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College Enrollment in Arabic Courses Growing Faster Than Other Foreign Languages

A survey by the Modern Languages Association shows that since September 11th, 2001 student enrollment in Arabic courses at American colleges has grown faster than any other foreign language. With the help of the National Security Education Program several universities started the Language Flagship Initiative to develop advanced programs in languages that are important to the future of the U.S.

VOA'S Mohamed Elshinnawi spent a day with American students learning Arabic at the Flagship Program of the University of Maryland to explore how and why they are learning Arabic.

Most Americans once knew little about Arabs and Muslims, their perceptions based mostly on Hollywood movies and TV news. Few seemed interested in the Arabic language.

But that changed after the terrorist attacks in 2001, says Alaa Elgebali, director of the National Flagship Language Program for Arabic teaching at the University of Maryland. "There was more curiosity about what the Arab world is, what the Muslim world is, what do they think, who are they. Pursuing the language, of course, is a very good way to get to know the culture and how people think, so that is the main reason. Another reason, of course, is the geopolitical interest in the area, but some of the American students are studying Arabic because of their interest in jobs that are related to U.S. national security."

The Modern Language Association of America says the number of Arabic language students at U.S universities rose from 5,000 before 9/11 to 12,000 now. Tyler Golson is enrolled in the two-year Arabic Flagship Program at the University of Maryland. "9/11 was kind of very hard for me and my family and I just was curious about why it happened. I knew nothing about the Arab world, I knew nothing about Islam, so I just took my first class out of curiosity in college, and then I fell in love with every thing about it."

Tyler plans to use his proficiency in Arabic to become a political analyst. He says the Flagship Program has used Arab satellite TV to expose him to the different Arab cultures around the world.

Arabic language instructor Jihan Mansour explains how the program uses Arab media as a tool for teaching. "It is really new in any Arabic flagship program, because it is from the Arabic media. It is not like two native speakers are talking about anything. It is from the media, news bulletins and interviews, and we also have here guest speakers every week speaking with the students, giving them lectures and using sometimes Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian (dialects), whatever."

The Arabic teaching program provides students with a dedicated library of dictionaries, textbooks and a variety of Arabic publications and movies.

"You really cannot understand Arabic very well unless you know a lot about the Arabic culture to comprehend words and usage, because Arabic words have a lot of cultural and historic influences," says Golson. He adds, there is no substitute for actually going and living in the Arab world.

His classmate, Noah Bonsey, attests to that. "I lived for a semester last spring in Syria, in Damascus, and that was an incredible experience and I kept in touch with some people from there and I will go back to visit at the end of the summer."

The Flagship Program includes trips to Syria, Egypt and Jordan to practice different dialects and deepen students' understanding of the region.