Arabic Moves to the Head of the Language Classes
MIKE PESCA, host:
Well, there's another way to watch Al-Jazeera, the original Al-Jazeera, but you have to access the direct feed and you have to be able to understand Arabic. To that end, schools across the country are starting to get federal money to teach Arabic and other languages which are considered by the U.S. government to be critical for national security.
For a glimpse of the future, reporter Andrea Smardon visited Charlestown High School in the Boston area. It's one of only a handful of secondary schools that already offers Arabic classes.
ANDREA SMARDON: Ask most people in Boston what they know about Charlestown High School and they might tell you about the shooting that happened outside the public school a few months back or the metal detectors that recently went in at the entrance.
But walk into Arabic class and you get a different picture altogether.
Mr. STEVEN BERBECO(ph) (Teacher, Charlestown High School): All right, repeat after me. As-Salaamu Alaikum.
STUDENTS (Charlestown High School): As-Salaamu Alaikum.
Mr. BERBECO: Alai mula salaam(ph).
STUDENTS: Alai mula salaam.
SMARDON: The students listen closely to their teacher. They ask questions. They volunteer to speak in front of the class. And they laugh. They seem to be enjoying themselves.
Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).
Mr. BERBECO: Yeah, you know why I didn't teach you that? Because I don't want you to ever say (unintelligible).
SMARDON: Teacher Steven Berbeco says his class is like this every day.
Mr. BERBECO: I walk into the class, and I say okay, everyone, let's start. And they sit down, and we start. And it's a phenomenon. They're eager to learn. They want to learn.
SMARDON: Berbeco was hired to be a government teacher, but last year, he and another teacher were able to convince the school to let them teach Arabic. He says his students have defied the odds.
Mr. BERBECO: It's the most difficult language they could possibly learn, and they're, in most cases, sailing right through it.
(Soundbite of classroom)
SMARDON: Christopher Alvez(ph) is one of those students who has responded to the challenge. From the back of the class, he hikes up his baggy jeans and walks up front to deliver a 30-second monologue in Arabic.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER ALVEZ (Student, Charlestown High School): (Speaking foreign language)
SMARDON: The senior hasn't always done well in school, but he says languages come easy for him. His mother is half-Cuban, half-Jamaican; his father, an immigrant from Cape Verde. So Alvez is already multi-lingual.
Mr. ALVEZ: (Speaking foreign language)
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. BERBECO: That was great. That was (unintelligible). Did you hear how it just kind of came out naturally?
Mr. ALVEZ: That didn't work, you know, (unintelligible).
SMARDON: Alvez admits that on his first day of Arabic class, he didn't know what use he would have for another language.
Mr. ALVEZ: I remember walking in like wow, I'm about to learn Arabic. This is what they speak in the Middle East. Like, what do I need to know this for? I'm never going there.
SMARDON: But Berbeco laid out a compelling argument. He showed the students some of the job offers he got because he knew Arabic.
Mr. ALVEZ: And once I started seeing, like, you know $120,000 a year, $140,000 a year, I was like, I think I'm in the right class.
SMARDON: But Berbeco is hoping his students get something else out of the class, too.
Mr. BERBECO: My goal in teaching Arabic is for the students to become more familiar with something that's very unfamiliar. And just to be able to study Arabic and to own part of it - it kind of de-fangs the mystery of other cultures, and other languages, and other people.
SMARDON: As for Alvez, he's changed his mind about going to the Middle East. Now, he says he'd like to go to Iraq or Iran, and he hopes to study Arabic in college. I asked him if he has a favorite Arabic word.
Mr. ALVEZ: My favorite Arabic word is probably As-Salaamu Alaikum, Alai mula salaam asalam. It's basically just a friendly greeting that a lot of people get misinterpreted and think it has to do with Allah or some type of Muslim prayer. That's what I thought it meant at first, but now I've come to realize it just means peace to you, peace right back at you, literally.
SMARDON: Right now, Alvez is having a rare experience, but wit the U.S. government beginning to fund new foreign-language programs, more young people across the country may soon be coming home from school saying As-Salaamu Alaikum. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Smardon in Boston.
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