The Liminal Presence of Arabic in American Public Schools

Executive Summary

        In American schools, Arabic is not a widely taught language; one would be hard-pressed to find schools that offer the language, especially into the more advanced levels. However, despite Arabic’s rarity, schools exist from across the spectrum that offer it, sometimes in the most unexpected of places. These unique schools span private, magnet, charter, public, and dual-immersion schools, and, while concentrated on the coasts of the U.S., will crop up right in the midst of central, rural America.

        Of these American schools that offer Arabic as a foreign language, however, a disproportionate number tends to be private or magnet schools. Schools that serve predominantly privileged students are far more inclined to offer what can be considered a more contentious language than the widely taught Spanish or French languages, or even Chinese. On the other hand, public schools that try to implement the teaching of the Arabic language more often than not become mired in controversy and source of controversy themselves.

        In light of this phenomena, as well as a multitude of reasons relating to the utility of exposure to Arabic that will be later extrapolated more in-depth, there should be a future push to further include the Arabic language within foreign language study at public schools, and ideally in public schools in rural and potentially more intolerant places, given the recent rise of a fiercely nativist and xenophobic attitude towards immigrants and especially Islam-practicing people, many of who originate or whose families originate from Arabic-speaking countries. Specifically, large cities should make policies that create and protect Arabic language programs for public schools in order to increase the accessibility of the language and stymie prevalent prejudices. 


        The Arabic language is the fifth most spoken language in the world, with an estimated 250 million native speakers (Lane). Yet, as prolific and widely spoken as Arabic is, it is all but unheard of in the choices of foreign languages given to American students across the country. In comparison, the Chinese and Spanish languages (the first and second most spoken, respectively) abound in classrooms, along with French, which does not even make the top ten most spoken languages. In fact, when there are 250 million native speakers of Arabic, it seems almost anachronistic to teach French at the scale that it is currently taught in American schools.

        Moreover, Arabic is also the fastest growing language in the U.S. In fact, according to a Pew Research Center report, the number of Arabic-speaking people ages 5 or older grew by 29% from 2010 to 2014 to a total of 1.1 million speakers in the U.S., although advocacy groups like the Arab American Institute place an estimate at about 3.7 million Arab people in the U.S. with ability in the Arabic language (Brown 2016; Demographics).

SourcePew Research Center

The data above shows the number of students enrolled in foreign language programs at American universities. Arabic is one of the fastest growing languages in speakers and popularity in the US. Source: Modern Language Association

Despite the magnitude of Arabic speakers and its rapid increase in the U.S., it is not a popular foreign language to be taught in American schools. This even extends to the realm of higher education; according to the Modern Language Association of America, in 2013, Arabic had one of the lowest percentages of enrollments in advanced levels in United States institutions of higher education, on par with American Sign Language and Latin (Goldberg et al. 2015). But unlike higher education institutions, the availability of learning the Arabic language is limited or nonexistent for American students below the age of eighteen. However, some precedents do exist.


        In American schools at large, there exists a very obvious trend to the teaching of Arabic. In 2009, there were approximately 220 private and private charter schools in the U.S. teaching Arabic,  in comparison to only approximately 93 public and public charter schools(Schools Directory). Indeed, while public schools have yet to strongly introduce Arabic into their curricula, several private schools have already established strong Arabic programs. For instance, according to the website of Friends Seminary in New York City, the school offers five levels of Arabic study, culminating in a class taught in full Arabic (World Languages: Ancient and Modern). The language there is becoming a more popular choice among students since being introduced in 2008, and even incorporates some Arab pop culture that the students would likely otherwise go unexposed to (Dominus 2010). Similarly, schools such as the all-male private Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut and the private Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford also offer Arabic to their students (Holtz 2006). Several magnet schools also offer Arabic, such as the Metropolitan Business High School in New Haven and the Center for Global Studies in Norwalk, at least in the fall of 2006 (Holtz 2006). However, as it will be later mentioned, Arabic programs are prone to obstacles and failure, especially outside the private realm. But as for Arabic programs in public schools, the precedents are as varied as they come.

