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Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

June 9, 2011

With 9,000 educators gathered in one place, the topics addressed last week in Vancouver at the annual conference of Nafsa: Association of International Educators were inevitably wide-ranging.

As well as the speeches and seminars, the association ran a number of blogs, touching on everything from the virtues of travel to linguistic challenges in the Arab world.

The latter topic was addressed by Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of The 99, a comic book series featuring Muslim superheroes. Dr Al-Mutawa, named one of the world's "most influential Muslims" by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in Jordan, argues that the Arab world is too backward-looking, and that one key hindrance to its cultural development - the "camel in the room" - is the use of two different forms of Arabic: classical Arabic, the language of Islam and instruction, and modern Arabic, the language of the home and the street.

"Europe woke up and became the world's thought leader when the languages it wrote matched the languages it spoke," he writes. "In contrast, the Arab world went to sleep as the language it spoke continued to diverge from the language it wrote." A consequence, he argues, is that extremists exploit a lack of understanding of classical Arabic to offer twisted interpretations of Islam, "peddling spots in heaven in exchange for suicide missions". Another is that schoolchildren "are learning their language of instruction as a second language that cannot be reinforced at home".

Dr Al-Mutawa concludes: "The question of successfully melding the classical and the modern Arabic languages is the creative escape of dreamers like me. But the solution, if there can be one, will come some day from educators steeped in the art of the possible. On the question of academic curriculum and innovation, I would teach subjects in the language that mirrors the language spoken at home. From creative writing to the sciences, the language of the family should be the language of education.

"Without innovation there is no entrepreneurship, and without entrepreneurship there are no jobs, and with no jobs there is no future, and with no future all we have is the past."

Also blogging at Nafsa was Kristin Hayden, founder of OneWorld Now!, a Seattle-based organisation that works with students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ms Hayden recounts how she benefited from studying abroad. After a spell in apartheid-era South Africa, she studied in Moscow during the Cold War, "another society on the verge of major historical transformation", she writes. "My history teachers said they didn't think they would see the dismantling of apartheid or the Soviet Union in their lifetimes. I was privileged enough to witness those changes and it has always given me the keen awareness that big change is always possible!"

Her experience is now being emulated by others, including those helped by her organisation, she writes. "(Our) students are breaking stereotypes of 'what it means to be American' abroad and also pleasantly surprising people with their Arabic and Chinese language skills." Whether the former skills are in classical or modern Arabic, Ms Hayden does not say.

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