Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/families/education/articles/0302languages-ON.html

Exotic language studies take off as students wager on war
Columbia News Service
Mar. 2, 2004 07:15 PM

NEW YORK - When he sat down to plan his course schedule this fall, Jovan Diaz, a sophomore at Rutgers University, envisioned a future far away from his Colonia, N.J., home, somewhere infinitely less comfortable and decidedly more sinister. Diaz set his sights on the axis of evil.

Diaz, a 19-year-old ROTC trainee, wanted to study the three countries that President Bush had singled out in his 2002 State of the Union address: North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Diaz picked Persian, the language spoken in Iran, and thinks he might start Korean next year. He tried to enroll in Arabic, Iraq's major tongue, but the class was already full.

"The axis of evil is definitely something I considered," he said. "After Sept. 11, I wanted a military job or maybe the whole CIA thing. I thought, yeah, it's cool."

In the careful calculus that goes into crafting a college student's course load, a new priority is emerging on campuses across America: exotic languages, the more strategically important, the better. Interest in Arabic surged before and during the war in Iraq. But other students are looking past Iraq, trying to guess where and when the United States will need specialists next.

Between 1998, when the Modern Language Association conducted its last study of foreign-language enrollment at U.S. universities, and November 2003, when it released an updated report, language studies have posted their biggest increase since the early 1970s. Arabic, with over 10,000 students, and Biblical Hebrew, with some 14,000, grew the most, while the number of students interested in Persian, Uzbek, Pashto, Dari, Farsi and Urdu multiplied.

The number of students studying those strategic languages is still tiny but nonetheless has shown a dramatic increase since 1998. In four years, students studying Persian jumped to 1,117 from 614; Uzbek, to 23 from 4; and Urdu, to 152 from 35. In 1998, not a single U.S. student studied Pashto -- a regional language spoken by about a third of Afghanis -- but 14 take it today. Two dialects of Persian, Farsi and Dari, grew to dozens from zero.

Federal funding accounts for a lot of the growth: Colleges can now offer these languages for the first time and students can win fellowships to study them. Congress increased aid to foreign language studies by $20 million in 2002, putting the total above $100 million. Among other things, the funding supports language scholarships, subsidizes magnet universities for regional studies and creates new language resource centers. The Defense Department and the National Security Agency also fund their own language study fellowships.

"The U.S. because of a kick in the head realized that international didn't just mean French, German and Russian," said Paul Sprachman, Diaz's professor and the sole Persian instructor at Rutgers. "But it takes a long time for the government to turn out a new generation of specialists, and they're woefully behind."

Professors like Sprachman are struggling to keep up with demand. His entry-level Persian class used to attract 15 students; now he gets nearly double that, he says.

Students aren't limiting themselves just to the Middle East. Korean is more and more popular, as are languages of Central Asia, North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia -- anywhere where anti-American threats are thought to simmer.

After Sept. 11, the University of Indiana at Bloomington opened a government-funded Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center to study the languages of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Director William Fierman said his ability to attract students with fellowships doubled overnight. He used to get about 20 applicants a year; this year he estimates he might receive 70.

Antonia Schleicher, director of a national center for African languages at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says the government will give her any funds she requests to develop new language resources. She says it is unwise just to focus on where the terrorists are coming from today. "The question to think about," she said, "is where they will be coming from tomorrow?"

That's also what students are asking.

"We're all convinced that Central Asia is going to be the next hot spot, the governments are so repressive there," says Ryan Eddings, a 27-year-old Los Angeles native studying Uzbek at Bloomington. "It might be stable now, but it doesn't mean they're going to be stable in five to 10 years."

Witnessing the terrorist attack in Washington on Sept. 11 caused Eddings to quit his job in finance and apply to graduate student in Central Asian studies. He says he realized that he could easily get work as a specialist in the little-known countries of Central Asia after U.S. forces based in Uzbekistan raised the region's profile.

Eddings says the CIA, the Defense Department and the National Security Agency come frequently to campus to recruit. "At the career fairs, they can't rip the resumes out of my hand fast enough," he said.

The CIA says students are showing more interest in working at the agency lately. Harold Tate, the chief of recruitment there, says that after Sept. 11, the agency drew up a critical list of language skills that it wants in applicants: among them, Persian, Pashto, Dari and Korean. The CIA gives signing bonuses up to $25,000 for students with some combination of those languages. Tate says his hiring budget increased 85 percent after Sept. 11 and adds that he receives 2,100 applications per week.

Concerned that students are taking the free ride but opting out of government work, Congress is currently considering creating a committee, the International Education Advisory Board, to ensure that scholarship students take jobs in national security after graduation.

Eddings, for example, says he wants to pursue human rights or development work because he opposes U.S. policy in Central Asia. For speakers of Uzbek, he says, those jobs are also his to pick. Diaz, too, says he's cooled on working in government security. "I've become a little disenchanted with the whole CIA thing," he said.

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