April 26, 2004: Headlines: COS - Iran: COS - Afghanistan: Languages: Arabic: Islamic Issues: Rocky Mountain News: Dan Lutz, who has done Peace Corps work in Afghanistan and Iran, builds Arabic language program in Denver schools

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Iran: Peace Corps Iran : The Peace Corps in Iran: April 26, 2004: Headlines: COS - Iran: COS - Afghanistan: Languages: Arabic: Islamic Issues: Rocky Mountain News: Dan Lutz, who has done Peace Corps work in Afghanistan and Iran, builds Arabic language program in Denver schools

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Dan Lutz, who has done Peace Corps work in Afghanistan and Iran, builds Arabic language program in Denver schools

Dan Lutz, who has done Peace Corps work in Afghanistan and Iran, builds Arabic language program in Denver schools

Dan Lutz, who has done Peace Corps work in Afghanistan and Iran, builds Arabic language program in Denver schools

Attention turns to Arabic

In the wake of 9-11, center reacts to rising interest in language

By Nancy Mitchell, Rocky Mountain News
April 26, 2004

Linda Castillo is standing in front of her classmates and singing about her love for her father, shyly reciting from memory an ancient poem about paternal devotion.

At least, it sounds like singing. In reality, the freshman at West High School is speaking rapidly in the gently rolling tones of Arabic.


Castillo, 15, is one of 22 students wrapping up their first year of Arabic language classes at the 1,700-student high school near downtown Denver.

Arabic is the newest language at the school's Center for International Studies, where students also study less common language offerings such as Chinese, Japanese and Russian.

The Colorado Department of Education doesn't track data on foreign-language classes, but interviews appear to confirm that West is the only public school in Colorado where Arabic is offered.

Castillo and her classmates, who are learning lessons created daily by Tunisian-born teacher Neji Sandi, don't have textbooks or a dictionary. But to them, that isn't what's most important. Dedication is.

Castillo, like many of her classmates, is a native Spanish speaker who already has mastered one of the world's most complex languages - English.

She chose to take Arabic largely because of her Christian background, she said. She wants someday to visit the places where Jesus walked and to speak a language similar to what he spoke. But she knew little about what she was getting into last fall.

"I didn't even know the letters weren't the same," she said about the English and Arabic alphabets. "But the class is small; you feel comfortable making a fool of yourself."

Castillo said she is drawn to the metaphors used in Arabic - the word for "help" literally means "I will give you my hand" - and to its rhythmic vocal patterns.

"It sounds like somebody singing," she said. "It's beautiful."

A growing interest

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, enrollment in Arabic language classes at Colorado colleges surged. University of Colorado officials, for example, reported a waiting list for Arabic 1.

But the only K-12 school in Colorado offering Arabic in recent years has been Crescent View Academy, a private pre-K-8 Islamic school in Aurora.

That lack of precollegiate offerings isn't unusual, according to the National Capital Language Resource Center.

A center survey has counted only 63 K-12 schools in the U.S. that offer Arabic, with only 16 of those being public schools, including three charter schools. Most are private Islamic schools such as Crescent View.

But Dora Johnson, project director for the Arabic K-12 Network at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics, said she believes that the number of such programs is growing.

In part, she credits Sept. 11, 2001, likening its effect to the space race and World War II - events that caused spikes in Russian and Japanese language offerings in U.S. schools.

"If you look at history and the teaching of Russian or the teaching of Japanese, you see some real trends," Johnson said. "An incident will happen and then suddenly everybody is rushing to learn that language."

But she also points to pre-Sept. 11 immigration trends. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the Arab population in the U.S. nearly doubled between 1980 and 2000, to nearly 1.2 million.

Many of those immigrants settled in suburbs around Detroit, where their children now attend eight of the country's 16 public schools offering Arabic.

"What happens when you have these larger populations, the demand for learning the 'heritage language' becomes a little bit more pressing," Johnson said.

In Colorado, where only 12,588 people identified themselves as being of Arab ancestry in 2000, the impetus for an Arabic language program came instead from a bit of leftover grant money and a Peace Corps stint in the Middle East.

From the ground up

Dan Lutz is familiar with building a language program. The head of West High's Center for International Studies already has done it at the school, most recently with Chinese, another less commonly taught language.

Arabic, though, presented its own particular issues.

Simply finding a teacher delayed the start of the program by a semester. High school-level textbooks in Arabic are hard to find.

"So far, we haven't found them," Lutz said of the books. So Neji Sandi, the teacher, "is writing the entire thing," including objectives and goals for a four-year program.

When complete, it will include four years of Arabic language, a middle school component, Arabic culture classes and student trips to the Middle East.

Not that Lutz has much money to spend on his ambitious plan. "We're doing it on a shoestring," he said.

Some leftover grant money, about $4,500, planted the seed for the program a year ago. Samba N'Diaye, foreign language supervisor for Denver Public Schools, called Lutz and asked about interest in Arabic.

"That was all I needed," said Lutz, who has done Peace Corps work in Afghanistan and Iran. "I ran all over the school with surveys, 'Who wants to take Arabic?' "

He found enough interest to begin a class in January 2003, but that fell through when a teacher wasn't available.

Lutz started talking with members of Denver's Islamic Center and with Crescent View. He also approached Sandi, who teaches math at the Community College of Denver. The Center for International Studies Foundation, which typically helps students with money for overseas trips, kicked in a matching $4,500 grant.

Lutz estimates it will take four to five years to get the program fully up and running - if he is able to secure more grant money to hire Sandi full time.

Salah Hammoud, professor of Arabic at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said the earlier students can begin their study of the language spoken by 170 million people from Morocco to Iraq, the better.

"Now, for strategic reasons more than anything, we need to understand Arabic speakers better," he said, "to understand their cultures better so we can live with them more peacefully."

Powerful words

In his two classes at West, Sandi mixes grammar and dialogue, language and culture, humor and encouragement.

"When I first came to America, I didn't speak a word of English, not a single word," he told a hesitant student in a recent class. "People laugh when I speak and I laugh with them and we make it like a joke."

Another student asks about the meanings of jihad and hamas, words often heard on news broadcasts.

"Jihad means struggle; hamas means enthusiasm," he replies.

"Do any of these words mean apocalypse?" the girl persists.

"The language is bigger than that," Sandi says.

For Arabs, he explained later, words are extremely powerful. While other ancient civilizations - Greeks, Romans - had outlets such as theater and sculpture, nomadic Arabs had to rely on poetry and storytelling.

"They had to express all the drama of being with words," Sandi said. "In Arabic language, one word can kill someone, one word can bring someone alive, one poem created life."

Since the fall, enrollment in his classes has dropped from 31 to 22. The students applaud Sandi's effort - he created a vocabulary packet and produces daily work sheets - but say the lack of textbooks and dictionaries make it more difficult to learn Arabic.

Also, "This is harder because you're not exposed (to the language)," said senior Elena Herron, 18, who speaks English and Spanish. "You can't turn on a TV or flip to a channel and hear Arabic like you can with Spanish. It makes it more difficult to absorb."

Senior Antonio Acosta, 18, said Arabic is the hardest of the languages - Spanish, English and Chinese - he has learned.

"In Arabic, there aren't words, there are sounds. It's sounds and phonetics and really artsy Arabic writing," he said. "Even getting the size of the writing was kind of hard for me. At the beginning of the year, I was like a kindergartner writing with a big crayon."

Still, "It's a really beautiful language to speak," he said. "It's the way you speak it, not the way it's written. It's a very feeling-oriented language."

mitchelln@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-5245

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Story Source: Rocky Mountain News

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