        At the selective end of the scale is elite public high school Stuyvesant in New York City, where a student-organized push for Arabic in 2004 led to the language being offered alongside a multitude of other less commonly taught languages (Bahrampour 2004). But even at Stuyvesant, there were obstacles in introducing Arabic as an elective: it took the school’s Muslim Student Association three years and a lot of fundraising to put the idea into motion, even after comparably uncommon but arguably less pertinent languages like German, Japanese, Hebrew, and Korean had long been offered. (Levin 2005). But if the obstacles of getting Arabic into Stuyvesant were tough, the challenges other public schools have faced are more or less insurmountable.

        At the forefront of public schools embroiled in the battle to instruct Arabic is a public school in Brooklyn called the Khalil Gibran International Academy. A small public school that was founded in part by the New Visions for Public Schools organization in New York City, its mission to “develop, maintain, and graduate life-long learners who have a deep understanding of different cultural perspectives, a love of learning and a desire for excellence with integrity” was brought to a halt by backlash (About Our School).

A 2007 protest in favor of Khalil Gibran International Academy. Source: In These Times

Expected to be an Arabic-English dual-language program and a promising start for instruction in the Arabic language, the school in its infancy of the spring of 2007 began to feel the wrath of bigots and critics alike. Only months after plans for the school were announced, vocal administrators and parents at neighboring school PS 282 in Park Slope, the originally planned area for the school, forced KGIA to move to a new location (Bosman & Medina 2007). Even Diane Ravitch “questioned why the city should have specialized language and cultural schools at all”. But the most vicious attacks would come from a now-defunct neoconservative newspaper called the New York Sun which published an op-ed by Daniel Pipes, a director of a right-wing neoconservative think tank and vehement enemy to Arabic instruction (Wessler 2009). Calling the school a “madrassa”, an Arabic word for a school that has connotations with Islamist extremism, Pipes said of the school, “Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with…Islamist baggage”. Not soon afterwards, a group formed called the Stop the Madrassa Community Coalition sprang up and also began to attack Khalil Gibran Academy and its founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, who was eventually forced to resign due to an incident involving a t-shirt reading “Intifada NYC” (intifada being an Arabic word associated with Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza), despite the t-shirt not relating to the school in the slightest. Due to the ruthless attacks of Pipes and Stop the Madrassa, Almontaser was forced to resign from the school she helped to found and enrollment at the new school plummeted.  

       Consequently, the discussion on Middle Eastern culture and history as well as instruction in Arabic was significantly cut back on in class, with teachers going so far as to cut pictures of mosques out of textbooks in fear of retribution. A former student of the school is quoted as saying, “I know there are so many people being racist against the school. I don’t read the articles, but everyone is against learning Arabic as a second language”. On the current site for the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the only mention of Arabic instruction anywhere on the website is one sentence at the end of information page: “Through our English and Arabic language program, students graduate with the bilingual and bi-literate skills needed for multicultural contexts” (About Our School). Nowhere else is it found.

        Similar to this experience was an effort to implement a language programs for Arabic in public schools in San Francisco. In an interview with Lara Kiswani, the executive director of Arab Resource & Organizing Center in San Francisco and leader of the effort, parallels are in fact made with the plight and virtual failure of Khalil Gibran in the face of racism and xenophobia. However, in San Francisco, the implementation of the Arabic program has yet to get off the ground, since the process has nearly constantly been stalled by a wealthy, private, pro-Israel institution called Jewish Community Relations Council that seeks to attack and marginalize anything it perceives to be critical of Israel (Sokolower 2017). On top of this obstacle, there has been some opposition to the program, along with the implementation of a Vietnamese language program, among the teaching staff of the schools to be affected by the implementation; they sent petitions to the district saying that they did not want to attract more Arab or Vietnamese families and change the demographics of their schools.

        Comparable attacks can be seen elsewhere. The Glenn Beck-founded conservative platform The Blaze levelled criticism at the New York City public elementary school PS 368 after it was announced that the principal planned to introduce Arabic instruction requirement for all grades in order to boost the school’s standing and enrich the students’ education. Says the author, “Rather than focusing on more common (some would argue even more useful) languages like French or Spanish, [the principal] has chosen Arabic in an effort to achieve an International Baccalaureate, which would apparently be a wonderful sentiment for the school’s reputation” (Hallowell 2012). As a reminder, Arabic is the fifth most spoken language worldwide.


