There is something faintly gruesome in the fact that as schoolchildren nationwide are mastering the likes of bonjour and ni hao, among the 1,000 workers at the American Embassy in Iraq, the number of people who speak Arabic is six. At the FBI, out of 12,000, it is 33.
We are told that we should learn one of the Romance or Germanic languages in order to gain familiarity with another culture. The culture that America needs to make contact with most, though, is Arab, and especially in the context of military and intelligence gathering.
The common riposte is that there are also translators who work on call. But still, imagine if in the American Embassy in France only five people could have a conversation in French, even with scattered French speakers “on call.”
If this situation seems somehow less absurd in Iraq, it is out of a sense that Arabic is farther away from the English language than French and thus harder for us to learn. And it is.
Which means that we need to put many more resources into making Arabic one of the languages commonly encountered by schoolchildren. Yes, children, since languages are learned most easily by the young. Our task will therefore be to make Arabic one of America’s main taught languages, rather than the specialty taste that it is now.
Efforts to recruit native Arabic speakers will only ever yield so much. Many Arab-Americans will hesitate to join efforts they see as antithetical to their own people, and no amount of Karen Hughes-style outreach could make much of a dent in this.
The small upsurge in “interest” in Arabic courses at universities since September 11 is not enough. The same kinds of efforts the government put 60 years ago into cranking a viable amount of Russian speakers out of our universities must be put back into play now for Arabic.This is urgent because learning Arabic is a crucial gateway into winning the hearts and minds of native Arabic speakers.
I have two suggestions for imprinting Arabic more deeply in America. One is that, in fact, the Arabic alphabet not be the main focus of Arabic classes.
Arabic’s alphabet is a stern master. Letters can be written in as many as four ways depending on where they sit in the word, and then they are run together cursive-style on top of that. To an American learner, it takes a long time for Arabic’s alphabet to stop looking like angry spaghetti.
It takes almost an entire year of just learning how to read the Arabic alphabet, but a language is something one speaks. At first, students should be given Arabic in the Roman alphabet, which will allow the teacher to flood students from the beginning with what a language is — words and grammar. Instead, the alphabet should be introduced gradually.
A second important aspect of Arabic is that it is actually a bunch of different dialects. Saddam Hussein’s everyday Iraqi Arabic variety was as different from the Arabic in a newspaper as Spanish is from Latin.
As such, modern Arabic teaching must include instruction in one of the spoken varieties as well as in the standard one.
On a plane once, I overheard a businessman talking to his seatmate about the two-year stint in Germany he had just finished. He had not learned the language, and it was quite clear that he had gotten almost no feel for Germans or Germany — he might as well have spent two years in Charlotte, N.C. One cannot help thinking that a like judgment applies to the 994 out of 1,000 people at the American Embassy in Iraq who can’t follow a simple news broadcast on Al Jazeera.
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