In 2002 the National Security Education Program, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense which collaborates with educational institutions, launched a pilot version of the Language Flagship as part of an effort to enhance language skills in “critical need” languages identified by the U.S. State Department as Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. The Language Flagship is a challenge to U.S. universities to endow students with professional proficiencies in these languages; generous funding and additional resources at the K-12 level are part of the program.
Arabic is at the top of the list alphabetically but is certainly near the top in importance as well. Interactions with the Arab world are important commercially, politically, and militarily, and this importance will only continue to grow. The United States needs professional capabilities in Arabic in many sectors, and it seems only natural that it should try to develop these capabilities in the Arab capital of America.
The University of Michigan and Michigan State University have both received funding for their Arabic programs; in addition State has launched a partnership with the Dearborn Public School District to “develop a national K-12 model for Arabic foreign language instruction that flows smoothly across all grades and builds on previous learning.” Starting in Kindergarten, children in the school district will be taught Arabic by highly qualified teachers.
Many children are already native Arabic speakers- the approximately 32,000 Arab Muslims in Dearborn are nearly one-third of the city’s population and in some public schools the Arab population is as high as 90 percent. Given quality instruction all the way through the 12th grade, students will graduate with a respectable knowledge of Arabic. They will then be eligible for one of forty university scholarships to continue their studies of the language at a higher level.
The push for Arabic language instruction by the federal government is in direct contradiction with some currents of popular sentiment in Dearborn. A 2009 report by the Wayne County Regional Education Service Agency recommended that Fordson High School prohibit all non-English use except in circumstances where it was absolutely necessary-“To do otherwise reinforces a perception by some that Fordson is an Arab School in America rather than an American school with Arab students.” In 2010 the United States Department of Education had to step in to ensure that the Dearborn Public School District would fulfill their obligation to provide limited English proficient (LEP) parents with information about the children’s education in Arabic. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights also found that the school district was denying English language learner (EL) students access to “non-academic and extracurricular programs, services and activities such as guidance and counseling” on the basis of their national origin.
The complete integration of Arabs into the community in Dearborn and the greater Detroit area while encouraging them to preserve their language is no simple task. However it is clear that as the world economy undergoes massive changes, Detroit will no longer be able to survive on its faded industrial glory. It can transform itself for the future by taking advantage of another part of the heritage left behind by Henry Ford- the country’s largest Arab-American population.