ATTENTION TURNS TO ARABIC
- ATTENTION TURNS TO ARABIC
Nancy Mitchell, Rocky Mountain News, 4/26/04
Linda Castillo is standing in front of her classmates and singing
about her love for her father, shyly reciting from memory an ancient
poem about paternal devotion.
At least, it sounds like singing. In reality, the freshman at West
High School is speaking rapidly in the gently rolling tones of
Castillo, 15, is one of 22 students wrapping up their first year of
Arabic language classes at the 1,700-student high school near
Arabic is the newest language at the school's Center for
International Studies, where students also study less common language
offerings such as Chinese, Japanese and Russian.
The Colorado Department of Education doesn't track data on foreign-
language classes, but interviews appear to confirm that West is the
only public school in Colorado where Arabic is offered.
Castillo and her classmates, who are learning lessons created daily
by Tunisian-born teacher Neji Sandi, don't have textbooks or a
dictionary. But to them, that isn't what's most important. Dedication
Castillo, like many of her classmates, is a native Spanish speaker
who already has mastered one of the world's most complex languages -
She chose to take Arabic largely because of her Christian background,
she said. She wants someday to visit the places where Jesus walked
and to speak a language similar to what he spoke. But she knew little
about what she was getting into last fall.
"I didn't even know the letters weren't the same," she said about the
English and Arabic alphabets. "But the class is small; you feel
comfortable making a fool of yourself."
Castillo said she is drawn to the metaphors used in Arabic - the word
for "help" literally means "I will give you my hand" - and to its
rhythmic vocal patterns.
"It sounds like somebody singing," she said. "It's beautiful."
A growing interest
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, enrollment in Arabic language
classes at Colorado colleges surged. University of Colorado
officials, for example, reported a waiting list for Arabic 1.
But the only K-12 school in Colorado offering Arabic in recent years
has been Crescent View Academy, a private pre-K-8 Islamic school in
That lack of precollegiate offerings isn't unusual, according to the
National Capital Language Resource Center.
A center survey has counted only 63 K-12 schools in the U.S. that
offer Arabic, with only 16 of those being public schools, including
three charter schools. Most are private Islamic schools such as
But Dora Johnson, project director for the Arabic K-12 Network at the
Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics, said she
believes that the number of such programs is growing.
In part, she credits Sept. 11, 2001, likening its effect to the space
race and World War II - events that caused spikes in Russian and
Japanese language offerings in U.S. schools.
"If you look at history and the teaching of Russian or the teaching
of Japanese, you see some real trends," Johnson said. "An incident
will happen and then suddenly everybody is rushing to learn that
But she also points to pre-Sept. 11 immigration trends. The U.S.
Census Bureau reported that the Arab population in the U.S. nearly
doubled between 1980 and 2000, to nearly 1.2 million.
Many of those immigrants settled in suburbs around Detroit, where
their children now attend eight of the country's 16 public schools
"What happens when you have these larger populations, the demand for
learning the 'heritage language' becomes a little bit more pressing,"
In Colorado, where only 12,588 people identified themselves as being
of Arab ancestry in 2000, the impetus for an Arabic language program
came instead from a bit of leftover grant money and a Peace Corps
stint in the Middle East.
From the ground up
Dan Lutz is familiar with building a language program. The head of
West High's Center for International Studies already has done it at
the school, most recently with Chinese, another less commonly taught
Arabic, though, presented its own particular issues.
Simply finding a teacher delayed the start of the program by a
semester. High school-level textbooks in Arabic are hard to find.
"So far, we haven't found them," Lutz said of the books. So Neji
Sandi, the teacher, "is writing the entire thing," including
objectives and goals for a four-year program.
When complete, it will include four years of Arabic language, a
middle school component, Arabic culture classes and student trips to
the Middle East.
Not that Lutz has much money to spend on his ambitious plan. "We're
doing it on a shoestring," he said.
Some leftover grant money, about $4,500, planted the seed for the
program a year ago. Samba N'Diaye, foreign language supervisor for
Denver Public Schools, called Lutz and asked about interest in
"That was all I needed," said Lutz, who has done Peace Corps work in
Afghanistan and Iran. "I ran all over the school with surveys, 'Who
wants to take Arabic?' "
He found enough interest to begin a class in January 2003, but that
fell through when a teacher wasn't available.
Lutz started talking with members of Denver's Islamic Center and with
Crescent View. He also approached Sandi, who teaches math at the
Community College of Denver. The Center for International Studies
Foundation, which typically helps students with money for overseas
trips, kicked in a matching $4,500 grant.
Lutz estimates it will take four to five years to get the program
fully up and running - if he is able to secure more grant money to
hire Sandi full time.
Salah Hammoud, professor of Arabic at the U.S. Air Force Academy,
said the earlier students can begin their study of the language
spoken by 170 million people from Morocco to Iraq, the better.
"Now, for strategic reasons more than anything, we need to understand
Arabic speakers better," he said, "to understand their cultures
better so we can live with them more peacefully."
In his two classes at West, Sandi mixes grammar and dialogue,
language and culture, humor and encouragement.
"When I first came to America, I didn't speak a word of English, not
a single word," he told a hesitant student in a recent class. "People
laugh when I speak and I laugh with them and we make it like a joke."
Another student asks about the meanings of jihad and hamas, words
often heard on news broadcasts.
"Jihad means struggle; hamas means enthusiasm," he replies.
"Do any of these words mean apocalypse?" the girl persists.
"The language is bigger than that," Sandi says.
For Arabs, he explained later, words are extremely powerful. While
other ancient civilizations - Greeks, Romans - had outlets such as
theater and sculpture, nomadic Arabs had to rely on poetry and
"They had to express all the drama of being with words," Sandi
said. "In Arabic language, one word can kill someone, one word can
bring someone alive, one poem created life."
Since the fall, enrollment in his classes has dropped from 31 to 22.
The students applaud Sandi's effort - he created a vocabulary packet
and produces daily work sheets - but say the lack of textbooks and
dictionaries make it more difficult to learn Arabic.
Also, "This is harder because you're not exposed (to the language),"
said senior Elena Herron, 18, who speaks English and Spanish. "You
can't turn on a TV or flip to a channel and hear Arabic like you can
with Spanish. It makes it more difficult to absorb."
Senior Antonio Acosta, 18, said Arabic is the hardest of the
languages - Spanish, English and Chinese - he has learned.
"In Arabic, there aren't words, there are sounds. It's sounds and
phonetics and really artsy Arabic writing," he said. "Even getting
the size of the writing was kind of hard for me. At the beginning of
the year, I was like a kindergartner writing with a big crayon."
Still, "It's a really beautiful language to speak," he said. "It's
the way you speak it, not the way it's written. It's a very feeling-
mitchelln@... or 303-892-5245
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