Arabic courses swell in enrollment, popularity

Although Spanish, French and Chinese are still by far the most popular languages studied at Yale, increased interest that may be linked to the current political climate has resulted in a new competitor — Arabic.

Sustained growth in the number of students who sign up each year to learn Arabic has led to a new high in the number of introductory Arabic sections taught this semester, administrators said. The rise in enrollment has prompted a search by administrators for several new full-time language faculty members.

Dan Bleiberg ’09 completes homework. Addition of sections and a search for another lector are the result of record-high course enrollment.
Amy Ly
Dan Bleiberg ’09 completes homework. Addition of sections and a search for another lector are the result of record-high course enrollment.

A total of 132 students are enrolled in Arabic-language courses this semester, with 66 enrolled in the introductory course, acting Arabic language coordinator Beatrice Gruendler said. While three sections of the introductory course were enough to accommodate all students in the past, a fourth section was added this year to provide for the increased numbers.

Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department Chair John Darnell said after noticing the increased enrollment this fall, the department received approval from the Provost’s Office and launched a search for an additional lector who would start next academic year to accommodate current numbers and future growth.

Introductory lectors are currently teaching more than their designated course load of five or six courses each, which makes a clear case for an additional faculty member, Gruendler said.

“The demand for Arabic is so high that two of our lectors are teaching two term courses over and above their regular load,” Gruendler said.

Next semester, Darnell said, the department plans to enter into discussions with the Provost’s Office and the Center for Language Study about the possibility of hiring a permanent Arabic-language coordinator who would have part-time lector duties.

Darnell said although the largest growth has been at the introductory level, all Arabic sections have swelled over the years.

“The growth has been across the board,” Darnell said. “We seem to have a large number of students who actually stay with the languages in NELC in general up into advanced levels.”

Administrators attributed the growth to the increased recent focus on Middle Eastern politics and rising interest in the Arabic language as a complement to other scholarship — which Darnell said began prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Those may have helped spur things, but it certainly wasn’t the cause,” Darnell said. “It wasn’t like it was this languishing, almost dead, moribund program that got life breathed into it by the terrorist attacks.”

Gruendler said the Arabic courses are also more popular now with students who want to use the language to do research for another field. She said students researching art history and Chinese history, for example, may find that both concentrations somewhat overlap with Arabic.

“Other departments have more and more now moved into subjects that deal somehow with Arabic,” Gruendler said. “The growth of true interdisciplinarity makes people more open to Arabic.”

The growth within Yale’s NELC department mirrors national trends. The Modern Language Association reported in 2002 that Arabic enrollment had grown 92.5 percent since 1998 to a total of 10,584 students nationwide.

Dr. Shukri Abed, chairman of the Department of Languages and Regional Studies at the Middle East Institute, said in the last five years since the MLA report was released, the number of Arabic students has grown to just under 20,000.

But the rapid growth in the number of Arabic students, Abed said, is still not providing enough proficient Arabic speakers to meet the national demand for fluent speakers in scholarship and government.

“It’s still not high enough in my view,” he said. “I noticed a rise even before 9/11, but certainly 9/11 gave it a huge momentum, for negative reasons. Many people now want to be in the service to go to Iraq or to be in the CIA or various agencies of the government.”

Abed and Yale administrators said national competition for Arabic instructors has grown more intense over the past few years because of the demand for instructors by the U.S. government. But Darnell said Yale’s resources and convenient location on the East Coast make it less likely the University will have trouble attracting lectors.

Gruendler said the number of qualified Arabic lectors is still relatively small despite increased demand.

“Twenty institutions in this country look for the same kind of person, and there were not many produced of those,” Gruendler said. “We stole one from Princeton [University].”

Undergraduate students currently enrolled in introductory Arabic said they think the language will prepare them for future careers in the Middle East.

Harry Etra ’09 said studying Arabic complements his past study of Hebrew.

“I want to work on environmental issues in the Middle East,” Etra said.

Jeremy Avins ’10 said the increasing prominence of Arabic courses at Yale and nationwide illustrates the language’s relevance.

“I think it demonstrates that people are seeing the Middle East as an extremely relevant but desperately understudied part of the world,” Avins said. “Yale needs to catch up with the growing interest of the students.”

Gruendler said she is pleased with the rise in enrollment in Arabic courses and thinks it represents a turning point for the image of the language at Yale.

“Sixty-six students will leave Yale having had one year of Arabic,” Gruendler said. “That means a lot. Arabic has reached a critical mass in terms of now being a presence on campus.”

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