New comprehensive Arabic K-12 curriculum embodies Alberta’s changing demographics
Last fall, Education Minister David Eggen announced the dawn of a new era for Alberta’s public schools. A bilingual K-12 Arabic program is slated to come to schools in fall of this year, making Alberta the first province to have a full-Arabic language curriculum available for implementation.
After 2015’s spark of immigration, a call for a more widely available Arabic language curriculum became a hot topic, primarily for children that speak Arabic at home or as a first language.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t Arabic-speaking communities in the province before the Canadian government accepted 25,000 Syrian refugees. But by 2016, the Alberta census found Persian and Arabic together were the second-fastest growing mother tongues behind Tagalog (Filipino).
“Education is one of the most important tools we have to promote inclusion,” Minister Eggen explains. “Which is one of the reasons I’m proud that we are going to be offering a provincial Arabic language curriculum in 2018-19.”
A work in progress since 2016, the curriculum was developed through Alberta Education working in tandem with the Canadian Arab Friendship Association and the Edmonton Public School Board along with various experts from the community.
Basel Saleh, a working professional in the city, has been offering translation services free of charge to new Edmontonians for the past four years. Originally from Damascus, Saleh knows the struggle of coming to a new country, even though he was educated and knew English quite well when he arrived in the country.
Part of the difficulty is that many of the Syrians that came in the 2015 immigration wave were from rural and often poor areas of Syria, which meant their education was limited, even in their mother tongue. For those that were well off, like Saleh, English was taught from kindergarten onward.
“The kind of people the United Nations grabs, most of them they are from the country. They are uneducated, so it takes time for them to learn English,” Saleh says. “Their native language, they don’t know how to write or read, so how about the second language? It’s going to be difficult for them.”
From his experience, about 80 percent of the Syrian newcomers needed a translator, especially in the beginning. While English as a second language (ESL) classes are offered in most cities, children are often put into school while their parents take ESL classes or work manual labour jobs that don’t require full-English proficiency. It becomes difficult for the children and for the teachers, which is why the new bilingual program is so vital.
Structured like a French bilingual program, the Arabic course will immerse students in Arabic for up to 50 percent of the day while learning core subjects. Equally important aspects of the curriculum are cultural integration components.
Saleh says that parents often want their children to learn their mother tongue as well as English, to ensure they can communicate with their own children, but also to honour a small part of their cultural roots. Currently 14 of Alberta’s school divisions have been authorized to offer Arabic language and culture courses, but the hope is to increase that number in time.