Montgomery County has more than 44,000 students taking foreign languages, a rich linguistic feast that puts it No. 1 among U.S. school systems of similar size. Yet it has only one high school Arabic class and would not have that if special education teacher Nazeh Natur hadn't come to Gaithersburg High School.
When Gaithersburg lost its Arabic teacher last year, the head of the language department persuaded Natur to add that class to his busy schedule. An Israeli Arab who is a U.S. citizen, Natur once taught Arabic to young Jews and Hebrew to young Arabs. Now from 7:20 to 8:15 a.m. each weekday, he cajoles a dozen U.S. teenagers in Room C-16 to follow the twists and turns of his complicated mother tongue.
His students, he said, "complain that the words are too rich, that they can't get just one meaning for one word." He tells them "you have to be sensitive to what you say" because the wrong word can cause trouble.
The United States is in trouble, many foreign policy experts say, because it does not have enough speakers of what have come to be called critical languages: Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Farsi, Hindi and others spoken in countries vital to U.S. interests.
On Jan. 5, President Bush proposed the National Security Language Initiative, a $114 million effort to close the gap. "Deficits in foreign language learning and teaching negatively affect our national security, diplomacy, law enforcement, intelligence communities and cultural understanding," a U.S. Department of State fact sheet on the initiative states.
"It prevents us from effectively communicating in foreign media environments, hurts counter-terrorism efforts, and hamstrings our capacity to work with people and governments in post-conflict zones and to promote mutual understanding."
But for the near future, the growth of so-called critical languages will often depend on happenstance, such as Natur's fortuitous appearance at Gaithersburg High.
Or on whether College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville gets its renovation done in time.
It is not often that a parent's appeal for an elementary school remodeling invokes national economic competitiveness. But that's what happened when College Gardens parent Cindy Boeke denounced a threat to funding of the renovation.
Space needed to be set aside for the school's mandarin Chinese immersion program at a time when "our nation needs this capability to remain competitive in the global economy," Boeke said in a petition signed by 62 people.
The Bush proposal includes money for grants to schools, study abroad and summer training, and stipends for foreign teachers to come to the United States. Still, many educators say language offerings ebb and flow because of changing student choices and availability of teachers.
"In the past decade, we offered Japanese at one of our high schools, but our teacher moved to Japan, and we could not find a qualified replacement," said Steve Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for Carroll County, Md., schools.
The system will offer an introductory Russian course at one of its high schools next school year. "We are able to do that because we have a native Russian teacher who is certified in Latin and Russian, and she wishes to offer a course to students," Johnson said.
And although the war on terrorism has sharpened the government's interest in funding Arabic studies, the experiences of Washington area schools indicate that such classes are often born out of very different motives. Fairfax County foreign language coordinator Paula Patrick said Stuart and Annandale high schools started Arabic classes in the late 1990s because they had many students whose families came from countries where Arabic was the most common language. Students and parents were interested in improving their reading and writing of a language important to their families, not to prepare for jobs in national security or international business.
Natur's Arabic class at Gaithersburg has students with similar motives. Half come from families that speak Arabic or use a language, such as Farsi, that shares its alphabet. Two of the girls in class wore head scarves used by Muslim women, and much of the discussion was about proper terms to use in social occasions, not geopolitics.
The teacher, who recently received a doctorate in school psychology from Howard University, used flashcards, overhead-projector lessons and mnemonic devices. His 585-page Yale University Press textbook, arranged in what American readers would call back to front, encourages students not to be put off by the intricate and unfamiliar letters:
"Although Arabic script might seem exotic and undecipherable at first encounter," textbook author Mahdi Alosh wrote, "it is in fact quite consistent and, to the pleasant surprise of most learners, can be acquired quickly and easily."
Natur said more students have expressed interest in next year's Arabic class, and he thinks he can add a third year of instruction to the two years he's now handling. For now, the class is made up of a dozen students in a Spanish-language classroom that could hold more than twice as many.
"You do run a risk, when you have a class in a lesser-known language," Gaithersburg High Principal Darryl Williams said. "But the students talk to each other, and if they like what they hear, they say, 'This is interesting.' "