Fairfax County Public Schools has good reason to celebrate National Arab American Heritage Month this April: enrollment in its Arabic language course has nearly doubled over the last decade.
FCPS said 435 students entered the program for the 2012–2013 school year. For the 2022–2023 school year, there are 838 students enrolled in Arabic 1–4 and International Baccalaureate courses.
That growth is impressive over a longer timeline. In 2000, data from the school system shows 79 students in Level 1, 54 students in Level 2, and 46 students in Level 3 of the course.
Wisam Moula — Justice High School’s lead Arabic teacher, with 16 years of experience — says awareness about learning Arabic started to expand around 2007 with U.S. engagement in the Middle East.
“The government itself was focusing on this and listing Arabic as a critical language. So there was encouragement about that,” Moula says.
The program started to grow shortly after. Fairfax added Arabic as an option in middle school, and Moula requested adding International Baccalaureate courses the next year.
“The county sent me to have training in Egypt for two weeks,” Moula says. The introduction of IB courses led to a “real spike in the numbers.”
FCPS World Languages Coordinator Christina Andros says the program has expanded enough that students can engage in Arabic courses from early education all the way to graduation.
“We are now at the point in which those students who have gone through the elementary program have the option to continue with the middle school and then continue with the high school, even to be able to achieve that International Baccalaureate program as well,” Andros says.
The language itself isn’t the only thing taught. Learning culture is a huge part of the program.
“You cannot teach any language without teaching the culture, especially if we’re thinking about the global citizen, where … the world is a small village,” Moula says, citing its importance in not just communication, but also business and politics.
“Being in a country, knowing only the language, having no idea about the culture, is not really a good idea,” Moula says.
Arabic dancing, calligraphy, and Islamic art are very popular. As is, of course, Arabic food.
“They love the Arabic food, that’s for sure,” Moula says. “And we offer a lot of food.”
Hits from the culinary realm include tabbouleh (a rich salad), grape leaves (which can be stuffed with delicious mixtures of rice and meat), and sweets like baklawa (a tasty pastry) and knafeh (a wholly different tasty pastry).
Andros says learning another language and culture shows students that the world “can be accessed right outside of our front doors, in our neighborhoods, at our schools.
“The reality for students nowadays isn’t something through a textbook, or maybe a video that was made 10 or 15, 20 years ago. You really see the awareness and the opportunity to effectively communicate with others in and across languages,” she says.
The benefits of that are far-reaching and tangible.
Moula points to business and other opportunities in the Middle East and in North Africa. One of her students graduated from Georgetown University with a focus on international law.
“She received an offer to work in Dubai for … three times the salary that she could make here, only because she was able to speak, write and read in Arabic,” Moula says. “It can open huge opportunities for the students.”
It also helps bridge the gap between the U.S. and the Middle East region.
The reasons students join the Arabic program run the whole gamut.
There are some who don’t speak their parents’ language or don’t know how to communicate with extended family. Another reason may simply be that they love Arabic music and dancing and want to know more, or they’re in a relationship with someone who speaks Arabic. Some are curious because their parents work in the State Department or military.
Of course, there are “a lot of students who come from Muslim countries who are not Arabs,” Moula says.
“This is a common misunderstanding, because people, when they see them, especially counselors, they think just because they look Muslim or [they’re wearing a] hijab, they think, ‘OK, so you’re Arab, why are you taking Arabic?’ They don’t speak one word in Arabic,” Moula says.
Students interested in the program don’t need to know any Arabic to get started. Moulsa says technology, books, and even movies used in the program make Arabic more approachable for everyone.
Find more information on the FCPS Arabic program online.
Featured photo courtesy Donnie Biggs, Fairfax County Public Schools, Office of Communication and Community Relations
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