Phi Beta Cons

Teaching Difficult Languages

John McWhorter, who is an expert in linguistics in addition to being an outstandingly astute analyst of the realities of race in this country, laments  that not enough Americans are learning Arabic to enable us to deal properly with the Arab world.  He makes an interesting suggestion, that the teaching of Arabic begin with transliteration into the Roman alphabet, because the Arabic alphabet is unusually difficult to learn.  (Although John Updike is surely right when he says that it is the most beautiful script in existence; I would add that it has an almost mystical quality.)  In this regard, Ruth King, of Americans for a Safe Israel, recently reminded her e-list readers of the utterly phenomenal rebirth of Hebrew in modern Israel in both written and spoken form.  The system by which Israel managed to make the long “dead” Hebrew, and its alphabet, a living language for an entire country, and to teach it to people who had never spoken it or heard it spoken, and to raise an entire generation of fluent speakers, is called the “Ulpan” system.  Its success in Israel is one of the miracles of the modern age.  It’s also something America should consider learning from, and not only to teach Arabic, but also to teach English to large numbers of immigrants, especially in areas of the country where Spanish has practically taken hold as the primary language.