At the beginning of the present school year several hundred American children of grade school age crossed a threshold of understanding. They started to study Arabic—now spoken by nearly eighty million people—as a second language. Unlike several voluntary experiments that preceded it, the present Arabic program is part of the youngsters' regular curriculum.
The children are students in the grade schools of Ras Tanura, Abqaiq, and Dhahran, the American oil communities in eastern Saudi Arabia. They are learning the language of their host country. Arabic, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, was the third in a succession of tongues to reign as a "world" language of religion and commerce. The first, Hellenistic Greek, gave way to Church Latin which in turn bowed to Arabic during the high tide of Islam. French, then English, succeeded Arabic on the international tradeways.
However, the American school children in Saudi Arabia are unconcerned with the past or present role of Arabic in world affairs. They simply barge into the daily problem of trying to master strange sounds, some of which are not to be heard in their own language. Like Arab children, the American youngsters are learning Arabic by speaking it; writing will come later. This new classroom encounter tests the mettle and imagination of children and teachers alike.
Last October, a visitor to Dhahran was invited to observe the restive progress of the youngsters. Allowing for the apprehension of the observer, who had years ago forgotten that boys and girls in a classroom scorn repose in the same degree that nature abhors a vacuum, the following is a fair report on the building of one fragile bridge of understanding between the West and the Middle East. As a minimal courtesy the names of the children have been changed. Another condition should be underscored: the phonetic approximations of the trial-run conversations do not follow any particular system....
"Meen George?" (Who is George?)
Nawal Abdi, a young Lebanese graduate of the American University of Beirut, scanned the classroom and waited for an answer. The first graders shuffled their feet and twisted in their seats. The teacher leaned forward, rested her hands on her knees, and tried again.
One boy turned in his seat and started to point. The others rapidly joined him, their small fingers rising and falling jerkily.
"Hoo-wee George!" they called out. (He is George.)
George sat with most of the back of his hand pressed into his mouth. His eyes darted around the room through the arrow-flight of pointing fingers. He caught sight of Bob and started to giggle appreciatively. Bob had his head down between his knees under the desk. His hair was inches from the floor.
"Marhaba," Miss Abdi said. Her voice was brisk and cheerful. "Marhaba." (Hello.)
This time there was no pause. The word for "hello" had become familiar.
"Marhaba, Miss Abdi," the class replied. The children piped the answer in a burst of energy. In the silence that followed, the sound of shuffling feet rose in volume.
"Adele!" Miss Abdi called.
Adele had furtively raised her desk top a few inches and removed a book, a ruler and a pencil.
"Please close the desk," Miss Abdi said, "and put everything back."
Adele put each article back, one at a time.
"Shook-rahn." (Thank you.)
"Shook-rahn," Adele repeated after the teacher.
"No, no. I say 'shook-rahn to you. That is 'thank you.' Now close the desk for good. Kah-lahss." (It's all over.)
"Tighyib?" (Meaning fine or O.K.)
By this time, Bob, the born cliff-hanger, had changed his position. His head was now hanging into the aisle. Inch by inch he came closer to the floor.
"Kaif ill-hall, Fred?" Miss Abdi asked, several aisles away. (How are you, Fred?)
"Muh-nee-uh," Fred answered softly.
"Kaif ill-hall, Fred?" Miss Abdi asked again. "And this time don't tell your arm, tell me. Tighyib?"
Fred dropped his arm. "Muh-nee-uh," he said. The answer was firm and confidant.
"Tighyib." Miss Abdi smiled and turned toward another young pupil.
Along one wall of the room were hung Halloween cutouts: big pumpkin faces and ominous black cats. Along another wall were ranged crayon drawings all with the same title—"My Family." High in one corner of the room was the Saudi Arabian flag bearing in flowing Arabic calligraphy the Muslim testament of faith: "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God."
Miss Abdi caught Tommy's roving eye.
"Inta maw-juwd, Tommy?" she asked. (Are you present?)
"Na-ahm, ana maw-juwd," Tommy said quickly. (Yes, I am present.)
While Tommy was declaring his presence, Miss Abdi noticed something strange. Adele had both hands raised behind her head. They were working at a hidden project.
The hands dropped. In one of them Adele held a pair of scissors she had covertly taken from the desk. She was cutting her hair. "But I thought you agreed," Miss Abdi said. "Now put everything in the desk. Everything. Kah-lahss." Miss Abdi waited patiently.
"Shook-rahn, Adele," she said. (Thank you.)
"Shook-rahn," Adele repeated absent-mindedly. Someone snickered softly.
