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Why the pool of Arabic speakers is still a puddle

Six years after the US awoke to the need for its citizens to learn Arabic, obstacles remain.

By Carol HuangCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2007

Alex Marin studied Arabic for three years, one of them in Egypt. But that still doesn't make her a "serious" Arabic student.

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After learning enough to conduct basic conversations, Ms. Marin is going to law school. Resuming Arabic afterward "might be a pipe dream," she says. For her, it's sad but true that getting a law degree is quicker and more secure than getting one in Arabic.

The US has sought to cultivate high-level Arabic speakers since 9/11, when the country's lack of them became a national-security concern.

Arabic courses swelled in number soon after the attack. But six years later, the post-9/11 spike in interest seems to be fading. And it's unclear how many of today's Arabic students will stick around for the five to 10 years it takes to become the advanced speakers the government requires. Learning it is time-consuming, and the dropout rate is high. The resources to teach it are sparse, and a perplexing policy sometimes discourages students from studying Arabic abroad.

"The demand is definitely there, and it will continue, [but] it has leveled off," says Mahmoud Al-Batal, an Arabic professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Arabic isn't losing students, but it's not gaining them as rapidly as it has in the recent past, say professors and analysts in the field. Comprehensive data on Arabic-language enrollment, compiled by the Modern Language Association (MLA), won't be available until the fall.

But even with more students entering the language – joining more than 10,000 others, as of 2002 – the vast majority will drop out long before they reach an advanced level.

"First-year enrollments across the nation are enormous. The second-year enrollments are reasonably large. But once you move beyond that, it tapers off very, very rapidly," says Kirk Belnap, director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center (NMELRC) in Provo, Utah.

"There are 'Sputnik students,' of course," says Professor Batal, referring to the similar spike in students learning Russian after the Soviet Union launched its intimidating satellite in 1957. "I do expect the interest to go down a little bit."

Globalization spurs desire for languages

Academics in the field say a hard core of students will remain devoted to the language even as the memory of 9/11 fades. The Arab world and Islam will remain important, says William Granara, a Harvard professor. "The numbers will come down, but they won't come down to [what they were in] the 1960s and 1970s."

Many analysts say students today see the need for foreign language skills; globalization demands it. College students have "a real awareness that [foreign language] is important to their education … in ways that are clearer than [in] earlier generations," says Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA.

Many are flocking to Chinese. "Arabic is not coming along quite as rapidly as Chinese," says Martha Abbott, education director at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), based in Washington. "Chinese has the added incentive of playing a role in the global economy, which I don't think people see the Mideast doing at this point."

In Arabic, high-quality teachers, materials, and programs are severely lacking, especially outside the college level. Most students can't access high-quality resources to learn the language. It's a major reason people quit.

"The demand is far exceeding the supply," says Professor Granara. "We've grown much too big for our resources."

Marin says she would have continued studying Arabic had funding been available. "It's really frustrating that there aren't enough opportunities for students," she laments.