As if learning one language weren’t enough, many of Schenectady’s English-learners are also being taught Arabic this year.
So they must translate from Arabic to English to their native tongue every time Abdelrady Hussein embarks on one of his animated language lessons.
In fact, one struggling English-learner looked bored as she sat through an Arabic class recently.
Alina Asy, a third-grader who was born in Vietnam and speaks little English, is one of 320 students in the district who takes special English as a Second Language classes while also attempting to keep up with the regular elementary school curriculum.
She spent much of the Arabic-language lesson examining her elbow, poking her pencil through her sweater and writing on her hand. To an observer, it looked like Asy had decided not to try to learn a third language while she’s still struggling to master English.
But when Hussein asked the class to write the four Arabic letters he had taught them, she filled five lines of her notebook, writing the letters out over and over, in the time it took most of her English-speaking classmates to write the letters once.
Hussein snatched up her paper and showed it to the class, praising her.
For a child who is far behind in math, reading and anything else that requires English, being at the head of the class was a monumental experience.
“That’s a big thing. It gives them a chance to excel,” ESL teacher Susan Cromer said.
The district is offering Arabic to students at Paige Elementary School through a federal grant designed to introduce children to languages that may be far more useful than French and German in the military, governmental and business worlds.
But since Paige is also home to many students who are native speakers of non-English languages, the Arabic classes have had unexpected social benefits.
English-speaking students are realizing that being bilingual is a special skill — and a very difficult one. For the first time, they’re getting to experience how hard it is to communicate in another language. That helps them understand that their English-learning classmates are not stupid or lazy when they zone out in class or stumble through a grade-level book.
“That validates them,” Cromer said of the English-learners.
It helps that some of the English-learners are finding Arabic quite easy, even if they never before used the Arabic script or read in Arabic.
That’s because students who are still mastering their second language have a big advantage over children who have never before tried to learn a foreign tongue.
“There’s a lot of research which says once you learn a second language, the third, fourth, fifth are much easier,” said Ron Hamelin, Schenectady’s ESL coordinator. “You pick up techniques, tools, you learn how grammar works.”
The U.S. Department of State pays Hussein’s salary through a one-year grant. The district will try to get the grant renewed for next year, Hamelin said.
He thinks students who learn Arabic will find jobs waiting for them when they graduate.
“It is, along with Chinese, one of the top five most-important languages to learn in the world,” he said, citing it as an advantage for jobs in the military, government and the business world.
Children learn language faster and with far less work before adolescence, Hamelin added.
The district hired an Arabic teacher two years ago but couldn’t afford to keep him for a second year. The program was only restored because of the grant, and Hamelin expects it to be cut again this year if the State Department does not renew the grant.