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Arabic classes gain popularity

More high schools tackle tough language

Most teens fill their homes with the blaring sound of rock music when they crank up their computer speakers. Not Sarah Amin, who fills her North Attleborough home with the sing-song chants and guttural grunts of a Middle Eastern tongue.

Similar sounds drift from a Deerfield Academy classroom in Central Massachusetts most mornings, while at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Western Massachusetts, students practice their alif, baa, taa's in halting calligraphy.

The students are working on Arabic, which a small but growing number of US schools have been embracing.

Just as President Nixon's trip to China in 1972 ignited interest in learning Chinese, the war on terrorism has whetted demand for the world's fourth-most widely spoken language. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, many universities scrambled to add Arabic classes to accommodate standing-room-only crowds. Elementary and secondary schools, often constrained by budget, bureaucracy, and a dearth of qualified teachers, have responded more slowly.

Seventy private and public schools, including four in the Bay State, have reported teaching Arabic to The Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

Five years ago, there were only 10 schools.

Students are tackling Arabic for a variety of reasons. Some hope to pursue careers in international business or foreign relations. For others, the language offers a window into the Middle East's rich history, art, culture, and religious traditions. Then there are students, such as Amin, who sign up because they want to learn the language of immigrant parents or grandparents.

Don't count on torrents of young translators to graduate anytime soon, however. Proficiency requires years of instruction and practice. Arabic has several sounds not found in English, only a few common words (sofa and algebra are exceptions), and a different, 28-character alphabet that reads from right to left. Every word drips with nuance.

''Fluency is impossible, even for most Arabs," said Ted Thornton, the Arabic-speaking chairman of the history and social studies department at Northfield Mount Hermon School.

Amin's dream of speaking to her Egyptian-born father's siblings keeps her at the computer and practicing her pronunciation each day as she takes an online Arabic class taught by the Cairo-based Arab Academy. Her father was born in Egypt.

She calls Arabic ''probably one of my toughest" of eight classes at Attleboro's Bishop Feehan High, which began offering the online class two years ago to help students hoping to pursue global careers.

''I feel like a kindergarten student again," Amin said. She laughed as she explained how a little clown pops on her computer screen during each lesson and shakes his head at mistakes.

After two years of study, she still can't converse.

Amin, 17, is one of 32 Bishop Feehan students taking either first-year or second-year Arabic through the Arab Academy.

Paul Lanciaux, chairman of Bishop Feehan's foreign languages department, tracks each student's weekly progress and e-mail interactions with instructors and worldwide classmates. He said he thought that only a handful of students would try it.

''I never expected it would take off the way it did," Lanciaux said. ''It's a novelty and many of the students wanted to try it."

At Northfield Mount Hermon, Thornton teaches an 11-week Arabic ''mini-course" two terms per year, as well as a course in Middle East history.

In the mini-course, he uses ''a lot of art and sound" to put the language in its social and cultural context. To give them a taste for the language, he shows calligraphy-rich art, and plays haunting tapes of Koran readings.

''It's easy to be spellbound by the sound of the words," he said, noting that the prophet Mohammed was illiterate. ''People will line up and camp out for days to hear expert reciters, almost like a rock concert in this country."

In his history class, Thornton also delves into such controversial topics as Islam's treatment of women, including the North African custom of genital mutilation, and jihad, or holy war.

''I don't soft-pedal that aspect of Islam, but it's not a crusade," said Thornton, who has been teaching Middle East studies and taking students to the Middle East for almost two decades. ''We expect an open-minded approach to learning about other cultures."

At Deerfield Academy, Cairo native Maha Frieh developed and taught the elite school's first Arabic language program last fall. She shows subtitled movies to develop her students' appreciation for contemporary culture as well as their ear. She also has them scan overseas news services and debate the different views of war in Iraq.

In Springfield, Jane Vivenzio, a foreign language resource teacher, teaches her elementary French and Spanish students how to write their names in Arabic to spark appreciation for other people's cultures.

''They're little sponges. They love it," said Vivenzio, who will present a paper on learning Arabic at the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association's annual conference this month. ''When you speak another language, you appreciate another person's culture as well."

Schools should try to give students a sense of the wide use of Arabic so they get beyond the stereotype that it's the language of Islamic terrorists, said Dora Johnson, a researcher at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.

''It's important to stop thinking of Arabic and Islam as this blob," Johnson said. Arabic ''is used for all forms of communications. It's used in print. It's used on TV. It's used in soap operas, and poetry, science, and mathematics."

Money, not politics, often proves the biggest bar to introducing Arabic in schools. Many schools, private or public, lack funds to offer more than French or Spanish. Federal funding for Northfield Mount Hermon's Middle East program dried up when power shifted in Congress a decade ago. Now, said Thornton, ''I feel like I'm trying to guard a candle against the wind."

The recently reauthorized National Security Education program deems Arabic a ''critical" foreign language and provides funds to augment or start programs. But with schools under pressure to raise reading and math scores, new foreign language programs are apt to fall by the wayside. Finding and recruiting qualified Arabic teachers poses yet another hurdle.

Even with great instruction, Arabic's washout rate is high.

Half of Bishop Feehan's students who want to take Arabic never make it past the first hurdle -- mastering the alphabet in a summer class.

For those who persist with the instruction, though, the payoff is bigger than merely gaining Arabic vocabulary. They may catch the attention of a college admissions committee simply because they stuck with a tough language. Or, like Amin, they may get so intrigued that it changes their course for the future.

Touring campuses this summer, Amin's first question was whether the college offered programs in advanced Arabic. She's interested in gaining fluency and pursuing Middle Eastern studies.

By having a female instructor based in Cairo, she gained a different view on women's roles in Islamic society. ''You're not only learning the language, you're learning the culture as well," she said.

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