Monday, May 07, 2007

Beacon No. 103: National Security for the Sesame Street Set


It’s nearly impossible to see your foreign-policy tax dollars at work, but in one case your tax dollars are teaching dozens of six-year-olds to speak and write in Arabic.

In eastern Iowa.

At Kalona Elementary School in Kalona, Iowa, Susie Swartzendruber recently won a three-year, $600,000 grant to teach Arabic to all the school’s K-5 students. The Iowa native had lived in rural Egypt from 1982-1985, speaks the Egyptian dialect, and applied for the grant with the goal of increasing cross-cultural understanding.

That hopeful phrase has additional resonance in Kalona, a largely Mennonite farming community of just 2,300 where road signs caution motorists to yield to horse-drawn vehicles.

The Kalona Elementary grant is part of the interagency National Security Language Initiative (NSLI). It can be renewed twice depending on favorable reviews, so by the time today’s first graders turn nine, they’ll already have several years’ more Arabic instruction than almost any other native-born Americans.

I visited Kalona Elementary on May 2 for the premiere of Arabic DVD Dictionary, starring one of the school’s first-grade classes. This video is the brainchild of Erica Ruen, an about-to-graduate education student at the University of Iowa who taught at Kalona Elementary as part of her degree work. Arabic DVD Dictionary is designed to showcase the kids’ achievements and maybe teach viewers a bit of Arabic as well.

The dictionary begins with the first-graders welcoming viewers, introducing themselves (“Ana ismiy Hali!” “Ana ismiy Payton!” “Ana ismiy Paul!”), and naming months, numbers, and some of their favorite things (including several floppy dolls and stuffed animals) in Arabic. They’re clearly having fun and by report are picking up Arabic words and numbers quickly, to the point that can do simple math in Arabic.

The students pronounce their words with a distinctively Iraqi accent thanks to their instructor, Zahra al-Attar, an Iraqi immigrant living in Iowa City with her husband—a doctor at the University of Iowa’s hospitals—and their two children. Al-Attar left Iraq for the U.S. in 1994, finding life under Saddam’s regime intolerable, and lived in Georgia and Michigan before settling in Iowa.

Erica Ruen thinks that having Iraqi students create an English-language video dictionary would be an excellent tool for increasing cross-cultural understanding on the Iraqi end, and her fiancée Peter, on leave from duty in Iraq, agrees, saying it would help the U.S. mission in Iraq to have Iraqis know more about the U.S.

Iraq war or no Iraq war, the U.S. will always need Arabic speakers—and people who have a thorough understanding of the Arab world. Hopefully President Bush and his successors will extend and enhance NSLI funding so these kids can continue learning and, by the 2020s, be part of this country’s first post-9/11 generation of native-born strategic language speakers.

Thanks to Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Lee Hermiston for writing both the original story that led me to Kalona Elementary and his post-premiere follow-up.

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