Arabic has become the language of choice for Ottawa-area elementary school students registered in foreign language classes at the city's public schools.
The Ottawa Carleton District School Board says about half of the 5,000 students enrolled in foreign language classes are taking Arabic.
As a result, 12 schools across the city offer Saturday morning classes in Arabic and a growing number are offering after-school classes, with enrolment far outnumbering the next two most popular choices, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
Catherine Deschambault, the principal of the continuing education department at the school board, said Arabic is the third-most common first language in Ottawa, after English and French. The majority of people learning the language have some cultural connection to it, either because they are Muslim or have roots in a country where Arabic is spoken.
More than 37,000 people who identified themselves as of Arabic origin were living in Ottawa as of the 2006 Census, but that does not include people of other ethnicities who speak the language.
Somali-born Mohamed Moussa said he learned Arabic when he was a boy and wanted his son to get the same education. He said the courses offer an opportunity for his son to learn about his Muslim faith through Arabic-language versions of the Quran.
"If you read it in Arabic and explain it in Arabic then the meaning is more tasteful and you can get a more accurate meaning and that gives them identity and their culture," Moussa said.
Popularity growing in schools
Sandy Richardson, the principal of Barrhaven Public School, said the popularity of the course has spread to people who are neither Muslim nor of Arabic descent.
Richardson says many of the 14 students starting classes this week at her school are in French immersion and their parents see the value in learning another language.
"Children are just more comfortable in hearing languages around them because they go and visit other children at their homes and might hear a second or third language," said Richardson. "People are really interested in connecting with the community that they live in."
Barrhaven student Zach Coutts, 11, said he started after-school classes on Monday for social reasons.
"Most of my friends speak Arabic and I wanted to speak Arabic to them because they would be more comfortable speaking Arabic," Coutts said.
"All languages can be different, that doesn't mean you don't like them. It's worth a try."
Arabic language classes are also offered for a credit at the high school level in both the Ottawa Public and Catholic school boards.