Widgets Magazine


The politicization of learning Arabic

Why does Stanford require its students to study foreign languages? According to the Stanford Language Center, it’s because “Stanford students need to be able to initiate interactions with persons from other cultures but also to engage with them on issues of mutual concern.”

It follows then, that most first-year language classes begin with simple interaction phrases such as “my favorite TV show is” and basic cultural information. Chapter one of Stanford’s Spanish textbook Protagonistas teaches “where are you from?” and asks students to identify photos of paella, Salma Hayek and Santiago de Chile. Language, as is said, is a window into culture.

But not all windows are created equal. Chapter one of Stanford’s Arabic textbook al-Kitaab teaches students the phrase “Who wants to work at the United Nations?” In chapter two, students learn “translator, employee” and how to write the names of academic institutes like “Australian National University, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.” Chapter three’s vocabulary list contains “army” and “officer.” Chapter seven: “Who would like to work for the State Department? Why?” Colors didn’t make it in the book. The verb “to think” doesn’t appear until the final chapter.

There are some cultural points woven in — students learn about kebab and “the Arab family,” and individual teachers go above and beyond the textbook to humanize the language. The Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies hosts events in Arabic that feature contemporary artists, writers and public intellectuals. But these are extra opportunities. The standard still emphasizes diplomatic and academic competencies. As a student of Arabic myself, I wonder for which “interactions” and “issues of mutual concern” I am prepared. I’m afraid I’ll get to the Middle East and only remember “so, how ’bout them United Nations?” It was our first lesson, after all.

Arabic learning’s political emphasis is not unique to Stanford. Nearly every university in the English-speaking world uses the aforementioned textbook, al-Kitaab — a textbook that responds to American relations with the Middle East.   

Mahmoud al-Batal, one of the textbook’s authors, writes in the Modern Language Journal that “the post-9/11 era represents the Sputnik Moment for Arabic” — that is, an “era of increased national attention to Arabic as a language vital to national interest and security.” During the original Sputnik Moment, American students learning the Russian language became part of the Cold War strategy. Likewise, American students learning Arabic have become a part of the War on Terror.

Arabic language’s “moment” is being funded in a joint effort by the Departments of Defense, State and Education, which have established various federal programs aimed at teaching college students Arabic and other critical languages. The al-Kitaab textbook was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (an independent federal agency). Increased funding has seen increased student enrollment. According to the most recent study of its type from the Modern Language Association, American student enrollment in Arabic increased by 126.5 percent from 2002 to 2006 and then an additional 46.3 percent between 2006 and 2009.

So perhaps the question is not why we study language, but rather, whom and what does language education serve? What gets taught is not agenda-free nor politically neutral. The way we learn Arabic reveals more about our own, American political climate than about Arab culture. I will keep this in mind as I move through my Arabic education and continue to seek opportunities to see Arabic (and by extension, Arabic speakers) beyond chapter two’s “translators” and “employees.” If language is really a window into a culture, we must expand the current frame to see the full picture.


Contact Madeleine Chang at madeleinechang ‘at’ stanford.edu.

  • Fred

    I think a part of the problem is that MSA is what is taught, rather than spoken Arabic. More often than not, the only useful conversational MSA is high level and academic language. Learning conversational/familiar MSA is fairly pointless in practice. I think what you’re describing is an inherent problem in teaching Arabic, and what Arabic is as a language, rather than a political agenda.

  • Julia Bellotti

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. I think part of the creation of Al-Kitaab has to do with why students want to learn the language. Going into the defense/national security industry is a major factor. Reading Arabic newspapers, listening to the news, i.e. open source information, will be in MSA and you will encounter the vocabulary that you learn in Al-Kitaab. Do I think there should be a variety of textbooks that school can choose to use? Yes. I think the bigger issue is what Fred mentioned below. I, personally have not found Al-Kitaab to be any sort of help while abroad for 2 reasons: A) No one speaks MSA, which is really annoying. When I lived in Jordan, my host brothers and sisters preferred to speak with me in English until I learned the colloquial. and B) As you pointed out in your article, useful things like colors are not in al-Kitaab’s vocabulary. If you’re going shopping, or need medical help, al-Kitaab cannot help you. For students serious about learning the language (or even if you just want to speak with a native), they must take advantage of colloquial classes (which many universities offer) and immersion programs to really learn.

