Arabic has been part of the language departments at some U.S. universities since the 1950s. But the number of students taking Arabic classes was always relatively small -- until the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
"After September 11th, the universities that had been offering Arabic before experienced a 100% increase," says Mahmoud Al-Batal. He teaches Arabic at Emory University in Atlanta, where the language was first offered in 1987.
Mr. Al-Batal says the growth of interest since 2001 has been extraordinary. "Many universities and smaller colleges began offering Arabic for the first time, " he says. "If we look at the figures of the Modern Language Association of America, the numbers of students who are studying Arabic currently are in the range of about 12,000 students, as opposed to about 5,000 students just before September 11th."
Spanish, French and German remain the most popular foreign language classes. But not only has enrollment in Arabic courses noticeably increased over the past few years, many Americans are also traveling to the Middle East to enrich their understanding.
Professor Al-Batal says Arabic is fairly easy to master - even though it does look and sound very different than English. "If you are an undergraduate student, I'd say probably within three or four years, you can attain an advanced level of proficiency," he estimates, "especially if you combine your four- or five-hour-per-week study of Arabic with a summer of study abroad in the Arab World."
The Emory professor says a student pursuing an intensive program can reach an advanced level of proficiency in just one to two years. "I believe that everyone can learn Arabic as long as they are motivated," he says. "We have American learners of Arabic who have achieved very high levels of proficiency, and some of them are teaching Arabic today."
One of those is Kristen Brustad. "My interest at first was merely linguistic," she says. "But then, as opportunities presented themselves, the biggest opportunity, I think -- the one that set me on my career path -- was when I heard of the Center of Arabic Studies Abroad." CASA, whose major funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education -- sends advanced graduate students to Cairo for a year of intensive Arabic study. "I studied in Cairo in 1980 and 1981," Ms. Brustad says, "and stayed two years after that working at the American University in Cairo."
She has returned to Egypt every year since then, often escorting students like Lauren Torbett. The foreign affairs major says studying Arabic in Cairo was more than an academic experience -- it also introduced her to a totally different culture.
"I had some cultural shock just because it was a very different physical surrounding from where I came from," Ms. Torbett says. "Family life is different. I dressed differently while I was there. I've actually had a kind of reverse cultural shock coming back to America." She hopes her proficiency in Arabic will help her find work with an international organization.
In contrast, pre-med student Glen Abedi is learning Arabic for strictly personal reasons. "I grew up as a Shiite Muslim, but my community is mostly composed of immigrants, especially from Pakistan and India," he says. " So the religious service and teaching have been primarily in the Urdu language. But I know that Arabic was the religious language, so I wanted to study it for that reason. So, in Egypt, I continued my 'Fushaa' [classical Arabic] studies, modern standard Arabic studies and also a little bit of the Egyptian colloquial Arabic."
When the current school year began in September 2004, nearly 500 Americans were taking Arabic classes at the American University in Cairo -- more than double the pre-9/11 enrollment. Professor Kristen Brustad encourages all her students to study with native speakers in the Middle East for as long as possible.
"If you can go for a year, that's better than going for a semester," she says. "The Arab World is a wonderful place to study. People are so warm, so friendly. Arabs are thrilled to hear that people are learning their language. They are very encouraging. Generosity and hospitality are a big part of the Arabic cultures."
Whether American college students are looking for a career or just curious about a different culture, Ms. Brustad says that studying Arabic at its source gives them a chance to build bridges of understanding with the younger generation in the Middle East. Many of her students, she says, are surprised to find that they share many things with their Arab peers, not just their language.