"There's so many dots," says Deina Musa, groaning, as her friends echo, "the dots," outside their Arabic classroom at Saint Xavier one Friday morning.
"The dots and the lines pretty much tell you what the letter is -- how you say it," explains Musa, a 21-year-old from Oak Lawn, who's finally learning to read and write the language she's grown up speaking with her Jordanian parents.
As if the Arabic script didn't look complicated enough, what with its right-to-left direction, its tiny dots are crucial, she's quickly learned.
Their number and placement changes a letter from a "b" to an "n," a "t" to a "th," an "s" to an "sh." Worst of all are the multiple "s," "d" and "t" sounds.
But a bunch of dots won't stop her or 22 other young 20-somethings from waking up early three days a week to pack into a Saint Xavier classroom where they are learning to read, write, understand and speak Arabic.
"It's my language; it's my culture," Musa said. "I think everybody should know how to read and write in their own ethnicity and culture."
This growing demand among proud immigrant children, future politicians and teachers is fueling the study of Arabic nationwide, and now the Southland has added its own options to the mix. Saint Xavier University in Mount Greenwood heard the call and kicked off its first year of Arabic language instruction, now in its second semester.
It's joining the list of colleges across America who have added sections and teachers to meet the demand for fluency and understanding, especially in the wake of the ongoing war in Iraq and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The University of Chicago has long offered Arabic language classes. Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago also offer multiple levels of the language.
At Saint Xavier, numbers in instructor Rabab Abbass El Nady's class have skyrocketed from five students last fall, to 23 this spring semester. Three of her original five have continued their study.
About half the students grew up in Arabic-speaking households, but never learned to read or write the sounds they effortlessly pronounce. For them, it's ABCs all over again.
"I understand the words and stuff, but memorizing the letters gets confusing," said Kati Khouri, 22, adding that her parents are thrilled.
"(My mom) gets all excited when I ask for help with my homework," she said.
Same goes for Charlie Fino, who grew up in a Palestinian-German home in Oak Forest, speaking English. Fino, 21, has wanted to learn to speak Arabic with his dad.
"It seems so much different from other languages, but once you're into it, it's fine," he said, adding it was easier to learn than Spanish.
"I definitely was intimidated by class at first. But Rabab makes it very fun."
Laurence Musgrove, who founded the Middle Eastern studies program at Saint Xavier, said the school wanted to cater to the children of Arab immigrants who settled in the southwest suburbs.
"We wanted to reach out to those communities and foster an understanding of their history and culture," he said.
And the Saint Xavier's classes cost less than most other private colleges.
Over at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, students of an older ilk meet one night a week to study with veteran instructor Fathyeh Yessin.
Arabic is the "Language of 'Daad' " Yessin told the group at its first meeting -- the only language known to have a certain sound -- called Daad -- that's not quite a "d," nor a "t" either. It's phonetic, unlike English, and highly structured.
Yessin's students are local teachers whose classes are full of children of Arab immigrants, an odd reporter and the occasional soldier heading to Iraq or just released from military service.
Yessin, who moved to the Southland from Syria, is Moraine's one-woman Arabic department, though other languages -- Spanish, French and German -- are taught for credit during the day.
She calls her class "Arabic Conversation," but goads her students into learning to write and to read their own handwriting. It's just another way to pick up more vocabulary faster, she said.
The class makes time for cultural notes, too.
Teaching vocabulary about food is a chance to explain mealtimes and eating philosophies among Syrian families.
For El Nady, who's in Chicago on a Fulbright Scholarship from Egypt, exchanging cultures is the whole point of studying languages. So she'll teach formal standard Arabic and as many regional dialects as she knows. She'll show students controversial Egyptian movies and lead discussions and encourage each to learn about daily life in Middle Eastern countries.
"Learning another language isn't just about the language, it's about another world," she said.
"Now with the things going on in the world, we need bridges."