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Using Culture to Teach Arabic to US Schoolchildren

Learning foreign languages can be difficult especially when they involve practicing new tones and memorizing new alphabets.

For Americans, that means Arabic and Chinese can be particularly challenging. But Tamer Elsharkawy, an Egyptian national who is an Arabic instructor in the U.S. capital, says there is a secret.

“The magic key to teaching language is culture," said Elsharkawy.

Elsharkawy is a teacher brought to the United States through the Teachers of Critical Languages program run by the U.S. State Department. It aims to help students learn Chinese and Arabic by bringing in educators from China and from Egypt to teach American students. Educators say the exercise is helpful to both teachers and students in developing cultural awareness and counteracting stereotypes.

There is no national mandate for U.S. schoolchildren to study foreign languages, as is true for many other countries. And yet, language can be an important tool in helping students explore the world around them.

“Some parents reach out to me because they want to know how to deal with their children here in Washington, D.C. about . . . stuff like Islamophobia. They are not Muslims, but they want to teach their children something correct about this topic. So this is part of what we are doing,” said Elsharkawy.

Many of Elsharkawy’s students at Cooke Elementary School are native Spanish speakers who are learning English and Arabic at the same time. Flora Lerenman, who helped enroll the school in the Critical Languages program, says learning two languages at the same time actually helps the children learn faster. And she appreciates the added perspective they can develop through language study.

“I really believe in students having a global education and an international outlook,” she said.

Elsharkawy said he is benefiting, too, from his time in the United States, exploring the local Muslim community as well as the mix of cultures that thrive in Washington, D.C. "I think Washington, D.C. is the most fantastic place for anyone from any nationality to be here... Lots of colors, lots of religions, lots of people, lots of backgrounds."

Elsharkawy said he knows the children, some as young as five years old, might not remember all the Arabic words he teaches in class. They might even forget his name. But he hopes they will always remember him as a teacher they liked and respected, despite the differences in their lives.

VOA’s Marissa Melton contributed to this report.

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    Arash Arabasadi

    Arash Arabasadi is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a decade of experience shooting, producing, writing and editing. He has reported from conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Ukraine, as well as domestically in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. Arash has also been a guest lecturer at Howard University, Hampton University, Georgetown University, and his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Ashley and their two dogs.