district is using federal funding from a 2008 grant from the Foreign Language Assistance Program for new K-12 Arabic and Chinese classes. But it has nothing to do with religion.
The grant is available to public schools because the government, as far back as the mid 1990s, identified certain language as being critical for American students to learn, like Arabic.
“Arabic and Chinese have always been … official languages of the (United Nations), but (America) had very few people who spoke them,” Berg said.
To help America’s competitiveness and diplomacy in the future, the government began the FLAP program in 1988. It aims to increase American students’ knowledge of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Indic, Persian, and Turkic languages, according to program.
“Two years [of language study] doesn’t really make you a functional speaker of the language. So in order to raise proficiency in languages like Chinese and Arabic, which are difficult to learn, [the district] sought grant proposals that would promote long sequences of learning in these languages, meaning that [students] would start in elementary school and continue through high school,” said Gaelle Berg, the district’s World Languages Consultant.
In 1998, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Arabic classes were offered in public middle schools in Minneapolis through a previous grant from the same program. These classes didn’t replace languages like French and Spanish, but were offered along with them.
Berg said a big part of developing K-12 Arabic classes has been creating curriculum and training teachers in Chinese and Arabic. There aren’t many Chinese and Arabic teachers, she said, and most curriculums that existed for Arabic were for Arabic speakers – like English class for English speakers.
Berg said 455 students take Arabic language classes at Roosevelt High School, Sanford Middle School, and Lyndale Elementary School. The classes started with 260 students enrolled. FLAP awarded Minneapolis Public Schools a five-year grant of almost $1.5 million for the classes.
The classes won’t expand to other Minneapolis schools, Berg said, because the interest right now is to make sure the K-12 programs establish firm roots.
“Right now our focus is to establish Arabic as a sustainable program,” Berg said.
Arabic is the fourth most-spoken language in the world with 221 million people who speak it as their first language in 57 countries, according to “Ethnologue: Languages of the World.” Its number of speakers places Arabic right behind English.
Thomas Belt teaches Arabic at Sanford and Roosevelt. All but one of his students this year are Muslim, he said, which Belt said he thinks is because Arabic is more difficult to learn than French and Spanish. Plus, most high school students have already committed to a language before getting to Roosevelt and likely don’t want to switch, he said.
Berg said classes at Sanford Middle and Lyndale Elementary are much more diverse; students are Latino, white, from French-speaking African countries and more. Previously at Roosevelt, Arabic classes had a more diverse range of students, she said. The reason Mr. Belt’s class is made up of predominantly East African students reflects Roosevelt’s student population, she said.
Berg said classes use cultural lessons to make learning the language more interesting. For example, a teacher may spend time talking about Arabic’s influence on mathematics. Belt said his students at Sanford all want to know who the “hot” musical starts are of the Middle East.
As a part of classes, students get to see Arabic folk dancers, calligraphers, painters, and more.
Belt, who lived in Lebanon for a number of years, believes that it’s important to learn Arabic since many immigrants in the Twin Cities speak Arabic, like some Somalis. Learning about different languages and cultures opens a person’s mind up to the world around them, he said.
“Languages are more than just a word you use to catch a taxi,” Belt said. “The utility of language isn’t just in speaking the language itself, but in building relationships with people of other cultures.”