  • alum

    you are great. thanks for being so critical

  • Mark

    It’s the textbook’s fault–not mine. How can you not know as an Arabic student that no one speaks MSA? Every student of Arabic has to choose a dialect at some point–Levantine, Egyptian, Iraqi… But you have a unique benefit to MSA–the ability to read newspapers in cafes from Rabat to Riyadh. You don’t get that benefit when you study Dutch. And you don’t exactly provide compelling evidence that the book is “politicized,” which usually means “advocates a political position.” Because it mentions the UN? Is your contention that the U.S. State Department, the military, and the UN don’t need Arabic linguists? Perhaps a better question to address is why the Middle East is perpetually embroiled in conflict. These crises affect the rest of the world (please see the refugee crisis in Europe for examples of this). Those exigencies demand a response from Western nations–who need Arabic linguists in state apparatuses. Jobs. Not so many people are learning chit-chat Arabic so they can spend the summer holiday in Idlib. The text reflects this reality. And does the text provide a satisfactory and logical progression through what is the brutal grunt work in any foreign language study–vocab, syntax and morphology? Those essential features of the language are unlikely to change much across dialects–so MSA study has got to be beneficial. Take a class in colloquial Levantine Arabic to get into those other language essentials–daily survival and conversation skills. You could argue those are even more important, but without the grammar (as you know) you’ll only get so far colloquially and you’ll hit a wall. There is an ocean of excellent free materials online. Experiment with many different textbooks, videos, and audio courses–some will have your number and will click, opening doors. Others will be less useful. But it’s up to you–it’s your language development, which takes years of really hard work. So quit bitching about your textbook and get busy studying!

  • geode39

    The U.S. gov’t recently enacted a policy to rate Muslim families on their likelihood to join a violent fundamentalist group. No other group in America has been targeted for this program. I think the broader point Madeleine is trying to get to is that people from the Middle East, particularly Islamic and Arabic speaking people are being targeted as part of the U.S.’s war. Instead of teaching Arabic as any other language is taught, Arabic is taught as a tool of military strategy. While it makes sense why universities would do this, given our more than a decade long embroilment in the Middle East, this type of discrimination remains problematic. Also, ‘politicized’ doesn’t necessarily require explicit advocacy of a political position. ‘Politicized’ can be any form of agenda-pushing, including implicit agenda-pushing. An analogy is racism — racism can take implicit forms (e.g. presuming someone is uneducated because she is Black) as well as explicit forms (using the ‘n’ word).

  • Adel Amer

    For people who claim that teaching MSA is pointless and asking to learn spoken Arabic. My question is which spoken Arabic should you learn? It’s such a dilemma for an adult American who want to use the target language as soon as he sees an Arab around. Let tell you. Two Arabs can completely misunderstand each other. Upper Egyption will throw your brain completely off if you spend your whole life in Cairo and never exposed to such accent. Written Language is still in MSA. Would be weird if you start talking in Classical Arabic to a texi deriver down town Tahir or Amman? Yes, but he will understand your message. Since you are not born in Arab country and most probably you’re in your 20s now, then I suggest to start with MSA and then learn one or more dialects after you’ve been exposed to one of the most beautiful languages in this world. You want to be able to taste or test any Arabic text or enjoy he depth of its ocean and the richness of its fabric without learning Classical Arabic. I am so much against Alkitab because of the methodology adapted through classical along with two dialects. You can not be more talnted in getting my brain confused this way !!

  • Mark

    1. What Public Law was recently enacted “to rate Muslim families on their likelihood to join a violent fundamentalist group”? I didn’t hear about it–a link is appreciated. 2. Take a peek at the State Department’s travel warnings page. There are 40 nation-states listed. 17 are Muslim-majority countries, and 7 more are listed due to either direct threats from Islamic terrorism or open Muslim-Christian war. 37 percent of all Muslim-majority nation-states have active travel warnings; 8 percent of the rest of the world does. You can pretend that Al-Shabaab, ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, AQIM, and a whole lot more don’t exist, or you can pretend that their existence is meaningless (wouldn’t want to profile), but you’re just…pretending. 3. If someone were to think that the idea of “United Nations” or “State Department” in a book equaling racism might be a bit overblown, they would be correct. You’re trying way too hard. And if you think your generation, who will be remembered as those who saw latent racism under every rock, in growing grass, and drying paint, will have made the world a better place, then you will be grievously mistaken. You’re not helping. You’re dividing. Otherizing. Fomenting strife, and encouraging hate. The exact opposite of what you profess.