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Interest in Learning Arabic Soars

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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 -- which I think is impossible in the immediate future -- 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 -- Islam -- 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.

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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% -- to 10,584 -- 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.

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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.”

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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.”

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The U.S. State Department ranks foreign languages by difficulty in four categories, with Spanish, French and Swahili among the easiest. Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese are the hardest to master.

Though conceding Arabic’s challenges, Dora Johnson, a research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, also noted its rewards. “For the ones who take to it -- especially those without a parent who speaks it -- there is an excitement that ‘I can actually write and read in this really weird language that does not sound or look anything like mine.’ ”

Of course, the military interest is enormous, as is shown by big increases in Arabic study at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif. But with so much emphasis on combating terrorism, some educators say they hope other reasons to learn Arabic don’t get lost.

“Of course national security is important to all of us. But so is communication,” said Iman Hashem, who teaches introductory Arabic at Cal State Long Beach and is a foreign-language teacher training expert for the state Department of Education.

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“Some of these students might change the future of this country and the world by creating more understanding,” Hashem added. “When you learn another language, you learn not just words but perspectives and culture.”

Responding to demand, she will start an intermediate-level class at Cal State Long Beach next year as well as a more advanced course designed for so-called heritage speakers -- those who learned some Arabic from family members.

Similarly, Cal State San Bernardino plans to add a class for students taking a third year of Arabic and create a minor in Arabic in the fall.

Like other teachers, Hatem Bazian has seen a shift in his UC Berkeley classes’ ethnic makeup. Since 2001, the percentage of students with Middle Eastern family ties has dropped from about 60% to 20% while overall enrollment has grown.

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The UC system is unveiling a program of Internet-based Arabic classes in the fall, partnered with Brigham Young University and aided by a $453,000 federal grant. Including Arabic chat sessions online, the courses will accommodate UC students at campuses without classroom Arabic.

Other examples abound around the country. For instance, the prestigious immersion camps for young people at the Concordia Language Village in Minnesota will add Arabic this summer as its 14th language, also with federal funds.

Efforts to get Arabic into public schools have not had similar success.

Many Islamic institutions -- such as New Horizon campuses and the City of Knowledge in Southern California -- teach Arabic to youngsters, as do an estimated several dozen public high schools around the nation. But officials say no public high school in California does, despite lobbying by the Arabic Language Institute Foundation in Rancho Palos Verdes.

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In California, a big roadblock is the lack of formal credentialing programs for Arabic teachers.

Even if good instructors are available, schools fear violating the federal No Child Left Behind mandate that teachers have special credentials in their fields.

In response, Assemblywoman Shirley Horton (R-Chula Vista) has introduced legislation -- AB 2054 -- that would allow alternatives to credentialing, such as competency tests in less commonly taught tongues.

Horton, in a recent interview, referred to Bush’s January announcement that he would ask Congress for $114 million to promote education in Arabic, Chinese, Persian and other strategic languages.

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“In order for this country to be able to convince others, people have got to be able to see our true worth in our heart,” Bush said at the time about his National Security Language Initiative.

“And when Americans learn to speak a language -- learn to speak Arabic -- those in the Arabic region will say, gosh, America is interested in us.”


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