U.S. Students Learn Arabic Through STARTALK Program
By Michele Scheib
Inspired by world events, literature and places they would like to explore, more students in the United States are studying less traditional languages.
The STARTALK Summer Institutes, a project of the federally funded National Security Language Initiative, makes instruction in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Persian and Urdu more available nationally for students at all grade levels. The program also provides additional training for teachers of these critical languages.
One STARTALK institute at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge brought together students with and without disabilities to work together to learn Arabic and to explore Arabic culture through multimedia presentations, field trips and lectures guided by scholars from the United States and abroad.
The students in the Baton Rouge institute - one of 81 STARTALK projects for 2008 - each received a scholarship for books, supplies and room and board, as well as a small stipend and use of all facilities at Louisiana State University.
Najoua Hotard, Arabic adjunct professor at Loyola and Tulane universities in New Orleans, selected the 25 students, including five who had disabilities, to participate in the Baton Rouge program.
"I am very proud that STARTALK allows us to reach all students," Hotard said. "Every educational system needs to learn about the benefits and richness of a classroom characterized by diversity."
A DESIRE TO LEARN NEW LANGUAGES
Almost 60 percent of middle and high school students in the United States are "somewhat willing" to "very willing" to learn Arabic or other foreign languages not commonly studied in the U.S. schools, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Another study found that among first-year college students with disabilities, 24 percent have already completed a foreign language course by their spring semester and another 38 percent plan to take a foreign language. By their senior year, half of college students with disabilities have completed a foreign language course, according to unpublished results from the 2006 National Survey on Student Engagement, conducted among first-year and senior-year students at U.S. post-secondary institutions.
One of the students taking part in the five-week STARTALK Arabic program in Baton Rouge was Monica Torrez, who attends Riverside Community College in California. "The Arabic alphabet and learning how to connect the written letters together was the easiest for me," said Torrez, who also knows Spanish. "The most difficult was to conjugate the verbs and learn the sounds that the letters make."
Torrez, a special education major, served as a one-on-one assistant to Jemila, a high school student with autism taking the course.
"If Jemila was stuck, she came to me for help. She sometimes got stressed if she didn't understand what was going on in class," said Torrez, who added that Jemila's Arabic language skills improved in the program. "When I asked her about the class, she said she loved it and wanted to continue learning Arabic."
Everett Walker, an 18-year-old with diabetes and a mobility disability who also studied at the Baton Rouge institute, hopes to use his Arabic to serve his country by doing intelligence work for the U.S. government. "In class, we gained more and more knowledge. It's not just about speaking, but also about the culture as a whole," Walker said.
Shoeb Khan, a computer science major who uses a power wheelchair and already speaks Hindi and English, participated in the STARTALK institute to add Arabic to his language skills. "The class exceeded what I expected," he said. "The method of instruction was effective since it was fairly easy to grasp - and frequent repetition helps."
In summer 2009, Khan wants to continue his Arabic studies in Egypt, perhaps through another scholarship from the National Security Language Initiative. Torrez and Walker also see studying abroad in the Middle East as a goal.
CREATING INCLUSIVE CLASSROOMS
To include all students in their classrooms, language faculty must address disability issues.
"As long as instruction is individualized and tailored to fit different learning styles and needs, everyone can experience success," Hotard said. "Every student needs accommodations as well as an individualized learning plan."
STARTALK participants in Baton Rouge reinforced their reading, speaking, writing and listening comprehension skills with individualized instructional programs though the Cairo, Egypt-based Arab Academy Web site. This is useful for students who require extra help or who are advancing quickly in their language acquisition.
"The interesting aspect about my experience this summer was that the students with disabilities did not expect special privileges," Hotard said.
"They were held to high standards and performed as well [as], and in some cases better than, the ones without disabilities. All students in my class had a special talent and gift to share with the others," she said.
The National Security Language Initiative, announced early in 2006 by President Bush, is an effort by government agencies to increase the number of Americans learning Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic and languages in the Iranian/Indic/Turkic families.
More information on the National Security Language Initiative ( http://exchanges.state.gov/youth/programs/nsli.html ) is available on the State Department Web site.
Also see the Web sites of STARTALK ( http://startalk.umd.edu/ ), Mobility International USA ( http://www.miusa.org/ ) and the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange ( http://www.miusa.org/ncde ).
See also "U.S. Students Increasingly Choosing To Learn Foreign Languages ( http://www.america.gov/st/washfile-english/2006/November/20061108160523berehellek0.3019525.html )" and "A Personal Experience in International Relations ( http://www.america.gov/st/educ-english/2008/April/20080522173839SrenoD0.458523.html )," and the "Disability and Ability ( http://www.america.gov/publications/ejournalusa/1106.html )" issue of eJournal USA.
Michele Scheib is a project specialist with the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by Mobility International USA, the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange works to increase the participation of people with disabilities in international educational and cultural programs.
Source: U.S. Department of State
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