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Arabic grows in popularity

Karen Langley | Monday, December 5, 2005

The two young women, clad in dark, floor-length robes, gesture excitedly as they greet one another. “Salaam,” they say, and proceed to converse for a few moments in Arabic. The other young people around them add their own comments in the language and laugh at a joke.

Then, one of the young women turns to Professor Li Guo to ask a grammatical question. Guo, lounging by a window overlooking Notre Dame’s snowy South Quad, answers her in Arabic.

This classroom scene – now common at Notre Dame – would have been unheard of prior to 1989, when the first Arabic language courses were offered at the University. In subsequent years, Arabic has become an increasingly popular offering at Notre Dame, a school known for its Irish Catholic heritage. Student demand caused a third year of formal Arabic study to be added for the 2005-06 academic year, while study beyond the third year is available through directed readings courses.

The demand for Arabic courses has taken off in recent years.

“Every semester we get more and more students,” said Professor Joseph Amar, director of the Program in Arabic Studies. “It’s a growth industry. The numbers are going through the roof.”

Amar said the three sections of beginning Arabic first implemented in 2003 will grow to six sections by spring 2006.

“Even those, unfortunately, have to be big sections with 30 students,” he said. “We try to accommodate as many people as we can.”

In spring 2005, the five scheduled Beginning Arabic classes did not provide enough room for the numbers of students interested, and an extra section was scheduled at the last moment. Amar had to leave the small Arabic program to find an instructor, but engineering professor Ramzi Bualuan – a native Lebanese – agreed to teach the class.

Upper-level courses in spring 2006 have just one section, but Amar predicted that multiple sections will be available in coming years, as students advance in the language.

Amar, a Catholic priest born in Lebanon, has been responsible for the major in Arabic since its inception in 1999. The major, which is housed under the Department of Classics, features courses in Arabic language, history, religion and literature in translation.

While majors must take at least four semesters in Arabic language, Amar said it is also important for students to develop a familiarity with the culture of the Arab world.

“Because the Arabic language is spoken in a part of the world that most Americans are not familiar with, it is important to learn something about the culture of the Middle East,” he said. “In general, Americans don’t know much about countries in which Arabic is spoken except what’s shown on TV, and that’s bogus.”

Natasha Mikha, a senior Arabic and Peace Studies major, has had more exposure to Middle Eastern culture than most Americans. Mikha, whose father is Iraqi, was raised speaking Arabic but had stopped using the language long before college.

“I was fluent up until about age eight, but with doing better in school and trying to learn English, I lost it,” she said. “When we got to a certain age, my parents switched us to English.”

Mikha spent part of her junior year in Cairo, where she found many students who, like herself, were half Arab but not fluent in the language.

“There are a lot of kids who are part Arab who are trying to get in touch [with that background],” she said.

Mikha said only a few of her Arabic classmates at Notre Dame are of Middle Eastern descent.

“A lot of kids who study Arabic at Notre Dame are political science and peace studies majors,” Mikha said. “They are also studying Arabic because it is important to the world situation.”

A few of her classmates are pursuing careers in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or in other government branches seeking Arabic speakers. Though Mikha plans to pursue a career in law while earning a Master’s degree in Arabic, she has seen evidence of government agencies’ interest in hiring Arabic-speaking students.

“It’s funny because once you start taking it, when you go online, every once in while when you get a pop-up [ad], it says in Arabic ‘If you can read this, we need you’ and it’s from the CIA,” Mikha said.

Amar suggested that most students’ strengthened interest in Arabic derives from their professional goals.

“People who study Arabic do it for the professional advantage they get in business, government and the media,” Amar said. “If someone has a few credits in Spanish, [employers] don’t look twice, but Arabic jumps out.”

And if the Arabic majors’ employment rate is any indicator, Amar’s statement is true.

“Our majors are either accepted into grad schools or have jobs before they finish their senior years,” Amar said. “If you finish with some Arabic and a knowledge of the Middle East, you’re one in a million in this country.”

Representatives and recruiters from the government, business and media come to campus each spring solely to meet Arabic majors, Amar said. Though students sometimes think the government would be the most likely hirer of Arabic speakers, both business and media are providing growing opportunities.

“Businesses doing business in the Middle East are learning that more employees can deal with Middle Easterners on their own ground – even if they are not fluent but know some Arabic, it indicates a certain level of respect and willingness to understand them on their own ground,” Amar said.

All areas of media are also demanding increased communication with teams around the world, leading to a need for speakers proficient in Arabic.

“One of the fastest growing is the media, in broadcast and print journalism,” Amar said. He also said that like in other fields, media does not view fluency in the language as important as the ability to simply communicate with journalists in the Middle East.

Arabic’s reputation as a difficult language to learn likely stems from its different alphabet. Mikha suggested, however, that the very fact it has an alphabet makes Arabic easier to learn than languages, like Chinese, that write in characters.

“If you can master memorizing the alphabet and pronouncing the letters, then you’re fine sounding out words,” she said. “It’s like taking kindergarten and first grade all over again.”

As a native Arab and American professor, Amar said he has seen a tendency of Americans to become intimidated by other languages.

“Americans are sort of language-shy,” Amar said. “People come to Arabic expecting the worst, but we teach it in a very user-friendly way. I tell students that if they’re having trouble with Arabic, it’s not being taught right.”

Amar said that most successful students value the challenge and intellectual stimulation of learning a new language.

“Most students just lap it up, they love it,” he said.

Mikha said that when Americans do have difficulty learning Arabic, it may be because the language incorporates sounds that are unknown to English speakers.

“It’s difficult because it’s like nothing you’ve heard before,” she said.

In Arabic, only long vowels are written, Mikha said.

“Certain words are spelled the same but the short vowels make them different, so in reading a newspaper, that can make them difficult for beginners,” she said.

For Mikha, the hard work of relearning Arabic has paid off.

“At least on a resume, I will put that I can speak, read and write reasonably well,” she said. “I’m not fluent after five semesters, but I’m comfortable enough to pause and fish for words.”

While Mikha has done well with regaining her Arabic, some students have more difficulty learning the language. Kyle Bocinsky, a sophomore majoring in anthropology and physics, dropped Beginning Arabic I his freshman year.

Bocinsky’s interest in Arabic was spurred by a summer internship at CNN’s international broadcasting studio in Atlanta, Ga. He helped produce two news segments – both involving the Middle East – for international broadcast. Like Amar, Bocinsky said he realized the importance of language skills in contemporary international journalism.

“I realized that it is a hot topic, not just to the United States, but to the entire world,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to go into broadcast journalism, and Arabic is something people going into world journalism need to know.”

Bocinsky said he had difficulty studying Spanish and Latin in high school and wanted to try a totally different language.

“I thought learning a new alphabet – instead of just translating – would be a good experience,” he said. “I made it through the first half of the semester while we were learning the alphabet, but when we started learning vocabulary, I realized that I was having the same problems I’d had with other languages.”

Bocinsky said the highly-motivated Arabic faculty was not the problem.

“The difficulty does not stem from the professors,” he said. “Because the program is difficult, it has trouble retaining students. Lots [of students] didn’t make it through the second semester.”

Still, the Arabic program’s increasing popularity and relatively high retention rate speak to the increased awareness of issues in the Middle East among college students.

“For a long time, education has been European-centered, but clearly the trajectory is now towards Asia and the Middle East,” Amar said. “Notre Dame acknowledges that and is putting students in touch with the direction that things are going.”