Arabic education on the rise in U.S. public schools

A teacher reads to students at the Arabic Immersion Magnet School in Houston. (Courtesy photo)

Texas, a state known for oil and cowboys, is blazing a trail in education in a language with roots on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Our students are going to be very powerful change agents, and in some ways are cultural ambassadors to the Arab world, the Arabic language and the Middle East,” said Kate Adams, principal of the Arabic Immersion Magnet School (AIMS) in Houston.

The opening of AIMS last August signals a growing interest in Arabic teaching at the kindergarten through grade 12 level in the United States. Data from a Qatar Foundation International (QFI) survey on Arabic teaching in U.S. public schools shows a steady increase in the growth of such programs.

As of 2013, 84 primary and secondary schools across the U.S. offered courses in Arabic. And just this fall in Nashville, Tennessee, several schools began teaching Arabic classes.

“Schools cited a variety of reasons for teaching Arabic, from Arabic being a strategic and critical language to know, to wanting their students to have an increase in cultural understanding, to learning Arabic opening up opportunities for their students,” said Carine Allaf, director of programs at QFI.

Arabic-language education in the U.S. follows past teaching trends for other languages, such as Japanese and Chinese, said Paul Sandrock, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Sandrock said foundations such as QFI promote Arabic learning in the U.S. by providing grants and other assistance. The U.S. government also helps through programs like STARTALK, which aims to increase the number of Americans learning and speaking Arabic and other less commonly taught languages.

Ola Layaly began teaching high school Arabic in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2009. For the first couple of years she taught “heritage speakers” — children whose parents spoke Arabic at home or students studying the language because Arabic is the language of the Quran.

In the past several years, though, she has noticed a new type of student in her class.

“They do not come from Arabic-speaking families and have absolutely no background in the language,” Layaly said. “They are excellent and into learning the language and they spend so much effort.”

Students practice writing Arabic in Houston. (Courtesy photo)

Sage Smiley represents this new wave of students studying Arabic at American schools. Smiley began learning Arabic at her secondary school in Portland, Oregon, partly because she likes the look and sound of the language.

“I think there are a lot of benefits to taking Arabic, just because it’s one of the biggest languages in the world,” Smiley said.

Most of the students at Adams’ school do not come from Arabic-speaking homes. She says parents have a variety of reasons for enrolling their children there.

They tell her, for example: “This is culturally so beautiful and so neat — and so unlike anything that I could give my child at home.” Arabic is a unique language, she says, “and parents oftentimes wouldn’t be able to provide exposure to it otherwise.”

Parents also want children to study a second language because it opens doors.

“At the end of the day, you want your child to be successful when they graduate from college and you want to do as much as you can to empower your child to be successful,” Adams said. “When you give your child another language, they’ll always have that skill in their back pocket.”