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Next L.A. | The Next Wave

Program of Arabic Language Classes Passes First Test

June 11, 1996|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Young students broke into laughter after a classmate responded "si" instead of "naam" when asked for the word "yes" in the Arabic language.

"I can't help it," the student said, "I've taken too many years of Spanish."

A dozen students, most of them in high school, drilled themselves with basic conversation routines during their last day of instruction recently. Each will receive a certificate for completing 90 hours of course work in Arabic, marking the end of a three-month pilot program before it is officially recognized by the Huntington Beach Union High School District this fall.

The district in Orange County would be the first in California to offer credit for Arabic language classes. Recognition would be an important milestone for Muslims, who say acquiring the language is often difficult outside predominantly Muslim countries. Approximately 6 million Muslims live in the United States, about 500,000 of them in Southern California.

Muslim parents say they are eager to have their children learn Arabic so that they will better understand their religion and retain their heritage.

"Muslims in this country are looking for accessibility to the Arabic language," said Shabbir Mansuri, an Indian American and father of three children who took the course.

Spoken by a sixth of the world's population, Arabic is an integral part of the Islamic faith. Muslims pray out of Islam's holy book, the Koran--written in Arabic--five times a day.

The Council on Islamic Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching about Islam and Muslims in public schools, launched the Orange County pilot program earlier this year. The Arabic course was offered after school on Tuesdays, and like the district's other nontraditional language programs, it was taught off campus.

"I took this class because I wanted to learn how to read and understand the language, which is the language of the Koran," said Romy Khouraki, 16, a first-generation Syrian American who attends Marina High School in Huntington Beach.

The demand for Arabic language instruction in the classroom is increasing in the United States, said Shabbir Mansuri, founder and director of the council, which is based in a classroom at a onetime elementary school in Fountain Valley.

In the pilot program, there were children of Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Indian and Pakistani parents. Because of its experimental nature, Mansuri allowed three elementary school children, two college-level students and two high school students from outside the Huntington Beach Union district to take the class.

Besides Arabic, the district already offers Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hungarian, Russian and Hebrew for credit outside of district schools.

Despite the success of the programs, the district does not list these nontraditional languages in its official class catalog. Students must see guidance counselors to apply to take the classes off campus, said Assistant Supt. John Myers.

As with the other language programs, the Arabic course was approved by the district's trustees after it met all the criteria set by the California Board of Education, Myers said.

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As with the other off-campus classes, the district does not pay for the students' instruction. Students pay $150, which Mansuri said goes toward the teacher's salary.

The Council on Islamic Education subsidizes the balance of the cost of the class from its yearly budget, which is funded entirely by donations from Muslim businesses in Orange County, Mansuri said.

The council, with the aid of Cal Poly Pomona professor Sylvian Castel de Oro, worked for two years to get the school district's approval for the language class. Mansuri said he targeted the Huntington Beach district first because it was near the council's office.

As the program establishes itself, Mansuri said, the council will begin to expand it into Los Angeles County.

"Everyone thinks that the Middle East is a volatile region," said Castel de Oro, who began teaching Spanish at Cal Poly after Arabic was dropped more than two years ago because of lack of funding. "And when you have a situation like that, interest by administrators wanes."

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Only three recognized institutions offer Arabic in Southern California, Castel de Oro said. UCLA offers degrees up to the doctoral level; Claremont College and Los Angeles City College offer undergraduate Arabic.

Still, Castel de Oro, who will teach the second level of the Arabic program in the fall, predicts that more schools will begin offering the language as members of the Arab-American community feel a need to understand their cultural heritage.

"They are going to reach an identity crisis and people are going to become increasingly interested in this, much like Spanish language has become important to the Latino community in this country," he said. "Many second- or third-generation Arabs don't know how to speak the language."

School district officials agree.

"The melting pot theory is no longer valid," maintains Carla Rush, curriculum director for the school district. "Each of us wants to validate our heritage and language is an important part of that."

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