How do you say the word "boast" in Arabic? Many students at Lindblom Math & Science Academy could tell you. Only a handful of public high schools in Chicago teach Arabic, and Lindblom has the largest program. Now, this school on Chicago's South Side wants to create an Arabic language and culture center – for the school district and the community. As the principal at Lindblom says: It's all Arabic, all the time.
The Arabic language has a reputation for being tough for English-speaking newcomers, but they keep all that in stride at Lindblom Math & Science Academy. In the Arabic I class, the teacher uses music to help students catch the rhythm of reciting numbers.
GOLDSBERRY/STUDENT: I want to hear it louder. Ready?
Freshman Arianna Dority is in the class.
DORITY: I want to take Arabic – it's unique to me. I like it. It's easy to learn.
That's the attitude Principal Alan Mather wants to flow into the school's hallways.
MATHER: Lindblom has the largest Arabic program because we don't offer Spanish or French or German. [laughs.] Because Mandarin and Arabic are our only two languages. All of our students go into those. It was really just a way for us to provide unique opportunities for our students that they wouldn't get elsewhere.
Mather's school isn't satisfied with just teaching the Arab language. This selective enrollment school plans to create a Center for Arabic Language and Culture. The center would develop Arabic curriculum for teachers across the city, and it would offer cultural activities to the public. The school's modeling the Arabic center after the Confucius Institute at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School. That program focuses on Chinese language and culture, and it's gotten a lot of press and support.
Mather says he gets support, but questions, too.
MATHER: When I get the question from parents 'why?' I say regardless of how you feel about it, we're involved in the Middle East and the more that people here know about language and culture, the better off we're all going to be. We know that there are not enough Arabic speakers. In this country, we've heard about shortages from the military to business groups. And it seems to be something everyone understands is a need but few people put into place.
Experts agree. The National Security Language Initiative determined knowledge of Arabic is critical for national security purposes, and it could help Americans compete globally.
Dima Turkmany advises Lindblom's fledgling Arabic center. She's founder of a Chicago-based nonprofit called the Turath Institute for Arab Arts and Culture. She says the Iraq War was a turning point for interest in Arabic.
TURKMANY: There was great awareness how important this language is and it was a great barrier. Additional to the language was the culture. And you can't understand the culture unless you understand the language.
She hopes Lindblom's Arab culture center shatters stereotypes.
TURKMANY: The biggest misconception is that people don't understand the difference between religion and nationality. They have that synonymous between Islam and Arab. The second misconception is that all Arabs are alike. I mean there are so many common characteristics of the Arabs across the borders from one Arab country to another. But they're also very distinct. It's like a big, woven textile.
The international relations and national security angles are important, so it's little wonder that across the country, more public schools are offering courses in Arabic. But it turns out there's a very practical use for Arabic locally – right in the area around Lindblom School.
Lalainya Goldsberry teaches Arabic at Lindblom and says there's a curious intersection between black students and Arab owners of corner stores. Sometimes there's tension over Arab business presence in black neighborhoods.
GOLDSBERRY: What's really interesting is, I always ask students do you know any people who speak Arabic. A lot of them say, oh, the guy at the gas station or corner store. And they've never spoken to them before. And as they start talking to them, so they try out some of the Arabic phrases and then from there it's the amazing the change. They seem them as real people.
Meanwhile, as Lindblom prepares for the Arabic center, it has formed a steering group that's settling costs and other details. The hope is for it to open by next year and be a model for the school district. Goldsberry came to Lindblom six years ago to help start the rigorous Arabic language program at the school. Even though it's still the beginning of the academic year, Goldsberry allows little English to be spoken in her classroom. She starts by teaching them how to say their names.