07/31/2012 10:16 am ET | Updated Sep 30, 2012

The Case for an Arts-Based Approach to Language Learning

Thousands of public schools stopped teaching foreign languages in the first decade of this century. Those that do often struggle to find staff and engaging, affordable resources ... and evidence that their programs are working. According to a recent study by Columbia University, language students cite wanting to learn to converse and to express themselves; however, most language programs still emphasize writing and drills. In 2009, Edgemont, CT dropped its twice-weekly Spanish classes, stating that the money could be spent better elsewhere since after years of instruction, the students still could not speak the language.

Down a leafy street in a quiet corner of Philadelphia, students are experiencing a completely different kind of language instruction at the Al Bustan Seeds of Culture Camp. A mural of sea life labeled with Arabic vocabulary hangs in a science classroom. Next door, the students are learning Moroccan drumming, while others are preparing a skit in Arabic for a camp show. Outside the classroom, mosaics of Tangiers and the tanneries of Fez hang on the walls. The emphasis at Al Bustan is on expression, whether through spoken language or the arts.

Students from age five through high school, from all parts of the city and all backgrounds move in bands based on age through different activities based on a yearly theme, such Andalusia through the eyes of the musician Ziryab or Egypt through the life of singer Oum Kalthoum. The activities are driven by the theme but always include science, poetry, drama, art, and Arabic language instruction.

Here teachers deal deftly with challenges that are common in our schools. They operate on a tight budget and endeavor to provide financial aid as well as busing for all students who might need it. The students come from all backgrounds. Some are native speakers of Arabic; some have learned a bit here and there through the program; and others have never spoken or even really heard the language. The students are placed in an Arabic class by age, have a whole-class language lesson based on the theme and then break out into leveled groups for practice. Some come from schools with robust art and music programs whereas others are relatively new to attending an arts program.

Experts in their own fields, the staff may or may not speak Arabic as well. Camp science teacher Michele Dixon has a masters degree in science education, but doesn't speak Arabic. Instead she plans alongside her Arabic speaking teaching assistant. Together, they add Arabic text to the room and find ways to incorporate Arabic language into the lesson, which this year focuses on the sea and land travels of Ibn Battuta. Each staff member leverages his or her experience and relies heavily on his or her colleagues to share and to help.

The staff members share a common belief in the importance of expression -- whether it is through the arts or language -- and the value of culture. Camp Founder and Director, Hazami Sayed, created the Al Bustan Camp eleven years ago to help her own children develop a connection to and comfort with their heritage and to give them a place to practice Arabic with other children. For Hazami and for the Al Bustan community, art, music, and culture are intertwined with the Arabic language. She added science to help students understand the role of the environment on culture as well as the diversity of the Arab world.

The results are impressive. While children do not find themselves fluent after three weeks, many develop a love for the language and an interest in learning more. Hazami shared that many of her students go on to seek tutoring or classes in Arabic during the year and return to Al Bustan for an integrated language experience year after year.

In the Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstien wrote, 'The limits of my language are the limits of my world.' At Al Bustan, this is a reciprocal process. As the students learn language and learn it well, their world expands. As they learn new ideas in poetry, drama, and science, their language and their lives are enriched.