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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

"If you build it, they will come," says Belnap. Students will stick with Arabic "if the structures are there for people to achieve their goals." In a recent NMELRC student survey, 78 percent of Arabic students said they wanted to become proficient enough to use Arabic in their "professional activities."

Large-scale infrastructure must be build from scratch

But providing vast amounts of the high-quality resources necessary will take a long time. An infrastructure for large-scale Arabic-language instruction must be built from scratch.

"It requires a readjustment of the educational system," says Jerry Lampe, deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Academic institutions are working to expand programs. Last year, the White House unveiled its major capacity-building plan for foreign-language instruction in the US. The National Security Language Initiative is a set of multiagency proposals that seeks to support students and build programs and resources at all levels of schooling.

"We talked about [the initiative] as generational," says Rob Slater, director of the Pentagon's National Security Education Program. "It's not going to happen in five years."

That timetable can apply to students as well. Arabic is among the most time-intensive languages for English speakers to learn. Reaching "limited working proficiency" takes 1,320 hours, almost three times as long as it does for Spanish or French, according to the Foreign Service Institute.

"It's hard for students who, after two years, can't really carry on a conversation," says Gilla Camden, a PhD student at Georgetown University who is also a teaching assistant in Arabic classes. "If you couldn't order dinner, you'd kind of think, 'How far am I really gonna get with this?' "

"The difficulties of the language are exaggerated," Granara explains, but "it takes more time."

Justin Stevens is probably just the kind of student the government is looking for. He's had well-trained, nurturing teachers, top-notch immersion programs, and "in country" experience. Between attending class, reading novels and newspapers, and watching movies, he devotes 35 to 55 hours a week working on his Arabic.

But there's no guarantee that he or other advanced speakers will work for Uncle Sam.

"The vast majority [of my classmates] really are not enthusiastic about carrying out the government's policy in the region," Mr. Stevens says.

High-level speakers often find that the government can't afford to pay them as generously as the corporate world will. "The government's biggest problem is that it has to compete with the private sector, so it just can't match the salaries," says the Pentagon's Dr. Slater.

Bureaucracy has also hindered some Arabic speakers from working for the government. Students are encouraged to study language and culture overseas. But they often return to the US to find that, because they went abroad, their security clearances will take so long that they can't start working right away.

It's too soon to say whether the US can expect a future generation of fluent Arabic speakers. In the meantime, the rush to learn Arabic is producing indirect results, including an improved understanding of the region.

"To be able to talk to people ... helped me understand the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict better," says Marin, who studied and worked in Jerusalem for six months. "My three years of Arabic has personally been valuable.... I wouldn't trade that for anything."

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