The politicization of learning Arabic

Opinion by Madeleine Chang
Sept. 30, 2015, 11:00 a.m.

Why does Stanford require its students to study foreign languages? According to the Stanford Language Center, it’s because “Stanford students need to be able to initiate interactions with persons from other cultures but also to engage with them on issues of mutual concern.”

It follows then, that most first-year language classes begin with simple interaction phrases such as “my favorite TV show is” and basic cultural information. Chapter one of Stanford’s Spanish textbook Protagonistas teaches “where are you from?” and asks students to identify photos of paella, Salma Hayek and Santiago de Chile. Language, as is said, is a window into culture.

But not all windows are created equal. Chapter one of Stanford’s Arabic textbook al-Kitaab teaches students the phrase “Who wants to work at the United Nations?” In chapter two, students learn “translator, employee” and how to write the names of academic institutes like “Australian National University, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.” Chapter three’s vocabulary list contains “army” and “officer.” Chapter seven: “Who would like to work for the State Department? Why?” Colors didn’t make it in the book. The verb “to think” doesn’t appear until the final chapter.

There are some cultural points woven in — students learn about kebab and “the Arab family,” and individual teachers go above and beyond the textbook to humanize the language. The Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies hosts events in Arabic that feature contemporary artists, writers and public intellectuals. But these are extra opportunities. The standard still emphasizes diplomatic and academic competencies. As a student of Arabic myself, I wonder for which “interactions” and “issues of mutual concern” I am prepared. I’m afraid I’ll get to the Middle East and only remember “so, how ’bout them United Nations?” It was our first lesson, after all.

Arabic learning’s political emphasis is not unique to Stanford. Nearly every university in the English-speaking world uses the aforementioned textbook, al-Kitaab — a textbook that responds to American relations with the Middle East.   

Mahmoud al-Batal, one of the textbook’s authors, writes in the Modern Language Journal that “the post-9/11 era represents the Sputnik Moment for Arabic” — that is, an “era of increased national attention to Arabic as a language vital to national interest and security.” During the original Sputnik Moment, American students learning the Russian language became part of the Cold War strategy. Likewise, American students learning Arabic have become a part of the War on Terror.

Arabic language’s “moment” is being funded in a joint effort by the Departments of Defense, State and Education, which have established various federal programs aimed at teaching college students Arabic and other critical languages. The al-Kitaab textbook was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (an independent federal agency). Increased funding has seen increased student enrollment. According to the most recent study of its type from the Modern Language Association, American student enrollment in Arabic increased by 126.5 percent from 2002 to 2006 and then an additional 46.3 percent between 2006 and 2009.

So perhaps the question is not why we study language, but rather, whom and what does language education serve? What gets taught is not agenda-free nor politically neutral. The way we learn Arabic reveals more about our own, American political climate than about Arab culture. I will keep this in mind as I move through my Arabic education and continue to seek opportunities to see Arabic (and by extension, Arabic speakers) beyond chapter two’s “translators” and “employees.” If language is really a window into a culture, we must expand the current frame to see the full picture.


Contact Madeleine Chang at madeleinechang ‘at’

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