Associate Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature Dr. Kamran Rastegar poses for a picture on Aug. 26, 2014 on the Academic Quad. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily Archive

The politics of language: Teaching Arabic in U.S. colleges

Three times a week, sophomore Chase Troxell climbs to the very top of Olin Hall and, along with five other classmates, crowds into a tiny room with an excellent view of the Residential Quad. They all file into the seats in front the row, awaiting the professor, who walks in, looks up and greets the class before her, saying, “Marhaba.” Hello. The six Arabic students dutifully respond to their teacher. Class has begun.

Troxell, a computer science major, is in his fourth semester studying Arabic, a language he decided to study during his first semester at Tufts.

“My FOCUS mom would teach us Arabic phrases,” Troxell said. “I had a language requirement and I wanted something new, so I took [Arabic].”

He conceded, however, that he had a slow start in his pursuit to learn Arabic.

“It was a lot like the first years of elementary school; we learned letters and how to say the letters for six or so weeks,” Troxell said. “Letters, then words, and then how to put them together. Kindergarten.”

What may surprise people is that Troxell has no motivation to pursue Arabic in a professional context. He plans to continue taking Arabic courses purely for the sake of improving his language skills.

Associate Professor of Arabic Kamran Rastegar explained that, while this sort of outlook might be a departure from the status-quo of Arabic in academia in the United States, it is fairly reflective of the Arabic study at Tufts.

“There was a huge sort of ramping up in terms of the quantity of [Arabic] students since after 9/11…[it became] much more mainstream,” Rastegar said. “My experience at Tufts is that a lot of students…take [Arabic] in the first year for diplomacy and drop out of it after the first year. Students that we have who major in Arabic very rarely have interests in diplomacy or hardcore international relations stuff…[but are] interested in other applications.”

The correlation between the recent political context and the notable rise in students studying Arabic certainly makes sense, but as Stanford University sophomore Madeleine Chang raised in her Sept. 30, 2015 article in the Stanford Daily, American academia has been propagating a pointed politicization of Arabic study, and in addition to vocabulary sheets and flashcards, learning the language now comes with an underlying agenda.

“Arabic language’s ‘moment’ is being funded in a joint effort by the Departments of DefenseState and Education, which have established various federal programs aimed at teaching college students Arabic and other critical languages,” Chang wrote in the Stanford Daily. “The ‘al-Kitaab’ textbook was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (an independent federal agency).”

Chang highlighted the shortcomings of the “al-Kitaab” textbook series, which graces the shelves of college bookstores from Stanford, CA to Medford, Mass. She pointed out how early chapters of the textbook, which in congruent levels of learning Spanish or French would include colors and months, are riddled with vocabulary about the United Nations, the State Department and diplomacy.

Naturally, at a school with as robust and popular an International Relations program as Tufts, it makes sense that students are pursuing what the State Department deems a “critical” language. Rastegar noted that Arabic study is inevitably a product of its environment, since the U.S. academia considers it politically instrumental due to national interests in the region. Still, he rejected the idea that learning the language has become more about priming pupils as diplomats or executing the agenda of the State Department.

“A lot of what goes on in American universities…is affected by the larger political climate and by the institutional relationships that exist in government and universities, so Arabic is affected, and it does mean that people come to Arabic sometimes with fairly instrumental interests that they think they want to learn it…to join the ‘War On Terror,’ but people who design curriculum, teach the classes [and] do the hard work, don’t see the world in those terms,” Rastegar said.

Arabic Language Coordinator and Lecturer Rana Abdul-Aziz echoed Rastegar’s sentiments and explained that “al-Kitaab” has been met with scorn in the past for introducing the word “United Nations” a year or two before it teaches “dog” or “cat” but asserted that this is to endow students with the vocabulary to discuss pertinent academic subjects.

For Troxell, the course is designed fairly logically, in a way that is distinctly different from the roadmap of learning other languages but practical in the context of the structures that are unique to Arabic.

