Monday, September 13, 2010

Day 256- Back to school

Dear Mr. President,

In just over eight hours I'll be taking the most important test of my undergraduate life. I've spent the day in various cafes, a library and 4 different city buses trying to cram 15 chapters of the Arabic language back into the easily accessible parts of my brain. I tried to relax a bit by listening to my ipod while walking home, and found myself trying to translate "dirt off your shoulder" into Arabic. I'm starting to think about Maha and Khalid like they're my real cousins. My fear of the lowercase letter e is becoming concerning. I have consumed a truly unhealthy amount of caffeine.

For these reasons, I thought it advisable to keep my letter to you quite short. I noticed you gave a back to school speech in Pennsylvania today (proving, once more, that it never stops paying to be a swing state) and I thought I'd channel my test anxiety into a relevant comment on education. Foreign languages should be taught in primary education. You've already said this, and been criticized for it (naturally,) even expressing your own embarrassment at being monolingual. While it may be an unfair stereotype to suggest that Americans can't speak multiple languages, I think the mere fact that some people find it outrageous that you would suggest we ought to learn a second language as children demonstrates it certainly isn't a cultural value in America they way it is in many other parts of the world. This is more difficult to change, of course, but I think that Americans in general do want to see their children grow to be successful and well-educated, and multilingual graduates will likely also be more employable, should there ever again be jobs available.

Maybe I'm just saying this since I'm scared out of my mind that my whole life will be over if I don't pas my placement test tomorrow, but I feel like the ability to communicate with non-English speakers would go a long way toward easing the hostility that some Americans feel about foreigners. And we could certainly do with less xenophobia in our foreign relations and immigration policies. Even if I pass this test tomorrow and spend another year devoted to learning Arabic, my best hope is to graduate with the vocabulary of an overly formal third grader. Had I spent elementary school studying Arabic, or really any language, this might not be such a Hurculean task. At this point, having 100% of high school graduates fluent in English might still seem daunting, but I think an earlier and more consistent emphasis on a second language might help in that area, as well. At least more High school graduates would, in theory, know what a verb is.

While I was searching the internet to find out if you spoke a foreign language, I found the headline "Does Obama speak Arabic?" I was really hopeful that the answer would be yes, so that maybe I could write you a letter in Arabic at some point, but then I saw that the article was from The Weekly Standard. Our media does this country so proud. Anyway, I'm going to continue studying. It's too late for me, by the time you read this letter the die will be cast, my fate will be decided and my hopes of attaining a third-grade vocabulary in Arabic secured or dashed forever. But there are a whole generation of American children starting school this week who might still hope to graduate with the ability to communicate eloquently in more than one language. You're right, Mr. President, only speaking one language is embarrassing. I hope that the next generation are given a better shot at overcoming it.

Respectfully yours,



  1. Kels, I, too, believe we should be learning at least one other language well during school years, beginning in early elementary. Most of the rest of the world begins second and third languages by age 10. wishing you well today on your test.

  2. Shukraan, ya ustadhati!

    I think the best proof of this in my experience is that I can still say éléphant violet, which the tutor you brought to our class for french lessons taught me and Alex when we were in 4th grade and really into purple elephants. I don't think I can say that in Arabic yet :)