"Meen inta?" (Who are you?) Miss Abdi pressed on, pointing toward Helen.
"Kaif . . . uh . . . kaif . . . ," Helen said tentatively. She held her lower lip with thumb and curved forefinger. Her eyes searched Miss Abdi's face for a clue.
"La," Miss Abdi said gently. (No.)
Helen tried again. "Ana Helen." (I am Helen.)
Ten minutes had passed. The shuffling of feet, sounding dimly like an old vaudeville sand dance, came and went in small waves of restlessness. By this time, Bob had the top of his head firmly planted in the aisle. He mumbled happily to himself, "Ana Helen, ana Helen."
The bridge of understanding had lengthened several handspans. The underpinning of patience secured the slight but significant advance.
Twenty minutes later Miss Abdi was teaching a group of second grade students. Their regular teacher, Fatat Sukkari, was absent. Her illness offered a natural subject for their conversation.
"Wain Miss Sukkari? Hee-ee maw-juwda?" (Where is Miss Sukkari? Is she present?)
"La," the class replied. (No.)
"Laish hee-ee feel-moo-stash-fa?" Miss Abdi asked. (Why is she in the hospital?)
Out of the discussion grew a new sentence: "Hee-ee mar-ee-dah." (She is sick.)
The next day there would be no Arabic class.
"Book-rah?" Miss Abdi asked. (See you tomorrow?)
"Book-rah," the children answered automatically.
"La," Miss Abdi said. (No.) "There will not be Arabic tomorrow. So, ah-shoo-fahk ba-ad book-rah. I will see you the day after tomorrow. Ah-shoo-fahk ba-ad book-rah," she said again.
'Ah-shoo-fahk ba-ad book-rah," several of the children said in unison,
"Again," Miss Abdi said.
This time most of the class tried the new sentence.
The first grade and second grade students had come a long way since the opening session of Arabic. But, their kindergarten colleagues had faltered momentarily. After several weeks they had given way to the fidgets and the classes had been dropped. Another attempt will be made in the near future to overcome the extremely limited concentration of the five-year-olds.
The introduction of Arabic into the grade schools maintained by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) in Saudi Arabia is based upon a decision made in 1961:
"Arabic will be a regular part of the curriculum in grades kindergarten through 6. Initially it will be taught to all students through grade 3 and optional in grades 4 through 9. Each year after the first year the program will move up one grade from the third until it is included in the regular curriculum through grade 6. It will continue as an elective in grades 7, 8, and 9."
The classroom method is simple: listen and speak. No written materials are prepared as yet. When the time comes for the American children to learn to read and write their new second language, they will go directly into the Arabic alphabet, vocabulary and grammar. They will thus learn the language much as Arab children do. No translations and no transliterations will be used.
The children will learn the speech of an educated Arab. They will learn to read and write classical Arabic, the language that evolved from the ancient bardic poetry of the desert and which was fixed in permanent written form by the Koran, the sacred scripture of the Muslim faith.
Previously voluntary classes in Arabic in the Aramco schools had bogged down partly because of a lack of trained teachers who understood the problems of teaching a second language to grade school children. Dr. Habib Kurani of the American University of Beirut in Lebanon helped select the first group of four young Lebanese women who have inaugurated the present Arabic classes in Abqaiq, Ras Tanura and Dhahran. The teachers—Nawal Abdi, Olga Khoury, and Houda and Fatat Sukkari, who are sisters-all met the rather special requirements. All had training in linguistics, the science of language. Their academic background provides the new venture professional continuity from grade to grade. This continuity is essential to the success of the program.
Parents who wish to keep abreast of the experience of their children in the classrooms can borrow tape recordings of actual class sessions. Several parents have been puzzled by a development that hadn't been anticipated. The new sounds the youngsters are learning make marvelous raw material for ultra-mysterious nonsense words, an old schoolyard delight. Some of the children wasted no time in palming off newly-minted words on their unsuspecting parents.
Down the hall from the room where American first-graders are learning Arabic another group of youngsters also studies the language. However, the latter children have a real advantage: Arabic is their native tongue. Their parents work for Aramco and speak English, but they want their children to have a good grounding in Arabic as well as in their other studies, which are, of course, taught in English, Several gifted American children are already able to move down the hall to study Arabic with their Arab neighbors.
The Arabic program has lengthened the school day, but there is as yet no homework. However, the children are encouraged to try out their new language outside the class room. "We call it 'natural homework,'" one of the school administrators remarked. The phrase is an apt one for a novel effort in understanding—it defines the middleground where "the twain shall meet."