College of LAS « Illinois

Student Life

Arabic Language Program Serves Heritage Speakers

Arabic classroom

For Imad Khan, a junior from Chicago, the most challenging part of his first Arabic class is that the teacher spoke solely in that language.

A religious Muslim who came to this country five years ago from his native Pakistan, Khan desired to acquire a deeper understanding of the Quran. So he enrolled in a newly created Arabic language class for students with heritage backgrounds.

The Arabic for heritage students program contains mostly second-generation immigrants who have had some exposure to the language. This is the second year that the class has been offered, making it part of a nationwide educational trend to provide separate language tracks for heritage students.

"The students have some background because their parents (may) speak it at home," says Elabbas Benmamoun, associate professor of linguistics and head of the Department of Linguistics. "Students come with different degrees of fluency, depending to what extent they speak it at home, if they speak it with their friends, if there was a Sunday school or something like that."

U. of I. is one of the few campuses in the country to provide such a class for Arabic heritage learners, he says.

"The campus community has a large heritage speaker population in the student body and the Champaign-Urbana community itself," says Steve Witt, associate director for the Center for Global Studies, which funds the program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences through grants from the U.S. Department of Education. "That's one reason LAS is able to offer this class. This campus has such a strong international studies program. One of our priorities in the center is to provide support on campus to teaching these less commonly taught languages. Those combined create an atmosphere where it's possible for us to offer such a program."

At Illinois, the only other language program that offers heritage classes is Spanish, although there is a possibility that classes for heritage students in Korean and Hindi may be established in the future, Witt says.

Khan's native language is Urdu. He could read Arabic before starting the class. Many words in Urdu are similar to Arabic, so he estimates he can understand about 30 percent of them.

The heritage students are ethnically diverse, but most have parents who have emigrated from the Middle East and North Africa, Benmamoun says.

"Most of us are Muslim," says Khan, a molecular and cellular biology major. "I think the instructor lectures us differently than he would in a nonheritage section."

The key difference between the heritage class and the traditional elementary section is the pace. Many of the students already know the alphabet and some know how to write, whereas the students in other elementary sections are starting from scratch.

"When you are dealing with the heritage students, they are more attuned to the culture, so you try to vary the content a little bit," Benmamoun says. "You do more films, news broadcasts, materials that are more easily accessible to students who have had exposure to the language."

The creation of the heritage class, along with the recently hired Arabic lecturer who will manage the ever-expanding program, are part of a move toward establishing an Arabic Studies major and minor, which they hope will be approved by the University within two years. The program also hopes to introduce Arabic to at least one of the local high schools and intensify the outreach efforts to the local and regional school communities.

Ever since 9/11, student demand for Arabic language classes at U. of I. has skyrocketed. This fall there are 100 heritage and nonheritage students enrolled in elementary Arabic classes alone. Four years ago, there were 100 students in the entire Arabic language program, compared to 140 this semester.

"There is a lot of interest in the language because of the (current) political context, so that is what's driving this interest, and there's no reason to doubt that it will continue," says Benmamoun, whose department is spearheading the creation of the major. "I think it will continue. The good thing is that we are well-positioned to respond to the demand."

By Laura Weisskopf Bleill
Fall/Winter 2005-06