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Colleges Observe Rise in Students Interested in Learning Arabic - 2001-10-09


Colleges and language schools throughout the United States say they are seeing a sharp increase in the number of people who want to learn Arabic. School officials say some students want to eventually work as translators, while others just want to learn more about Middle Eastern culture.

At the University of Chicago one recent morning, a roomful of students listened as instructor Munira Jalfi wrote a few basic phrases in Arabic on the chalkboard. Fifty-three students are enrolled in beginning Arabic this session.

The Assistant Director of the university's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Rusty Rook, says that is about twice the average number of students, and most registered for the classes after the attacks on New York and Washington. "Most of it has to do with September 11, and folks wanting to find out about Arab culture and civilization and to learn about and try to understand Islam. One of the things that is important to be able to do that is to know Arabic."

Several U.S. government agencies are hiring or are planning to hire more Arabic speakers in the wake of the terrorist attacks and the Bush administration's stepped-up fight against terrorism.

But University of Chicago instructor Munira Jalfi says these students will not be ready for those jobs anytime soon. "From my experience," she said, "it takes two years. By the third year, they are reading and understanding very well, most of the students."

Obie Porteous is one of the students in Ms. Jalfi's class. He says he is not taking Arabic strictly because of the terrorist attacks, but does think knowing the language could improve his job prospects after graduation. He said, "One aspect of my desire to take the language is I concentrate in international studies. I know that a lot of international organizations really like to have people who can speak at least basic Arabic and read the language."

And he knows learning Arabic will not be easy. "Arabic," he said, "is supposed to be one of the world's richest and most difficult languages. I have never attempted to take a non-Indo-European language before. I know Spanish and some French, and those languages have many words that are similar to English. I saw Arabic as kind of a challenge."

The University of Chicago is not the only school to see increased enrollment in its Arabic classes. Brigham Young University in Utah had to add more classes last month to meet the demand. Private language schools in Boston and Washington, D.C. are among those also reporting increased interest in Arabic instruction.

The University of Chicago's Rusty Rook says this has happened before, about 10 years ago, when the Persian Gulf War sparked a brief increased interest in learning Arabic. Mr. Rook said, "I think this may be more enduring than it has in the past because I think the situation has changed in ways that are going to continue to be important for many years to come."

Arab-Americans are also among those seeking jobs as translators for U.S. government agencies. Some mosques and Arab-American organizations are urging their members to answer the government's call for Arabic speakers.

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