When people from across the United States think of South Louisiana, they tend to think of Cajun culture, crawfish boils and zydeco music. But this summer, 25 high schools students from around the nation traveled to LSU to spend six weeks immersing themselves- not in Cajun culture- but in all things Arabic.
The students came to LSU as part of the STARTALK program, one of the projects of the National Security Language Initiative, which is a multi-agency effort to expand foreign language education in under-taught critical languages. The initiative funds new and existing language programs for students at all educational levels, from kindergarten through college, as well as professional development opportunities for teachers of these critical languages. In addition, it provides incentives and rewards for foreign language learning and use in the workforce. Along with Arabic, the initiative also promotes the teaching of Chinese, Hindi, Persian and Urdu.
The students based at LSU lived on campus for six weeks and learned to speak, read and write Arabic with the help of several engaging and energetic professors from around the globe. They also learned about the Arabic culture and the importance of proper pronunciation in Arabic. The intensive course enabled the students to earn additional high school course credits.
The $100,000 STARTALK grant was awarded to the Institute of Critical Languages & Cultural Exchange in Baton Rouge and was administered by the National Foreign Language Center at the UNiversity of Maryland. LSU served as a partner in the grant and as the host site for the program which was titled, "Al-Bab Maftooh. Arabic Proficiency within Cultural Dimensions."
The program was led by Najoua Hotard, founder and president of the Institute of Critical Languages and Cultural Exchange, who also served as one of the Arabic teachers. "The goal of this program is not only to teach these students to read and write this language, but also to help them understand this culture and be good ambassadors," Hotard said.
Several LSU facility and staff were involved in the program, including Mechanical Engineering Professor and Associate Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives Su-Seng Pang and coordinator in the Office of Strategic Initiatives Anthony Picado.
One of the more dynamic teachers in the program was Adel El-Daba, professor at the University of Cairo and chair of the world languages at the American College in Cairo. El-Daba was fully engaged with the students, leading them in chants, songs and other memory tricks to help them lean the Arabic language. He even sang parts of the Koran to the students in Arabic to demonstrate how musical language is, and encouraged students to create a rap song to help them remember the Arabic alphabet. The students seemed to love it, and even drummed and danced along with the song.
"I am impressed by the kids we have here and feel so privileged to teach them," El-Daba said.
He spent a great deal of time helping the students with their pronunciation of Arabic words and teaching them the history and origin of words so they could better understand the language. " Arabic is such a very rich language," her told his students. "Arabic words carry a lot of weight."
During one class, El-Daba stood atop his desk and asked the class to shout out the words to describe his actions. Later, he borrowed a student's cell phone and had a make-believe conversation in English and then Arabic to demonstrate the differences between the two languages. The result was a group of students who were completely wrapped up in the learning process.
Both Hotard and El-Daba stressed the importance of teaching the Arabic language and culture. "The best way to get peace with others is to understand them, and language is the key," El-Daba said.