Prompted partially by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the number of students at U.S. colleges who are enrolled in Arabic language courses nearly doubled from late 1998 through 2002. It's the fastest growth rate for any foreign language during that period and there's no sign that interest is waning. About 100 Americans traveled to rural Vermont this summer to study Arabic in one of the world's best-known language programs.
Middlebury College is world-renowned for its intensive summer language program, and this season the demand for Arabic training far exceeded that of the other eight languages being offered.
Arabic literature, taught by Ahmad Karout from Damascus, Syria, is one of the classes taught in Middlebury's full immersion language and culture program. Even outside of class, students are surrounded by Arabic, and English is neither heard nor seen. All posted signs and memos are written in Arabic, and students are required at all times to communicate only in Arabic, even in the cafeteria.
The director of the Middlebury Arabic program, Mahmoud Abdalla, says this seamless use of Arabic from classroom to cafeteria to dormitory is an ideal way to learn.
"What students study here for nine weeks, equals nine months," said Mahmoud Abdalla. "[The faculty] is diverse, they come from the Middle East, from Bulgaria, the United States, [other areas] of the Arab world. [It's] the best summer school for teaching Arabic as a foreign language."
Students who violate the language pledge may be expelled from the program. So talking with students about their experiences becomes a laborious process, requiring a translator.
"My name is Jagueria Kureshi," explained one of the students. "I live and study in Chicago, at the school of medicine. And I came to Middlebury because I wanted to learn to speak Arabic better and to be able to read Arabic texts."
Professor Abdalla made an exception for VOA, allowing a few students to talk in English about their Arabic learning experience. Nicole Argemu recalls her almost frantic attempts to utter her final English words before starting the Arabic class.
"I remembered talking very fast and long, the day before we signed the language pledge for English, because I knew I wouldn't be able to speak anything in Arabic for awhile," said Nicole Argemu. "But that's the beauty of the pledge: the frustration you feel inspires you and becomes a motivation for you to speak [Arabic]. You learn a lot of good strategies on how to acquire language; you can't just say, 'How do you say this?' in Arabic and use the English word. You have to talk around it and find another way to explain what you want to be able to say."
Another student was Captain Chuck Kyle of the Texas National Guard, who recently returned from service in Iraq. He says Middlebury's total-immersion method of teaching languages can be frustrating at first.
"A lot of my classmates would say, 'you're about the happiest person I've ever met.' And the reason is that I couldn't say anything and I just had to smile," he said. "They would ask you long questions. And you say, 'Thank you for asking me, but I have no idea what you've said.' They would sit there, look at you and say, 'C'mon, you need to say something. You're going to answer, and say something today!' I'm glad we didn't have to ask for food, or that would be a problem."
As the days and weeks went by, Captain Kyle says he found he was able to communicate with each classmate with increasing fluency.
"After six weeks, I'm e-mailing her in Arabic and I'm speaking to her in Arabic and we're having a conversation," said Chuck Kyle. "It doesn't last more than five minutes, but we're having a conversation."
For Nicole Argemu, the Arabic language even became part of her subconscious being. "I dream in Arabic," she said. "I wake up in the morning and before I get out of bed, I'm thinking in Arabic. We're allowed to talk with our parents every once in awhile and it's been difficult to discuss anything with them. I speak to them in Arabic and they don't understand me! In the middle of our conversations, I start speaking in Arabic because it's much easier right now."