As the Middle East plays a larger and larger role in world politics, Yale students have flocked to learn Arabic in record numbers.

Enrollment in both beginner and more advanced Arabic classes has skyrocketed over the past few years, bringing with it challenges as the Arabic program attempts to deal with overworked teachers and large class sizes, lector and Arabic program coordinator Shady Nasser said. Responding to a record 96 students enrolled in first-level Arabic this year, the program is thinking of opening a sixth introductory level section and may hire additional staff next year, Nasser said.

“The sudden increase in interest caught us a little off guard,” said Arabic professor Dimitri Gutas, who has been teaching Arabic since 1976.

He recalled that back in the 1970s and 1980s, up to 20 students took first-year Arabic in a typical year. Enrollment has been climbing since the 1990s, he said, with 71 students taking first-year Arabic last year.

Responding to the growth in the program — now with 201 students enrolled in Arabic classes — Nasser’s position was created last year to oversee and coordinate all aspects of the Arabic curriculum. This year a fourth lector position was added.

While the program welcomes the influx of students, the increased enrollment also poses some challenges, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Director of Undergraduate Studies Beatrice Gruendler said.

“Our faculty often has to teach over and above their duty,” she said.

Despite class sizes larger than the department would like, many students remain undeterred.

Meredith Potter ’13 said she is studying Arabic as part of her plan to major in modern Middle East studies.

“It’s always been an area of interest, and I think it will be an area of contention for some years,” she said.

While six of the ten faculty and students interviewed said they think that the Middle East’s prominence in politics following Sept. 11 is the main force behind the increased interest in Arabic, Gruendler argued that a steady rise in Arabic studies actually began before the attacks.

Arabic’s popularity is on the rise nationwide, and it is now the tenth most commonly studied foreign language in American universities and colleges, according to the Modern Language Association’s most recent report. In the association’s 2006 survey, Arabic boasted a 127 percent increase in enrollment over four years.

The expansion of Yale’s Arabic program is also pushing the program to explore new frontiers, including starting an official study abroad program in Jordan next summer.

Gutas said the program is also considering creating its own textbook so that it will no longer have to rely on others’ materials.

“We hope to be able to develop something that will be more attuned to the needs of our students,” he said.