The Bilingual U.S. – Middle Eastern Detroit Part II

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.


The Bilingual U.S. – Middle Eastern Detroit Part I

On the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, you can count on hearing the Arabic language at least five times a day. From its telltale location on Ford Street, the Islamic Center of America broadcasts its calls to prayer from a loudspeaker, calling out to the city’s Lebanese, Yemeni, and Iraqi residents in the language which unites them.

The Islamic Center of America- the largest mosque in America- and the Arab-American Museum are testimony to what any visitor to Dearborn would probably quickly gather by way of the Arabic signs throughout the city- Dearborn is the heart of Arab-America.

Part of the mission of the brand-new museum- the first of its kind- is to educate people about the role that Arab-Americans have had in our country since its founding. Most people are not aware that it was Henry Ford to first call the Arabs to Michigan. According to the Ford Motor Company, “Upon landing in America, many immigrants were not headed for Detroit, but changed their paths when they heard about Ford Motor Company’s wage of $5 for a day’s work.” Many of the immigrants who came first to Highland Park- the site of Ford’s first factory and the birthplace of the Model T- and then to Dearborn’s South End to work at the Ford Rouge plant- which with its 90,000 employees would soon become the world’s largest industrial complex- came from Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The beginning of the 20th century saw the rise of many Lebanese Maronite Christian churches in the area as well as what were perhaps the first Muslim Mosque and Chaldean Catholic Church in the United States- the former in Highland Park in 1921 and the latter in Detroit in 1947.

Arab Christians far outnumbered the Muslims among the early immigrants and aside from professing different faiths, the immigrants from the large area generally known as the “Middle East” had linguistic differences as well. The Levantine dialects of Arabic spoken in Lebanon and Syria are quite different from Yemeni Arabic even though many of the immigrants would have also spoken the Modern Standard Arabic which linguistically unites the Arabic world. The language of the Chaldeans, on the other hand, Christians from modern-day Iraq, is an eastern dialect of Aramaic, the “language of Christ,” although many- especially modern-day refugees of the Gulf and Iraq Wars- have learned Arabic at school.

The Chaldeans, not a well-known population anywhere in the world, are an important part of the Detroit Metropolitan Area, which is now home to “the largest single concentration of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs in the Western Hemisphere,” estimated to be from 100,000 to 120,000 strong. Chaldeans are Detroit’s merchants- they own 75 of the city’s 84 supermarkets.

Interest in the Chaldeans’ ancient language- a form of which many Americans may have heard in Mel Gibson’sThe Passion of the Christ– is palpable in the Detroit area. Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church offers Chaldean language courses from the basic (101) to the advanced fluent (501) level- free while the University of Detroit- Mercy offers courses in Aramaic open to any and all college students. evens offers tips on how to teach the language to the family pet.

The Chaldean language is an important part of world history and a source of pride for the Motor City. Oppressed for millennia in the Middle East, the Chaldean community has flourished in Detroit. Practicing a Christian faith has made their integration into the city’s fabric much more seamless than that of their Muslim brethren, who are nonetheless a crucial part of Michigan’s present, and future.

The Bilingual U.S. – Dutch Iowa and Michigan

The brief existence of New Netherland in the 17th century coincided with the Dutch Golden Age, a period in which the Netherlands enjoyed economic prosperity and the world’s most modern society. Religious and civil freedom as well as abundant work in Old Amsterdam meant that few Dutchmen had pressing reasons to leave it all behind and make the move to a tiny colony on an island across the ocean, risking such unknowns as a capricious climate and savage, Indian neighbors. By the end of their period of colonization, the Dutch in New Netherland numbered only 10,000 while the Puritans in New England-victims of religious intolerance on the Old Continent- numbered 50,000.

By the early 19th century, the situation had drastically changed. When Holland was created in the post-Napoleonic reorganization of Europe, King William I had instated a series of religious reforms which essentially transformed the Dutch Reformed Church into a state-controlled oligarchy. The “Separatist” congregations which sprung up as a result were heavily persecuted and, like the English Puritans two centuries earlier, looked for a place where they could practice their religion peacefully. The United States was the obvious choice.

However the US had grown substantially since the Pilgrim times, and the only places having the broad tracts of land necessary to host an entire colony were on the American Frontier. Two centuries after the first settlements at New Amsterdam and Fort Orange, three Dutch colonies were founded in the United States-  at Holland in Western Michigan and in Iowa, first at Pella in the South-Central area and then in Sioux County in the Northwest.

The Dutch Separatists were a tight-knit group who believed that eendracht maakt macht – unity makes might. In 1847 one of the leaders of the Separatist movement led a first group of colonists the site which they christened Holland, on the shores of Lake Michigan. The Dutch presence grew quickly in the thick Michigan forest and spread to surrounding settlements in Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Kalamazoo.

Meanwhile another Separatist leader brought his part of the flock to the virgin prairies of Pella in South-Central Iowa. Here, when it came time for the next generation of young men and women to leave the family farm and set out on their own, there was no more land to be found at a reasonable price in the vicinity; it had been gobbled up by speculators hoping to make a profit. The jongeren of Pella were left with only one option; they had to set out as their parents had in search of a site for a new colony.

The new settlement was located in Sioux County in the nearly uninhabited northwestern corner of Iowa, with its center at Orange City. Dutchmen flocked to Sioux County from Pella, from Michigan, from smaller Dutch communities in Wisconsin, and directly from the vaderland. In 1895 one third of Sioux County’s 21,405 inhabitants were foreign-born, predominantly from the Netherlands.

Almost all of the teachers at Orange City’s Northwestern Classical Academy were graduates of Holland Michigan’s Hope College, and many of its students went east to do their college studies at Hope College. The Academy included the study of Dutch in its curriculum, as “it is altogether fitting that it should be so, considering that many of our students come from Dutch homes, that the language will doubtless be used … and that no one, who counts the Dutch his mother tongue, should, while seeking the advantages of a higher education, fail to have or seek an interest in the extensive and rich literature of this people (sic).” Today the Academy is Northwestern College, and although the Dutch language is no longer on the curriculum, it can be studied at Dordt College in nearby Sioux Center, Central College in Pella, Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and at Hope College.

When Dutch photographer René Clement visited Orange City in 2004 he was shocked to find himself transported into a Dutch alternative universe. In 2011 he published Promising Land/Land vol Beloften, a collection of photographs which romantically capture the unique promise of this tiny corner of the US.

Northwestern Iowa was the site of the last successful Dutch colony on the frontier. Future generations would move further westward, but they did not maintain the eendracht which had given strength to their parents’ settlements. Today the Dutch-American cities and villages of Iowa and Michigan are a testament to the strength which is to be found in unity.

Interested in learning Dutch? We teach it at The Boston Language Institute!