Arabic, Please

Sophie Alexis, Contributing Writer

A student at Bates has the option to take almost every official United Nations (UN) language. If they see fit, one can sign up for Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French and, of course, English. This is already an impressive and praise-worthy array for a small college of 2,000 students. Why, one might ask, would Bates need to add the final missing language? Simply for the sake of completeness? Of course not. Rather, I argue that filling in this incomplete roster with the final language will help engender the academic, career, and personal development that Bates strives to produce in its students. In sum: we as an institution should consider adding an Arabic program.  

Should Bates choose to take this step, they would be following a precedent set by every other NESCAC college. Our peer institutions have already perceived the immense value in the language and culture of the 25 members of the Arabic-speaking world, which is home to beautiful architecture, fascinating geopolitical complexities and a rich cultural, musical, artistic and poetic heritage. 

These colleges have seen the potential opportunities for the liberal arts student. They see that those interested in international relations can supplement their academic studies, increase future career opportunities and find a focus for their interests. They also acknowledge the opportunities for those more inclined towards STEM; the Red Sea Project (a futuristic megacity in Saudi Arabia) and Mohammed IV Tower (Morocco’s massive new commerce center, which is on track to become the tallest tower in Africa) are just two of the major engineering projects happening in the Arab World. 

Building on a ninth century legacy of classic Islamic engineering (which in itself presents fascinating opportunities for study), these initiatives will require the input of a generation of bright young professionals–in other words, the products of a Bates education. 

On a more personal note, I believe that as the result of our status as citizens and residents of a country that has significant and complicated relations with the nations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), we all have a vested interest in reaching across borders. Arabic can be a launching point for citizen diplomacy–the belief that every person can (indeed, has the responsibility to) help solve global issues “one handshake at a time.” 

That is, by making friendships across international conflicts, we can personally help bring mutual understanding and, eventually, peace. In our case, we can do our part to transcend borders, one class at a time, one conversation at a time, one piece of homework at a time. When we learn Arabic (or indeed any language), we open ourselves to the kinds of deep connections Nelson Mandela had in mind when he said, If you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head. If you speak to him in his language, you speak to his heart.”

Moreover, Bates in particular has a special connection to the speakers of this language: Arabic is spoken not only by our friends and peers but also by most of Lewiston’s large and thriving Somali population. By learning Arabic, students can speak to the hearts of our neighbors and deepen the community engagement that the Harward Center was founded to promote.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

In essence, I believe that adopting an Arabic program means following Bates’ mission statement, which calls on us to embrace the “transformative power of our differences, cultivat[e] intellectual discovery and informed civic action.” It is difficult to imagine a more fitting way to pursue these principles than by consciously opening a door to the world’s 313 million Arabic speakers. 

To the Bates administration: please consider following our peers. You have the opportunity to introduce a new world to your students; one where they are closer to their community, and one which is truly transformative. Fill in the last language on the UN list. Create an Arabic program.