Data & Proposal

        And yet amid all of criticism and protest leveraged against the Arabic language being taught in public schools, there have been instances of success. Although not a program in a public school, the High School Cooperative Language Program at Yale University has offered classes in Arabic to New Haven high school students for twenty years (Holtz 2006). And while the program does have a tuition, it specifically gives students in the New Haven public school system the chance to learn uncommon languages, Arabic among them, for free (Zorthian 2013). In Northern Virginia, amid rising SAT scores and graduation rates in the same district, elementary schools in Fairfax county will have the option to teach Arabic as a language courtesy of a program called FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools). Specifically, Beech Tree elementary school already introduced the Arabic language into its curriculum (Benton 2007). In Kalona, Iowa, with a population of approximately 2,200, is Kalona Elementary, a public school mainly populated by the children of either Mennonite families or of long-settled German and Czech groups. Due to an acquisition of a federal grant through the Foreign Language Acquisition Program, Kalona Elementary then began teaching Arabic to its students, imparting aspects of Arab culture while scrupulously trying to avoid mention of religion of any sort (Freedman 2008). And though the school has faced some early opposition from the town—questions of why Iowa children should be learning the “language of the enemy”—the program seems successful not only in educating the students in a foreign language but promoting a cultural education rarely seen in American schools.

        Then there is the Arabic Immersion Magnet School (AIMS) in Houston, Texas. Despite being a magnet school (although the school considers itself a Houston Independent School District public elementary school), it is still noteworthy in its aspect of Arabic immersion; aside from Khalil Gibran, which has all but moved away from the original dual-language intent, and one of the only of its kind (Our Mission). Although this school also faced protest (“You’re taking little babies here, you’re taking little Pre-K, and you’re not allowing them to participate in the American family by assimilating them”, one of the protestors commented), AIMS seems to be thriving (Isensee 2016).

Source: Houston Press

Beyond the success of previous Arabic language instruction programs, there exists a plethora of reasons to teach public school children Arabic. It listed by the Central Intelligence Agency as a critical language, and is thereby not only sought out by the government, but also may allow learners to more easily get government jobs (CIA Values Language Capabilities Among Employees).  In a very broad sense, early language exposure and a multilingual environment may enhance the empathy and effective communication of children, who then carry those skills into adulthood (Fan et al. 2015). And with Arabic, the advantages only multiply, especially in the context of learning about and empathizing with Arabic-speaking cultures which are especially demonized in this day and age, considering the xenophobic platform upon which our current president ran and Executive Order 13769, otherwise known as Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States (six out of the seven countries included in the immigration ban are Arab countries). In light of this, the U.S. is almost certainly going to be involved, whether via conflict or diplomacy, in the Arab world, and ability in Arabic will only become more pertinent.

        And it is these reasons that build up the base of the proposal to push for more Arabic education in public schools, especially beginning in elementary school. In order to put this into motion, the governments of larger coastal cities where the Arab populations are larger should allocate more money for grants to give to elementary schools to specifically begin teaching Arabic, and remain in support of Arabic language programs even in the midst of opposition from xenophobic critics and wealthy, private organizations alike (Demographics). These are the obstacles in particular that led to downfall of the Khalil Gibran International Academy and thwarted the efforts to create the Arabic language pathway in San Francisco; in removing these, implementation of Arabic instruction will likely become much easier. And in the long-term, popularization of the Arabic languages in larger cities may incite further programs in more rural areas of the U.S., with the potential for more Kalona Elementaries to crop up.


        The teaching of the Arabic language in American public schools is both highly contentious and incredibly important. In terms of current global events to even simple cultural enrichment and empathy, the ability to speak and understand Arabic is invaluable. And yet, because of near constant protest and pushback, Arabic instruction remains firmly rooted in private and charter schools, accessible mainly to the wealthy and privileged. If policies by large cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York City were to be made to create and protect public Arabic programs, the aforementioned limited accessibility would come to an end, and perhaps the current tide of xenophobic sentiment towards the Arab world could be convinced to reevaluate its stance.


        I would like to thank Clare Kambhu for being an awesome TA and Professor Mira Debs for being a wonderful instructor for an extremely important class. Many thanks also to my peer editors Alejandra Corona Ortega and Mariana Suárez-Rebling.

Works Cited

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