Classes on Arabic see large rise in popularity

As violence in the Middle East continues to escalate, and student interest in the region increases, the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department and colleges across the country are struggling to keep up with the demand for Arabic classes.

The American Association of Arabic teachers has reported a 10 percent increase in student enrollment in Arabic classes nationwide from 1998 to 2001, and an even higher increase has been observed this year.

Here at Yale, more than 65 students crammed into a room in the Hall of Graduate Studies for the first day of Bassam Frangieh’s “Elementary Modern Standard Arabic” class. Students were sitting on the floor, many couldn’t see the professor, and Frangieh could barely move around the room.

“At the beginning we had like 40, 50 people in the class,” said Elizabeth La Duc ’05, a first-year student of Arabic. “It’s smaller now but still a bit insane. Arabic is a really hard language, a very complex language. It would be nice if the class was still smaller.”

Frangieh said he has noticed a definite increase in class size over the last 10 years, especially after major political events like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Continued conflict in the region has sustained the growth. But this year’s huge jump in enrollment can only be attributed to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their aftermath, he said.

“It’s curiosity,” he said. “Everyone wants to see what language these hijackers spoke, what they thought like, what it was like to be in their heads. Students have this fantasy — they want to come to this class and see, ‘Does this teacher look like [Osama] bin Laden?'”

For Tammer Qaddumi ’06, another of Frangieh’s beginning students, Sept. 11, 2001, had nothing to do with it. Qaddumi, whose father is Palestinian, had wanted to study Arabic before the events of last year.

“I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Middle East and felt it was time to break the language barrier,” he said.

But Qaddumi said he understands why so many students would be interested in taking Arabic, given the shape of the Middle East today.

“It’s the news,” he said. “It’s having students in the U.S. being exposed to an area of the world every day for over a year. It makes them want to take a language other than French, Spanish or German, and Arabic is so important to be taking right now.”

Arabic is becoming so important, in fact, that new career opportunities are opening to students with Arabic language skills. This too, can be a major draw for Arabic language programs at schools across the country.

Frangieh said he sees more and more jobs being offered to students just because of two years of Arabic study, which, he admits, has him somewhat worried that students working in the field today do not have strong enough language skills.

Even with the loss of students through the natural attrition of shopping period — the class eventually settled to 38 students, up 13 from last year’s 25 — Frangieh had to break the class into two smaller sections.

But because many students had already planned their schedules around Arabic, there were logistical difficulties in creating a second section. The only feasible solution became offering a second class that met three days a week instead of five, from 8 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Even given the resulting challenges, the newfound interest in Arab language and Islamic culture is encouraging, Qaddumi said.

“When you learn a language like Arabic, you’re not just learning a language, you’re learning a whole culture,” he said. “If people can learn more culture, it’s going to be good for Arabs all over the world.”

But Frangieh advises against expansion of Arabic programs. He said he worries that schools and institutes throughout the nation will see the opportunity for expansion and increased grant money, and will try to take advantage of a widening market.

“It’s becoming a business,” he said. “It shouldn’t become a business — it’s scholarly. I want people to study Arabic. But I am teaching Arabic to teach Arabic, not to satisfy everyone’s curiosity.”

He said he is afraid that schools will add positions and classes in Arabic and Islamic studies, only to have to cut these same programs in a year or two when interest dies down — and he does believe the current fervor and demand will die down. After the initial large spike in enrollment in Arabic courses during the Gulf War, the numbers settled back down in less than a year, he said.

“It’s the ebb and flow of political events,” he said. “Students get excited about what they hear, and they want to learn about it. Today the Russian department can barely make it. The Cold War is over and there is no more Soviet Union. But if we had a war with Russia now, everyone would drop Arabic and study Russian. That’s how it’s always worked.”

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