[Photo from Yemen Observer]

By Hakim Almasmari
Yemen Observer, Dec 16, 2006

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the U.S., student enrollment in Arabic courses at American colleges has grown faster than that of any other language except for American Sign Language, according to a survey by the Modern Language Association.

This reveals the rapid rise of the Arabic language among Americans in the United States. Conversely, native Arab speakers seem to be losing their grip on the language. Thousands of second- and third-generation Yemeni Americans are being raised with little or now knowledge of Arabic. “From my experience in this field, I could tell you that not more than 2 percent of American-Arab-Muslim children could really speak the language, understand and comprehend it,” said Noreldeen al-Giyash, the principal of the Peace Academy Islamic School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and an expert in education for more than 17 years.

Muneer Saleh, a U.S.-born Yemeni American, has had problems trying to teach his children the Arabic language. At home, he avoids talking to his three children except in Arabic. The children don’t quite agree with this decision, but he feels that he has no other choice. “Those living in the United States forget the Arabic language. Everywhere they go, only English is spoken, so how do you expect them to keep up with their ancestral language? They will not in such a society if the parents do not encourage it,” said Saleh. “I don’t want to be the one to blame if my children lose their Arabic language, that is why I want to assure that they learn it, even under these difficult situations.

If our mother tongue is lost, then our identity will follow.” The methods that families use to help their children stay connected to their language vary from one family to another. Some parents only subscribe to Arabic satellite channels at home, to help their children understand the language, in the hopes that it will encourage them to speak more. This step has been taken by hundreds of families, and some have even canceled all English speaking channels at home, therefore giving their children no other chance but to listen and watch channels in Arabic.

Many Yemeni families send their kids to Islamic schools and weekend schools to keep the language alive. However, teachers at these schools admit that the students’ desire to learn and study is decreasing. Abdullah Salem, a Yemeni American and a leader of the large Yemeni community in California, says that children are not to blame for their Arabic-language weakness; it is the parents who should be blamed. “Children do not know what is good or bad for them; they take what is given to them, and learn what is taught, not looking at the importance and value of it.”

He added that some Arabic teachers who teach at the weekend schools do not enroll their own children at the school. “One of the teachers here never speaks with his children in Arabic, and all they speak is English,” said Salem. “He, on the other hand is one of our best Arabic teachers and he teaches other people’s children the Arabic language.” Salem adds that the three hours given to students during the weekend are not enough for the students to really learn the language, and much of the time passes in breaks, lunch, and mingling with one another in English.

“It is hard for us to keep them speaking Arabic, even in the class. We have to be patient with the students, because we have no other choice, other than to be patient with them in order for them to learn it willingly,” he added. Young Yemeni Americans agree that their Arabic skills are slipping, but see it as a difficult task to talk in Arabic, especially since many of their parents do not encourage them, and even speak in English at home. “My parents have never encouraged me to talk Arabic. Every time I talk to them in English, they take it as normal, and even respond in English,” said Sami Abdul Nasser, a 26-year-old Yemeni American who has difficulties speaking Arabic.

Many teens believe that when it comes to comprehending, speaking, and using the Arabic language on a daily basis, family and home are primarily responsible. Nasser adds that he learned most of his Arabic through conversation, watching Arabic shows, and asking questions about the meaning of various words. “I started practicing my Arabic with some Arabic school teachers, and try to talk on the phone with friends I know have good Arabic speaking skills,” said Nasser.

“My father did not enroll us in the Arabic weekend school our community was offering. When I felt that the language was important, I enrolled myself and started to learn basic Arabic teachings, even though I was a little older than the other students.”