Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/1109language09.html

Learning Arabic surges, survey says
Gannett News Service
Nov. 9, 2003

Katherine Hutt Scott
 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Michigan State University student Katherine Pitsch decided to study Arabic after seeing the word jihad in news reports and not understanding what it meant.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11,2001, terrorist attacks, the international relations major decided she needed a deeper understanding of the Persian Gulf region.

"To truly understand the Muslim world and culture, we need to understand the meaning of their words," said Pitsch, 19 and a junior.

The number of college students taking Arabic classes has almost doubled since 1998, according to a study released Thursday.

"Part of it can be attributed to the tragic events of September 11," said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, which conducted the study.

In general, the number of college students learning foreign languages and the variety of languages being taught are at their highest points ever, according to the association's study. It surveyed 2,780 colleges and universities on their enrollment in language classes other than English between 1998 and 2002.

Rises by 17.9%

The number of undergraduate college students learning foreign languages rose by 17.9 percent, to 1.4 million, the survey showed. That far outpaced the 7.5 percent increase in undergraduate enrollments overall.

Students took classes in 163 languages in 2002, including 148 that aren't commonly taught, the survey showed. Those include Swahili, Swedish and Vietnamese.

Excluding American Sign Language, the biggest increase was in Arabic classes, where enrollment jumped by 92.5 percent, to 10,596.

Pitsch's Arabic professor, Malik Balla, said enrollment in his classes almost tripled after the terrorist attacks. To accommodate the increased demand, Michigan State added a third beginner class and a part-time instructor, he said.

Before Sept. 11, most of Balla's students were Arab or Muslim, but he said that's no longer the case.

"Mostly they say, 'We want to study Arabic because it's an important language,' or 'We want to study Arabic because we want to know more about the region,' " Balla said.


Growth in Islam


Another factor in the popularity of Arabic is the rapid growth in the number of people practicing Islam in the United States, said Reed Dasenbrock, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of New Mexico. Muslims say their prayers in Arabic.

Dasenbrock said the trend is partly the result of "new Muslims attempting to learn more about the cultural context of the religion they have embraced."

"And some could be looking for jobs in the State Department," he said.

American Sign Language also has been increasingly popular because there are many job opportunities for people who can communicate with the deaf, Feal said.

Spanish is by far the most widely taught language on campus, accounting for 53 percent of foreign language students, the survey showed. French and German rank second and third.


Issues credited


The study of foreign languages is popular in general because of major international issues that have grabbed students' attention, Feal said.

Those issues include the events of Sept. 11, large numbers of immigrants entering the country and globalization of the world economy.

The association's survey also tracked solid increases between 1998 and 2002 in the study of biblical Hebrew and ancient Greek. Feal and Dasenbrock attributed that to increased interest in studying religion, archaeology and the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome.

"It's impossible for undergraduates to believe that only knowing about English and U.S. history and culture is enough for them," Feal said.