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Teach Arabic in Public Schools

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on April 6, 2015.

By Brian T. Edwards

A student at Pine Bush High School in upstate New York recently recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic to help celebrate National Foreign Language Week. By the end of the day she had been verbally harassed, the class president who had invited her had been punished and the school was in an uproar.

This is perhaps an isolated case (though a similar controversy took place in 2013 in Colorado). But it indexes two disturbing trends that overlap when it comes to anxieties about Arabic language.

The first is willed monolingualism and a widespread fear of foreign languages. The second is open and unchecked racism toward Arabs and, by loose association, non-Arab Muslims.

The situation seems to be getting progressively worse. Hate crimes toward Muslims are five times more common today than they were before 2001, and though Muslims make up only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, 14 percent of religious-based hate crimes target Muslims, according to FBI reports.

Meanwhile, the perceived value of foreign languages is decreasing. More of the world speaks English as a second language than ever before. Thus when our college students go on study abroad, they can easily find educators in Morocco, the Czech Republic or France who can and will teach them in English.

We need to reverse these trends.

We should aspire to teach our children second languages as a national priority. In particular, we should dramatically increase the number of students learning Arabic in U.S. public schools.

We should do so both for their own futures and for the cause of peace at home and abroad; it is a matter of national security, in the fullest possible sense of that term.

As educators we know that studying foreign languages is good for brain development and a range of cognitive abilities. Students studying foreign languages have been shown to have better listening skill and sharper memories than their monolingual peers. Studies have found that students who took a foreign language for 90 minutes a week did better in math and language arts.

Moreover, learning languages other than one's native tongue is a window into other cultures.

With Arabic, this is especially dramatic. Arabic is not only a beautiful and complex language, but it has an entirely different way of structuring sentences and an incredibly rich way of understanding the relationship between words. The trilateral root system common to Arabic and Hebrew yields huge families of interrelated words inherently different from the ways English etymologies work.

In other words, Arabic — like all languages — is a system, and an incredibly ornate and gorgeous system at that. To understand how that system works — and with real study to be able to function within it — is not only good for your brain, it gives you a much better sense of another worldview.

These are times when greater cross-cultural understanding is not only a moral good, it will help make American students more competitive in the global marketplace. Arabic is the fifth most common native language in the world, with 295 million native speakers.

Further, massive numbers of American students learning Arabic will help advance peace.

The impulse toward monolingualism in the United States is ironic, given both the diversity of language use in the U.S. and the dominance of English internationally. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 300 languages spoken in the U.S., more than half of them native North American languages.

In 2010, 20.6 percent of U.S. households reported speaking a language other than English at home (up from 11 percent of households as reported 30 years earlier).

Still, the argument that English is or should be the national language of the United States has a long history; 31 states have adopted English as their official language (27 of them since the 1980s), while others are pushing to have such legislation enacted on the state and federal level.

It need not be so.

In Evanston, public schools offer education in Spanish and English. Two of my children opted into the kindergarten-through-fifth-grade Spanish immersion program. At their school, only about a quarter of the students follow the Spanish program, but the Pledge of Allegiance is recited each morning in both English and Spanish. It is an honor for the children chosen to recite the pledge in either language. Can we really doubt that hearing the pledge twice is anything but twice as patriotic?

- Brian T. Edwards is a professor of Middle East studies and director of the program in Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University.

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