“The language that we are learning is not the language of ‘I want to go the movies’ or ‘my favorite color is red,’” Troxell said. “The language we are learning is a political language, a language for news, a language for broadcasting.”

Troxell explained how Arabic is divided into two different ways of speaking. First, Fusha is a formal way of speaking, which Troxell likened to Shakespearian English. This is what the students learn first, as it introduces many of the grammatical structures that they need to conduct day to day conversation.

Later on, students learn the more colloquial, everyday manner of speech called Ammiya, which, Troxell explained, tends to vary a lot more from country to country.

“[Initially, we were doing] a lot of drills and [going through] sheets of questions you would get up and ask each other,” Troxell said. “The content is a lot about what you want to do in the future, or where you were from. [Now] there are a lot of moving parts; you have to consider endings and the connotations of the wordings … When you learn a word, you learn the whole family of words that come with it.”

With regard to “al-Kitaab,” Abdul-Aziz emphasized that teaching Arabic in the classroom should not be conflated with the content of the textbook, since the curriculum is made up of many parts. In particular, she noted that professors work to address some of the book’s shortcomings by introducing supplemental material to the classroom.

“With the introduction of the third edition in 2011, ‘al-Kitaab’ moved sharply towards teaching the Arabic dialects — in other words, Arabic as it is spoken in the home and [on] the street, not as it is formally written or read aloud on news programs,” Abdul-Aziz said. “Traditionally, nearly all Arabic programs had taught only the formal Modern Standard Arabic. By introducing dialects and Modern Standard Arabic at the same time, the third edition presents an Arabic much closer to that used by actual Arabs in their everyday lives. Thus, in those later editions, you see more and more everyday vocabulary including colors early in the series’ introductory book.”

In terms of ‘al-Kitaab,’ Abdul-Aziz recognizes that there is always a better way to teach the language but believes that it is one of the most viable options for Arabic language learning in the classroom.

“We also shouldn’t forget that ‘al-Kitaab’ is still substantially better than anything else on the market right now for the purposes of most students,” Abdul-Aziz said. “The other books are failing to produce students with the same level of oral proficiency and communicative competence.”

She went on to explain that the lower-level introductory classes are taught with basic supplementary information, such as the different colors, along with more formal mechanics. She described Arabic 03 and 04 as courses designed to equip students with the skills necessary to study abroad in Arabic-speaking countries, while the upper levels are meant to cater to the interests of students. Additionally, the Department organizes programming such as themed film series that are designed to help students connect with the local and international Arabic-speaking community.

Rastegar and Troxell both emphasized that learning Arabic at Tufts fosters a strong sense of community, which they believe is one of the most important elements of the program.

“[We have students] who really interact with each other and…solidify relations and connections,” Rastegar said. “A sense of student community is what we do well. My experience is that not many universities put time and energy into that. I think that allows for students to organize and voice their interests … It takes students to kind of really push [ideas] ahead and make us give priority to doing programming on these things. We can respond to that…and get the students involved in a social way.”

As for who brings the most to the classroom, Abdul-Aziz maintains that students who study cultural and linguistic aspects of Arabic purely out of interest tend to get ahead.

“In my experience, people who are trying to learn the language without trying to grasp the culture plateau at a fairly low level of linguistic competence,” Abdul-Aziz said. “It’s not just about learning [that] door [is] baab and orange [is] burtuqaal. To reach advanced proficiency, you have to make a genuine effort to appreciate the cultural differences and similarities, so that you more deeply understand the perspective of your interlocutors.”

Putting in that time and effort is exactly what Troxell intends to do, even if he will not be applying for a job as a government translator anytime soon.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Tisch, a lot of time with my classmates making skits, memorizing skits,” Troxell said. “It’s probably fifteen hours a week.”

But he would not have it any differently.

“Yeah, it’s good [stuff],” he said.

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