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Originally published March 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 22, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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At BCC, Arabic goes to the head of the class

After the 36 spots for Arabic 101 were filled at Bellevue Community College (BCC) this past quarter, there was still a waiting list of 14...

Seattle Times staff reporter

After the 36 spots for Arabic 101 were filled at Bellevue Community College (BCC) this past quarter, there was still a waiting list of 14 students. An additional 21 students were signed up for Arabic 102.

Robert Foulk was one of the lucky ones who got into the introductory class. He showed up recently wearing his Air Force ROTC fatigues.

"I'm planning to be a pilot, and if I'm staying in the Middle East, it's a huge language to learn," said the Maple Valley 19-year-old.

The Arabic-language class is a first for BCC, a reflection of the growing interest in "critical languages" — those languages that basically cover the world's hot spots, from the Middle East to China, Africa and Russia.

The need for proficient linguists in these areas is so great that the FBI ran a recruitment ad in the 2006 Super Bowl. And four years ago, Congress established the National Virtual Translation Center to recruit at-home linguists to translate documents for various intelligence agencies.

At BCC the class is funded by the U.S. State Department through the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program, the first time the Fulbright language program has extended its reach beyond four-year universities. BCC and Quincy College in Massachusetts are the only two community colleges offering the class, but more are planned.

Translator pay


The pay scale for translating government intelligence at the National Virtual Translation Center:

$39/hour: Arabic, all dialects of Chinese, Dari, Farsi, Hebrew, Korean, Kurdish, Pashto, Punjabi, Somali, Swahili, Tigrinyan, Urdu

$32/hour: Amharic, French, German, Gujarati, Hindi, Ibo, Indonesian, Japanese, Nepali, Nigerian/African languages, Sinhalese, Tamil, Turkish, Vietnamese, Yiddish

$29/hour: Armenian, Bosnian, Finnish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Tongan

$27/hour: All other languages

Source: National Virtual Translation Center, www.nvtc.gov

"We want to make sure we are able to open the minds of all U.S. students," said Marsha Frith, senior program officer for the Fulbright program.

The program brings in native speakers from foreign countries who teach both language and culture.

Scholar-in-residence

At Bellevue, the Arabic instructor is Fahad al-Balushi, 28, of Oman, a monarchy of 3.1 million that borders Saudi Arabia and is across the Gulf of Oman from Iran.

As scholar-in-residence, al-Balushi lives in a college-owned home close to campus. He graduated from college in Oman with a degree in English and is married, with a young daughter. His family is visiting for a month, although al-Balushi will remain for the full school year.

Dressed casually and using words like "cool," al-Balushi relates well to the class.

"I think he's a great teacher. He really cares about his students," said Brent Knopp, 28, of Burien. Knopp was in the Navy for two years and says he wants to be a translator for a government agency, or perhaps in military operations.

Others have different goals.

Diane Haugsvar, 35, of Seattle, is a notary who wants to work in diplomatic relations.

Mohamad Nasution, 21, of Bellevue, grew up in Indonesia and thinks knowing Arabic will help him in the business world.

Shrina Sami, 18, of Kent, whose ethnic heritage is Colombian and East Indian, is majoring in business and marketing and thinks Arabic would be a plus.

Nathan Tillotson, 18, who graduated last year from Bainbridge High School, wants to travel. "I'd like to be able to go to places, and speak the language," he said.

Given the response this year, Arabic 103 will be offered next quarter, and the college is looking for an instructor to continue the classes next year.

On a recent morning, al-Balushi listened patiently as Foulk haltingly read in Arabic a paragraph telling about himself.

He stumbled when trying to talk about one of his hobbies — snowboarding. There is no direct translation into Arabic.

Al-Balushi suggested he use the Arabic term for "ice skating."

Tough to teach

Besides the cultural differences, Arabic is a language with a completely different alphabet, with writing done from right to left. Books begin at the last page and end at the front. Many words are sounded out with throat muscles English speakers would use for coughing or gargling.

One of the most prestigious language centers in the country — the U.S. Army's Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey, Calif. — puts Arabic as one of the toughest languages it teaches.

Col. Tucker Mansager, commandant of the center, said that at the end of 18 months, taking six hours of class five days a week, with an additional three to four hours of homework a night, students are expected to read an Arabic document, understand basic facts and be able to verbally "discuss concrete topics."

On this morning at BCC, however, the students are just beginning. As each one rose to speak to the class, he or she would begin with, "Ana ismi ... ," meaning "My name is ... ."

The class would reply in unison, "Al-salaam alaikom."

"Peace be with you."

Then the halting process of learning this language spoken by 256 million people worldwide began.

"You are very smart. You study, you practice, you learn," al-Balushi encouraged them. "You have to work hard. We had a deal here? Cool."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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