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Columbia University Launches Summer Arabic Program

Increased demand for Arabic language studies has prompted New York's Columbia University to launch an intensive summer Arabic program. The new program integrates linguistic studies with cultural information and activities, taking full advantage of the city's Middle Eastern population.

Columbia University put together the intensive Arabic program in May 2001, four months before the September 11 attacks put a new focus on Middle Eastern affairs. Dean of Continuing Education Frank Wolf says over the past five years, the Middle East studies faculty has felt an increased interest in Arabic and Islamic courses.

"The Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures has had an increasingly attractive offering of culture courses and their enrollments have increased substantially," Mr. Wolf said. "The department argues that the demand for Arabic language courses is a function of the interest in the culture."

Columbia University language professors say students often want to read the original texts they encounter in literature or culture courses, rather than relying on translations. Professor George Saliba says this is particularly true of Arabic.

"The interest in general has always been to acquaint themselves with the culture, to acquaint themselves with the civilization that has a tremendous library," Mr. Salbia said. "If one just looks at the statistics of it, you could trace this [interest] back to five to six years. Of course now, after September 11, there is an additional interest in the language but that, I think, is just a small increase."

Dean Wolf agrees with Professor Saliba, but he thinks there may be "somewhat more interest in Arabic as a result" of September 11. Whatever the reasons, he says one thing is certain the students want to better understand and better communicate with the Arab world, even in New York.

Columbia University is offering two six-week intensive sessions in Arabic. One of the students, Diana, says she is learning Arabic because it is a crucial language for Americans to know. "It has been for the past, I'd say, 20 years," she said. "And I would like a better understanding and knowledge of the region and its politics, and why things are the way they are today."

The Columbia program requires not just the intensive study needed to speak and read the language, but also stresses that understanding a people's history and social practices is equally important. Students in the program are exposed to various cultural aspects of the Arab world first-hand.

Professor George El-Hage took his beginning students beyond campus borders on excursions throughout the city during the first six-week program. "We took the students to the Metropolitan museum to see the Middle Eastern section and all the explanations and all the discussions took place in Arabic," he said. "We also took them to Brooklyn where there is a very rich and diverse Middle Eastern community there. We visited all the shops, and all the shop owners are of Arab descent so they spoke to the students in Arabic."

Professor El-Hage's class also bought groceries from some of those shop owners and his students arranged a full-fledged Middle Eastern meal with hummus, kebabs and tabboule. During the preparation, cooking and eating the only language spoken was Arabic. As they say in Arabic "Sahtain," or Bon Appetit.