Tongue Twisters

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, August 7, 2005

Arabic teacher Mustafa Alhashimi paces in front of his five adult students, clucking like a turkey. He's illustrating the sound made by the letter qaaf, and his class at the International Language Institute in Northwest Washington is earnestly clucking along with him.

"This is an important letter," Alhashimi says. Qaaf is used in the word Quran, after all, and in Qatar, which is where student Lydia Kepich, a special education teacher, will be going to work in a few months. Unfortunately, neither she nor the rest of the class is quite sure how to pronounce Qatar. A lot of Westerners pronounce it like "gutter," which, Alhashimi emphasizes, is really not nice.

It's the sixth week of this 10-week evening class in beginning Arabic, and the students are still working their way through the 28-letter Arabic alphabet. Some of the sounds the letters make don't have equivalents in English, and they can be difficult for native English speakers to enunciate. Furthermore, the striking letters, with their flourishes, curves, circles and dots, change form depending on where they are in the word. A stand-alone qaaf is what Alhashimi calls a "cup-like shape," beginning with a small circle on the right side with two dots over it. A qaaf that begins a word flattens out on the left. A qaaf in the middle of a word is a small circle with the two dots over it and is linked to the letters before and after it. A qaaf at the end of a word is connected to the letter before it on the right, includes a dotted circle and ends with an upward curve, or cup, on the left.

Alhashimi, 40, insists that all of this is understandable. "Everything about the Arabic language is logic," he assures the class, as he draws the letters on the white board at the front of the small rectangular room. Other than the students' books and notes and Alhashimi's dry-erase lesson, there is nothing remotely Arabic in the room, no place a pupil's wandering eye can land for help; instead, the walls are festooned with reminders about English verb constructions for the daytime ESL students.

Kepich, 30, doesn't have to be here: When she moves to Qatar for her two-year stint, she'll be teaching in English at an international school; she won't have to know Arabic. "But I want to learn it," she says. Her classmates include a French teacher who also conducts tours of Israel, an international development consultant and a Marine, all part of the wave of professionals who see opportunities in knowing Arabic and have helped make it one of the fastest-growing foreign languages in the United States.

Kepich, who has reddish-brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and blue eyes, is paying her own way in this $320 course, and applying herself. She's often one of the first to raise her hand and asks questions at the break. "This is the one who reviewed last class," Alhashimi says of her, when she's the only one who can answer a question.

Alhashimi is a enthusiastic yet stern taskmaster, praising the students when they nail a pronunciation or remember a letter, rebuking them when they don't. "It's not very hard at all," he says, cajoling a discouraged student. "You need to add more chips to your memory," he scolds them all later. And, "My ear is sensitive," he warns. "Listen to Sean. If Sean can make it, you can make it."

Sean Riordan is the star of the class, by virtue of having already picked up a lot of Arabic during more than two years in Kuwait. A 34-year-old Marine Corps major dressed in jeans and flip-flops, he has enrolled in the class to, as he puts it, "get all the things I missed" and because he anticipates a return to the region in his next tour of duty.

Alhashimi is an Iraqi who grew up in Kuwait and emigrated to the United States when he was 25. A computer specialist who is working on his PhD, Alhashimi has a mustache and wears glasses that he occasionally removes toward the end of the intense 21/2-hour class, rubbing his eyes. He started teaching Arabic as a volunteer at his Falls Church mosque, Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, helping the children of non-Arab Muslims better understand and appreciate the words from the Quran that they recite every day. Now Alhashimi's students are adults--members of the military, diplomats, potential translators. He considers teaching Arabic more than a job; it's a labor of love.

"I adore my language," he explains. "I want everyone to know about my language." The more Americans who learn, the better, he adds. "They will be able to communicate with the Arabic world without any mediator or middleman."

The wave of interest in learning Arabic is part of a larger phenomenon in adult education. Americans are signing up for all kinds of foreign language classes, trying to master Chinese, become fluent in Spanish or figure out Farsi. According to a 2002 survey by the Modern Language Association, foreign language study in colleges and universities had jumped by 17 percent over 1998. While the MLA doesn't have any hard data on older language learners, Executive Director Rosemary Feal says that anecdotal evidence indicates that there's been a similar increase in adult study.

That certainly seems to be the case in the Washington area, where institutions from community colleges to private language schools report enrollment surges. While some adults are taking classes for personal enrichment, many, like Kepich and Riordan, believe a second language will open doors for them.

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