10/15/2005

Arabic classes gain popularity - The Boston Globe

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...

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."

Arabic classes gain popularity - The Boston Globe

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