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Why Every American Student Should Have the Opportunity to Study Arabic
By Tyler Blackwell
Director, Center for Arabic Language & Culture, Chicago, IL
Growing up in North Carolina, I never had the opportunity to study Arabic. Indeed, I never imagined studying Arabic. I didn’t have the opportunity to study Arabic until I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago as a 25 year old. Today, my Arabic is decent – for someone who has studied it for less than 5 years – but, where would I be if I’d started studying Arabic in 7th grade? Or, better yet, in kindergarten?
(Photo caption: Lindblom Math & Science Academy Arabic students with their teacher, Fadi Abughoush, in the Center for Arabic Language & Culture. These students are on the Arabic Debate team, each one vying for one of four spots to go to Doha in March 2014 for the international Qatar Debate competition. Photograph by Tyler Blackwell. )
Cognition and language acquisition studies suggest it’s much easier to learn a language when our brains are young. We are more likely to become proficient in a language if we’re exposed to it at an early age than if we are first exposed to it at, say, 25 years of age.
If I’d started studying Arabic earlier, I think my Arabic would be near fluent. But, here and now, who really cares about studying Arabic? Why would anyone promote K-12 Arabic programs in the US? At least for me, studying Arabic and Arab culture has promoted two significant changes: 1) it has bridged cultural gaps, helped me to better understand an important part of the world, and encouraged empathy and tolerance (all of which are critical attributes for the coming global society); and 2) it has opened career opportunities.
After graduating with a MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago, I was hired by the US Department of State to become a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. My background in Arabic helped me earn this career opportunity. I traveled the world, briefed senior State Department officials, helped write US foreign policy, and interacted with diplomats from Asia, Europe, South America, and the Middle East. Arabic opened these doors. Building on this career moment and with a previous background in K-12 education, I decided to promote and become an advocate for K-12 Arabic programs and, in the fall of 2012, received a call that has allowed me to do so.
Alan Mather, the Principal of Lindblom Math & Science Academy, called and told me about the plan to create a 501(c)(3), non-profit organization committed to supporting existing K-12 Arabic programs and building new programs in Chicago and northeastern Illinois. I jumped at the opportunity to be part of the organization and, with the dedicated support of the Qatar Foundation International, began work as the Director of the Center for Arabic Language & Culture (CALC) in August 2013.
Lindblom Academy has the largest for-credit, non-heritage high school Arabic program in the US. It is the ideal place for CALC to be based and begin working towards its mission of supporting K-12 Arabic teachers, students, and programs through curriculum development, professional development, culturally enriching activities and events, and building new K-12 Arabic programs throughout northeastern Illinois.
Over the past decade, the teaching of “critical languages” has increased greatly in the US – particularly, Mandarin and Arabic. In the Chicago Public Schools, Mandarin and Arabic programs have grown exponentially. Mandarin programs have the incredible support of the Confucius Institute led by Jane Lu; and, Arabic programs now have the support of the Center for Arabic Language & Culture.
During the 2013-14 school year, over 3,000 students will study Arabic in the Chicago Public Schools. That’s over 3,000 students who’ll have a better understanding of Arab culture, of what the Middle East is, and of how to bridge cultural divides; and who will have the skills and knowledge to gain access to incredible future career and life opportunities. That’s over 3,000 future adults who will have the opportunity to develop tolerance and empathy for those whose culture, language, and experiences are different from their own.
My hope is that the Center, through its support of existing programs and building new ones, eventually will provide every Chicago student at the K-12 levels with the opportunity to study Arabic. Ours is an incredible city, seeking not only to become a global city, but also to be a city that prepares its youth for the future in a global workforce. By supporting the Center’s work, Chicago can help existing programs and build new ones.
Imagine if our students studied Arabic. Imagine how many misunderstandings and stereotypes would be torn down. Imagine how many incredible opportunities they would have to go to college and then to begin exciting and well paying jobs based on their language acquisition and knowledge of the Arab culture. Imagine how much business they could then bring to the US or how they could help solve world problems through diplomacy.
Just imagine. That is why every American student should have the opportunity to study Arabic.
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