Interest in international affairs. Better job opportunities. Exciting study abroad opportunities.
These are just a few of the reasons why a growing number of students around the country and at Georgetown are choosing to study Arabic.
As interest has soared at Georgetown in recent years, the university's Arabic and Islamic Studies department has gone through a wave of changes, dramatically increasing its faculty size and expanding research opportunities for students.
According to departmental figures, there are 52 Arabic majors at Georgetown this year, more than double the 21 majors the department had five years ago. More freshmen than ever are coming to Georgetown as declared Arabic majors —14 freshman arrived on the Hilltop this fall already with a declared major in Arabic, more than tripling the four that enrolled in the fall of 2004. Minors have also increased, with 21 students choosing to minor in Arabic this year.
Interim Chair Judith Tucker said that, in response, the department size has increased by approximately threefold over the past five years.
"We are one of the largest and certainly one of the most well-known Arabic departments in the nation," Tucker said. "But our rate of growth over the past years has been most impressive."
The department of Arabic and Islamic Studies also houses the division of Eastern Mediterranean Languages, which includes Greek, Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian. Tucker cites increased interest in these languages as well, especially in Persian.
In fact, interest in these subjects has risen so much that the department "outgrew" its former home in the Bunn Intercultural Center, where most other language departments are housed, and moved over the summer to its new, more spacious home in Poulton Hall.
"It's nice for all members of the department to now have places to sit down," Tucker said.
There has also been a steady climb in the number of Arabic sections offered each year. The department is offering 10 sections this year for first-year students, up from six offered four years ago. Seven sections are being offered for second-year students, whereas five were offered in 2003-2004, and three sections are being offered for third-year students, a one section increase from four years ago.
According to Tucker, there are several factors contributing to the department's growth, but none are as important as the high profile of the Arabic world in current events and the resulting market for proficient Arabic speakers.
"There is a lot of interest in general in the Islamic world," she said. "A number of our students are taking up Arabic to work toward career goals, as there has been an exponential increase in the number of jobs available in the government, as well as in academia."
Meeting the Demand
This upward trend is not unique to Georgetown.
The number of students studying Arabic nationwide underwent a 92.3 percent increase between 1998-2002, when the last survey by the Modern Language Association was conducted.
In 2002, 10,584 students were enrolled in Arabic classes at U.S. institutes of higher education. According to E.B. Welles' "Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professions in the 21st Century," published in 2006, "all indicators suggest that the total number of students enrolling in Arabic courses continues to rise," even though no comprehensive national language survey has been conducted since 2002
The rise in interest nationwide has also been reflected at the graduate level.
Georgetown offers a master's degree in Arabic and Ph.D's in both Arabic and Islamic Studies. Margaret Nydell, director of graduate studies in the department, said that the Master's and Ph.D programs in Arabic have grown significantly in recent years and the Ph.D in Islamic Studies is already quite popular in only its first full year. Nydell said that there are currently 10 M.A. students in Arabic, 18 Ph.D students in Arabic and seven Ph.D students in Islamic Studies.
"Before 9/11, we had 10-12 graduate students total. Now we have increased sending students abroad to several universities or schools in the Arab world, and new courses are planned in Islamic Studies, also in Arabic literature and translation," Nydell said.
Kassem Wahba, director of Georgetown's Summer Institute in Arabic and Persian languages, said that both the intensive and non-intensive summer offerings offer opportunities to both students and professionals to accelerate their education.
"The summer program is also a service to the Washington, D.C., community or any other government agency who would like send their employees to study Arabic at Georgetown
University," Wahba said.
Tucker attributed part of the department's strength to its relationship with outside academic and research institutes and organizations, including the National Resource Center on the Middle East. The NRC is one of several Department of Education-sponsored centers in major U.S. universities that houses different research and academic institutes, which at Georgetown includes the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, the Program for Jewish Civilization, Turkish Studies and the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Several of the institutes offer research opportunities to Georgetown undergraduates.
"Informally and naturally, students in these various programs are also studying the language, and thus we complement one another," Tucker said.
Brice Humphrey (SFS '08), a double major in international economics and Arabic, said he has noticed a considerable increase in students' interest in Arabic.
"I've noticed that more and more people seem to be interested in Arabic in both the lower and upper-levels," he said. "Although a number [of students] drop after the first year or two, I am surprised by how many stay on to take advanced coursework."
Humphrey noted his satisfaction with the department's growth and continued high quality of education.
"Most of my advanced Arabic courses have been as large — if not larger — than those I took freshman year while still maintaining a high-level of class discussion," he said.
Adam Yoran (SFS '09) said that he decided to study Arabic in order to learn about a new culture and take on a non-Latin alphabet. The growth of the department and increased job opportunities for Arabic speakers have together only made the experience better, he said.
"Increasing job opportunities and events in the Middle East have created a much higher demand for Arabic, and the Arabic department is definitely trying to meet that demand," Yoran said. "I take the increases in the number of professors and the department to be a very good thing."
Above and Abroad
The increased level of interest in the language has also manifested itself through the popularity of study abroad programs in Arabic-speaking countries — over the past five years, the number of students who have studied abroad in these countries has approximately quadrupled.
In the 2002-2003 academic year, 13 Georgetown students studied abroad in Cairo, Egypt and in Ifrane, Morocco, the two Arabic-speaking programs that the Office of International Programs sponsors, according to Sylvia Mitterndorfer, the director of overseas studies and technology in OIP. This year, around 50 students have chosen to study abroad in these programs, Mitterndorfer said.
Many students have expressed more interest to study abroad in programs found in Arabic-speaking countries not currently approved by Georgetown. Beginning in the spring of 2008, a third Arabic-speaking option will be added, as students will be able to study abroad at Georgetown's Qatar campus.
Mitterndorfer said that Georgetown could not approve programs in countries such as Syria and Lebanon because the Department of State has issued travel warnings for these countries.
Several students said they would still have liked to study abroad in other countries in addition to the programs offered through Georgetown.
Pete Sorrentino (COL '08) studied at the American University in Cairo but had originally wanted to study at the American University in Beirut. He said that the program in Lebanon attracted him because "it was a more highly respected academic program" but that he was unable to do it primarily because it lacked university sponsorship.
Spencer French (SFS '08) studied abroad in Ifrane but was also interested in going to Lebanon because he felt it offered certain advantages.
"[Lebanon] is a country with a purer form of Arabic, while [Morocco's] Arabic is a mix of traditional Berber and Arabic," he said.
Others have also decided to study abroad independent of Georgetown. Emily Majka (COL '08) chose to study in the Georgetown-approved Cairo program for a semester and an independent Syrian program for a summer. She said that the Syrian program was a great contrast to the Egyptian one.
"The Syrian program emphasizes a lot of things in grammar that Georgetown doesn't and is much closer to more mainstream Arabic," she said. "Cairo was very different and nice. It definitely coddled us and was accommodating, but it was tame compared to Syria, which was full immersion for me."
Majka also said that she feels that OIP should offer more study abroad options in Arabic-speaking countries to better represent the diversity of the Arabic language.
"There are so many places in the Middle East that it would be nice to let students go to other schools' programs," she said. "I understand the risks, but [the university needs] to offer other opportunities."
— Anusha Pallamreddy contributed to this report