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Is learning Arabic the solution?

posted on: Aug 19, 2015

Dr. Hadia Attar discusses her role impacting Arabic language instruction with Arab America’s Dr. Amal David

BY: Adrian Tafesh/Contributing Writer

Tamer Ashraf, 48, of Springfield, VA understands the frustration of being an Arab-American who is unable to speak Arabic, or pass it on to his children. “It didn’t really start to bother me until I took my first trip to Egypt in my 30’s” says Ashraf, the son of second generation Egyptian immigrants to the U.S. “It felt kind of exclusive, being in a place where everyone thought I could speak the language, but I really couldn’t.” Ashraf blames his parents for not speaking to him in and teaching him Arabic as a child, while also understanding the context of their situation. He spoke of their desire to identify with mainstream America and get away from the negative images associated with being Arab.

Tamer’s frustration is felt quite frequently by first and even second generation immigrants from the Arab world, and their children. So much is bound-up in the languages we speak: culture, tradition, social practice; and it can be quite difficult for a native Arab speaker to leave home only to find that their children can no longer or indeed never could, speak the language as well.

Unlike Tamer’s parents, Dr. Hadia Attar, a recent Syrian immigrant, is one mother who has made the decision to take the education of her children and others, in the Arabic language, into her own very capable hands. Dr. Attar is a member of the faculty at Bayan Claremont and the program coordinator for the Southern California Arabic Language Teacher Council (SCALTC), an off-shoot of Qatar Foundation International.

QFI is a U.S.-based Qatari organization whose expressed mission is “connecting cultures and advancing global citizenship through education”. Their focus is on funding Arabic language and culture education.

Dr. Attar, who spoke to Arab America’s Dr. Amal David, expressed her gratitude to QFI for enabling hundreds of children in Southern California and around the country to learn Arabic language and culture.

Her passion for having her children learn Arabic is tied directly to larger issues at hand: “I don’t want them to lose their identity; I want them to stay connected to their homeland. Language serves as the bridge to understanding who they are and brings them pride in their culture.” She has insisted on their education in Arabic “because it’s also a tool that if they possess will affect their earning capabilities in the future.”

When Dr. Hadia was asked if teaching two languages at the same time would confuse her children, she responded strongly, “not at all, it’s rather the opposite; it makes them more intelligent.”

It’s precisely her passion for the intellectual value that learning Arabic can bring that most accurately tells her story. She had spent her career as a medical doctor in Aleppo, Syria, but found herself in the United States with a new trajectory, “It was me, a parent, not educator neither institution who applied for the grant through QFI, and I am the one who got QFI to fund several Arabic language teacher instruction programs in Southern California.”

This funding allowed her to pursue Arabic language education full time. She now works not only to teach the language in the public and private sector, but to advocate for its relevance with SCALTC.

This fervent commitment to maintaining Arabic in the U.S. is born out of her passion for sharing it with her children, “I share with them my childhood stories, and bedtime story, always in Arabic.” It really goes beyond the language itself, “We celebrate our Eid in a very beautiful way.” Again, lofty concepts such as culture and tradition find very real ways to manifest in the mutual understanding of Arabic.

Dr. Hadia Attar has so far successfully overcome the challenges that new immigrants face every day with language and culture, but what about the other hundreds of thousands of new Arab American immigrants?

Among them, of course, is a group which is a key component in the discussion over preservation of Arabic in the U.S. that is often roundly ignored as a result of a lack of representation for the voiceless: the children who are expected to learn the language. There is already no end to the built-in challenges that face the children of immigrants who are trying their best to inhabit two worlds simultaneously.

They are perpetually navigating how to assimilate with those around them, while maintaining what they know and love of their heritage. They must try to stand proud in the face of discrimination and xenophobia. They are asked to confidently live a lifestyle foreign to that of their parents and relatives. The dichotomies are endless, and present themselves at every turn. These collective pressures can make learning Arabic a painful and wearisome experience for young students, and can even have the effect of turning them off to the language entirely.

However, Dr. Attar believes Arabic language education is accelerating significantly in the U.S. and is supposed to be the fastest growing foreign language instruction course across all levels: elementary school to college, among Arab Americans and others.

This means that there is a massive opportunity to ensure that Arabic education in the U.S. takes a personalized, democratic approach. An approach in which students can learn at a comfortable pace, so that information is authentically truly retained rather than memorized and discarded. But most importantly, it must be made clear that Arabic language is tied to Arab identity, and identity is tied to so much else.


About the Qatar Foundation:
Qatar Foundation International (QFI), LLC, is a U.S.-based member of Qatar Foundation (QF). Dedicated to inspiring connections with the Arab world and advancing global citizenship through education. QFI is focused on creating a global community of active, engaged and collaborative learners and educators—inside and outside the classroom.

Through core programmatic activities such as Arabic language and culture, in person and online exchanges, youth engagement initiatives and support of digital learning technologies, QFI is focused on creating a global community of active, engaged and collaborative learners and educators. QFI is both a grant ­making organization as well as a convener of like-minded organizations and individuals.

Further sources for information on Arabic Education: