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Arabic classes grow at UI

BY KATHLEEN SERINO | APRIL 08, 2009 7:30 AM

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When high-school senior Hana Ibrik decided she wanted to learn Arabic, she was forced to look beyond the walls of City High.

The 17-year-old chose to study Arabic at the UI as a postsecondary option to her high-school degree. While she has already fulfilled her language requirement in German, she said, the decision to pick up Arabic was largely because of her Syrian descent.

“[Americans] have so many ties with the Middle East,” Ibrik said.

The language, which has grown in popularity in recent years, is not offered to students in the Iowa City School District. But according to UI officials, Arabic education now holds a lot of merit at the college and high-school levels.

Iowa City School Board President Toni Cilek said talks have occurred about the possibility of adding Arabic to the language lineup — French, Spanish, and German — offered at local high schools.

But recent budget cuts will likely prevent those additions.

“We have talked about the option of changing the specific languages that we offer that will be more significant to the current global culture,” Cilek said.



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Philip Lutgendorf, a UI professor of Hindi and modern Indian studies, said there’s also been a push at the federal level to incorporate Arabic studies into K-12 schooling. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2006, then-President George W. Bush instated the National Security Language Initiative, which works to increase the amount of American speakers and teachers of “critical-need foreign languages.”

“It’s one of the major languages of world culture,” said Lutgendorf, noting it’s important for the United States to have Arabic speakers ready to communicate with people around the world.

UI Arab language lecturer Hope Fitzgerald said the university’s program has grown in recent years. Last semester, 60 UI students were enrolled in Arabic classes, and more than 25 were in classes focused on Middle Eastern culture — a noticeable increase from the previous year, she said.

More than 300 Critical Language Scholarships are available to fund semesters abroad for UI students wanting an intensive Arabic study program.

Freshman Alexandra Bushby, who has interned at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, added an emphasis in Arabic studies to her degree in speech language pathology to help her communicate with the many Saudi Arabian and Egyptian patients who went to the medical center.

She would like to become fluent in the language, she said.

“In a world that’s so multilingual, it’s not really intelligent for schools to be teaching German and French when many from those countries speak English anyway,” she said.

The 19-year-old called her Arabic classes “fascinating” and said they have taught her to better understand Middle Eastern culture.

Pi Nuernberg, who attended the UI Main Library’s Arab culture exhibition on Tuesday and is a French and Arabic double major, said she thinks it’s beneficial for everyone know at least two languages — especially world leaders.

“I find it embarrassing to only speak one language,” she said.

Showing historic Arab culture in an exhibition — which will remain in the North Exhibition Hall of the UI Main Library until June — is important to the university community, Fitzgerald said.

“I am thrilled that students, staff, and faculty on campus will be able to learn about aspects of the Arab world that are so rarely brought to light here in the United States,” she said.


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