A whole new language

Norwell high schoolers among growing number in US to learn Arabic

Megan Cavano (left) and MaryKate Hines tackle an exercise in an Arabic class taught by Rabia Mifdal (rear) at Norwell High School. Megan Cavano (left) and MaryKate Hines tackle an exercise in an Arabic class taught by Rabia Mifdal (rear) at Norwell High School. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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At age 16, Meaghan Lynch has her heart set on becoming quintilingual — but one of those languages presents some unique challenges.

The Norwell High School junior has studied Spanish; at home, she’s teaching herself Italian; her goal after that is to learn one of the Celtic languages (Gaelic or Welsh). And now at school, she’s delving into Arabic.

While many languages share certain characteristics with English, Arabic is “a whole new everything,’’ said Lynch, who is among the first Norwell students to learn the basics of the ancient Middle Eastern language.

In Norwell High’s “Arabic 1,’’ students have to scrap almost everything they’ve been taught: They read from right to left; they abandon the English alphabet; they don’t use textbooks; they practice sounds they’ve often never heard or made before.

Introduced in the fall of 2009, the program is one of just four at the high school level in Massachusetts — with the others at Charlestown High School, Methuen High School, and Boston Arts Acad emy. Still, the initiative represents an accelerated interest in Arabic, which is the language of the Koran and the official language of 22 countries.

“I felt it was a really good opportunity I might never have again,’’ said Norwell High senior Rachel Carrillo, 17, admitting that she knew little about Arab culture before enrolling in the class.

About 30 students have come through the program so far, said teacher Rabia Mifdal, and 13 are enrolled this semester. For now, Norwell offers just one class, which is open to students who have completed their graduation language requirement (three years of Latin, Spanish, or French).

“I’ve always been an advocate for bilingual education,’’ said Mifdal, who grew up speaking multiple languages herself, learning French and Arabic in Morocco before emigrating to the United States more than 20 years ago.

Many of her students, she said, have expressed interest in volunteering or working in Arab countries; some are looking to bolster their skills for business or politics; and others “just love language.’’

Take Lynch, for instance. Going by the Arabic name “Ameena’’ in the classroom, she never realized she had such a knack for, or fascination with, the subtleties of language until she began studying Arabic.

“It suddenly clicked that language was something I wanted to study further,’’ she said from her seat after a recent class.

While that might not be the career path for every student, more are certainly showing an interest in learning the language.

In just a short period of time, the number of students in kindergarten through 12th grade studying Arabic across the country has nearly doubled, from just over 24,400 in 2007 to just about 47,600 in 2009, according to a survey by the National Capital Language Resource Center, a joint project of Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the Center for Applied Linguistics.

“The demand is recent,’’ said Steven Berbeco, who teaches Arabic at Charlestown High School.

And such rapid growth has created some challenges. Most notably, Berbeco said, there has been no published curriculum for high school Arabic programs. To fill the gap, Mifdal, Berbeco, and about two dozen public and private school teachers across the country have been developing a standardized, across-the-board curriculum known as “Marhaba!’’ with the aid of a three-year grant from the US Department of Education.

For the time being, though, “Arabic 1’’ will continue to follow a less formal program.

In making the complicated transition from English to classical Arabic, students begin with an empty notebook and create their own textbook (known as a “daftar’’); adopt Arabic names; do a rotation of quizzes, tests, homework, and projects; and select Arabic-speaking countries to study throughout the year.

It’s slow to start, Mifdal explained — and for good reason. There’s the initial challenge in learning to read, against habit, right to left; then there’s a brand new alphabet with 28 basic letters, along with various other symbols.

As for actually speaking the language, there are several throaty, pharyngeal pronunciations not heard anywhere in English — and not many similar-sounding words to help the process along, Mifdal pointed out.

Because of this, she doesn’t make up vocabulary lists; instead, she relies heavily on visuals, drawings, and vocal repetition.

In a recent Tuesday afternoon class, for instance — after greeting students dressed in hoodies, jerseys, and jeans with an “Ahlan!’’ — the teacher scrawled several images on a white board: triangular buildings, stick figures, smiley faces, hearts.

Over the course of the 57-minute period, the students, seated in pairs in a classroom decorated with European maps and posters of French landscapes, copied the drawings and the elegant Arabic characters into their daftars, and worked out a paragraph, which in English translated to: “In Egypt, men go to the café and drink coffee. There are no women in the café. As for me, I like tea.’’

Later, they took turns at the board writing adjectives to enliven the sentence: “farhana’’ (or “happy’’), “tayyebah’’ (“delicious’’), and “hazeenah’’ (“sad’’). “What’s the best way to remember a word to know how to spell it?’’ Mifdal asked as the class scribbled. “Say it, say it, say it,’’ she stressed before the bell rang and she offered the traditional Arabic goodbye, “Ma’salama.’’

As he collected his things, 17-year-old junior Andrew Marrese — his Arabic alter ego being “Sayeed’’ — explained that, after taking several years of Spanish and French, he was looking for a new challenge.

“I just wanted,’’ he said, “to try something completely different.’’

Taryn Plumb can be reached at