Copyright The Los Angeles Times
As global events focus attention on the language, students at U.S. colleges are lining up for classes. But instructors are in short supply.
March 22, 2006
Coming of age during the 9/11 attacks and war in Iraq, some of the students in UCLA’s advanced Arabic class want to launch diplomatic or military careers. Others seek to delve into the Koran and Islamic culture. And some simply love a mind-stretching, tongue-twisting challenge.
No matter the reasons, they help fuel a trend that has made Arabic the fastest-growing spoken language of study at U.S. colleges and universities.
Just as the teaching of Russian took off after the launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, more colleges than ever are starting or expanding courses in Arabic. Schools such as UCLA, UC Berkeley, USC and Pasadena City College report waiting lists for classes, with most of the demand coming from students whose families have no ties to the Islamic world.
In the next school year, California and other states are expected to see a flurry of initiatives to increase the study of Arabic, aided in part by President Bush’s recent pledge to obtain more money for so-called strategic languages.
“The importance of Arabic as a language is not going to go away, no matter what happens in the Middle East. Even if things cool down there Ã³ which I think is impossible in the immediate future Ã³ it will be an important language,” said Zoe Griffith, a history and Middle East studies major from Berkeley in that advanced UCLA class. Griffith, 21, is considering a career in human rights law.
Classmate Sami Hasan, 21, of Lompoc, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, said world events led him to want to learn more about his religion Ã³ Islam Ã³ and to read the Koran in the original Arabic. Plus, fluency is “probably going to be invaluable in any field I go into,” said Hasan, who is majoring in Arabic and international development studies. He plans to attend law school.
But students face many challenges in learning Arabic, which comprises a small fraction of the nation’s language study programs.
There is a shortage of well-trained teachers and a lack of credentialing programs. Also, teachers and students say relatively high dropout rates reflect the difficulties of its right-to-left cursive script, the many dialects and pronunciation that is unfamiliar to Western ears.
Still, the rising level of interest is palpable at schools big and small. A survey by the Modern Language Assn. showed the number of students studying Arabic at U.S. colleges climbed 92.3% Ã³ to 10,584 Ã³ between 1998 and 2002. The number of undergraduate campuses teaching it jumped 48%, to 233.
That was the biggest growth of any language except American Sign Language, but the number of those studying Arabic remained dwarfed by students taking Spanish and French and ranked even below Chinese.
Since then, those Arabic numbers probably have doubled yet again, according to Gerald Lampe, president of the American Assn. of Teachers of Arabic.
“I think people see clearly that there could be a job for them waiting down the road if they master the language and culture,” said Lampe, who also is deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland.
That enthusiasm was evident recently in UCLA associate professor Michael Cooperson’s advanced Arabic class. Greeting them with SabaaHa l-khayr (good morning), he led the 15 students through an all-Arabic discussion of current events.
After their assigned essays about favorite singers produced a Johnny Cash reference, Cooperson wrote the Arabic equivalent of “Walk the Line” on the board and explained how a Koranic metaphor about “clinging to the rope of God” was better than the word by word translation, iltazim l-khatt (stick to the line). The two-hour, twice-a-week class then focused on the less entertaining accusative case.
Cooperson and most other U.S. professors teach modern standard Arabic, a lingua franca written in newspapers and books and spoken by newscasters and diplomats.
However, Arabic’s dialects differ from one another and from standard. “It can be frustrating to spend a year studying and not understand what anyone is saying,” he said. “It is like studying Latin for a year and then going to Mexico.”
So, Cooperson and many other teachers also suggest a dialect class such as the Iraqi and Egyptian Arabic courses at UCLA and encourage students to study abroad for at least a summer. The Center for Arabic Study Abroad, at the American University in Cairo and financed mainly by the U.S. Department of Education, has seen applications more than triple since 2000.
David Jemison, 25, a Cooperson student, already has taken a summer course in Beirut and has a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Davidson College in North Carolina. He is preparing for a possible career in diplomacy or the military. Arabic, he and other students said, demands steady dedication.
The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, but additional vowel markings are sometimes included in texts. Jemison recalled difficulties with some pronunciations.
To practice the “ayn” sound, he would hold the note and shift his head from straight ahead to looking down at his feet. “It takes a lot of time in the shower and bathroom making weird sounds so you can successfully pronounce,” he said. “You are doing awkward things with your throat that Westerners are not used to.”