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 Lauren E. Bohn/ MEDILL

The Arab American Action Network's monthly storytelling program promotes not only the teaching of Arabic, but  also cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Forsa -- Arabic for opportunity-- draws students to learn the language

by Lauren E. Bohn
Nov 12, 2009

Arabic Language in Chicagoland Schools

Chicago public high schools that offer Arabic:
-    Lincoln Park High School
-    Roosevelt High School
-    Lindblom High School
Public elementary schools that offer Arabic:
-    Agassiz Elementary
-    Belding Elementary
-    Durkin Park Elementary
-    LaSalle Language Academy II
-    Marquette Elementary
-    Peck Elementary
-    Volta Elementary

Seven-year-old Nada Abdallah's concentration is unshakable. She strains her forehead as she struggles to recall the Arabic word for purple.

Her older sister came to her aid, mouthing the answer – banafsaji.

“Arabic is fun,” she declares, sitting in a circle with her legs crossed at the Green Hills Library in Palos Hills for Arabic storytelling time.

She throws quick glances over to helpful Sama, 9, who routinely assists. “But,” Nada said of her Arabic, “no one else at school really speaks it."

Nada may soon have company.

Mayor Daley and Chicago Public Schools officials announced plans earlier this week to expand the CPS Arabic language program using an $888,000 U.S. Department of Education grant. The program was launched three years ago and has served 2,000 CPS students in 10 schools citywide. Under the grant, three additional schools will offer Arabic language courses.

CPS has invested $1 million in its Critical Languages Program in 2008 to bolster Arabic, Chinese and Russian languages. Robert Davis, manager of CPS’s world languages and international studies program, said that Arabic is gaining the most momentum and interest.

“We live in a world where Arabic's role is increasingly important,” he said.

Nesreen Akhtarkhavari, the director of the Arabic studies program at DePaul University, sees the impetus as largely political.

“The nation realized after September 11 our critical shortage in Arabic-language professionals and our need as a nation to better understand Arabic language and culture,” she said.

Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, deems Arabic a critical-needs language, noting that government agencies consistently seek competent speakers. But Davis said CPS does not regard Arabic solely as a militaristic or heritage language, but one rich in cultural and historical opportunities.

The D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics conducts a national survey every 10 years on foreign language teaching in more than 5,000 public and private schools.

Nancy Rhodes, survey director, said the 2008 study showed a substantial increase in schools offering Arabic language classes – a 1 percent increase in elementary schools and 0.6 percent increase in high schools.

“Though the increase doesn’t seem so, it’s actually quite significant,” she said. “Arabic was a blip before – no one thought of teaching it.”

According to Akhtarkavari, one of the major challenges in increasing the amount of schools offering Arabic language instruction is finding qualified and certified Arabic language teachers. DePaul University is one of the only institutions that has provided Arabic teacher training since 2007.

“It’s a challenge, but the interest is there like never before,” Rhodes said.

Back in the library, Nada and Sama looked through a narrow opening of the door, locating a group of children gathered around a shelf of picture books.

“Let’s get them to come in,” Sama urged her sister.