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High Schoolers Learn Arabic in Des Moines

Rob Dillard

It’s time for Arabic class at Central Academy on the west edge of downtown Des Moines. Today’s lesson: naming the seasons of the year.

Leading the class of 20 high school students is Abeer al-Haddad. She’s a native of Iraq. Her family left home to escape the war – first to Syria in 2007, then to the U.S. in 2012.  She’s in her first year of teaching Arabic in the Des Moines Public School District.  She says there are many reasons the language should be of interest to people in the West.

“It’s spoken in 22 countries in the world," she says. "So by learning just one language, this will open the doors to 22 countries in the Middle East.”

Posted on one wall of the classroom is the Arabic alphabet. There is nothing about it that looks familiar to an English speaker. One student describes the letters as individual works of art. To read or write Arabic, you move from right to left on the page. Yet al-Haddad contends it’s an easier language to learn than it appears.

“Some people feel it’s difficult, but it’s a phonetic language," she says. "The way you say it, the way you pronounce is the way you write. It doesn’t have silent letters. Some things are irregular, but not too many.”

She has not quite convinced student Alexis Crute of Arabic’s simplicity.

“It is not coming easily, but we’re taking it one step at a time with the language," she says. "We’re taking the easier stuff first, so it’s not as hard as it could be. "Reading it is the hardest thing for me right now.”

Crute says she’s taking the class for the pure pleasure of learning a vastly different language. Her classmate, Andrew Reavis, has a more practical reason for picking up Arabic.

“I kind of want to be in the military," he says. "You’re mostly sent out to Afghanistan or Iraq or something, and that’s their language over there, and so I thought that would be pretty cool.”

Des Moines offers classes in a number of languages many smaller school districts can’t provide. Students can study Japanese and Chinese, for example. Kisha Barnes is the coordinator for the world languages program in Des Moines.

“One of our goals is to educate global citizens," she says. "We would like our students as they leave our doors to be prepared to enter the world as caring and knowledgeable citizens, and learning a world language is part of that.”

World culture is also an ingredient in the education of global citizens. That’s why Abeer al-Haddad mixes in discussions of food, art and music.

“Western exposure to this important part of the world, the Arabic world, is very limited," she says. "They need to learn more about the culture, it has its own fascinating cultural elements.”

To get started on Arabic, she offers a simple greeting often heard in the Arab world.

“Peace upon you," she says in Arabic. "The response would be upon you peace.”

It’s an opening to a language spoken by more than 300-million people worldwide.