Loren Siebert decided to learn Arabic as a personal challenge, one that would distract the ailing triathlete from a broken leg suffered while training.
Now, two years later, the 36-year-old North Beach resident and software engineer has created software called LinguaStep that is helping college students study the famously difficult language at a time when interest in Arabic on college campuses is at an all-time high.
Last week, a federally funded study showed that college enrollment in Arabic classes has more than doubled since 2002, a response, researchers say, to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by younger Americans who view the language as a key to understanding a region they previously knew little about.
"As a country, after 9/11 we got caught with our linguistic pants down," said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association of America, which conducted the study. "Students are telling us they'll be better prepared in the new workforce if they learn a language, like Arabic, and they'll certainly be able to better understand another part of the world."
At Stanford University, lecturer Ramzi Salti said that 10 years ago enrollment in his introductory Arabic class topped at three students, all of whom were likely to be graduate students "looking to learn just enough to translate texts."
Now, with 65 freshmen enrolled in Arabic classes this fall and two lecturers added to the department, Salti said grad students still make up a small percentage of the class roster but the class also attracts "heritage learners" - students whose parents come from Arabic-speaking countries but who don't know the language well - and students Salti characterized as "John Smiths" - Caucasian students who, in the past, may have been drawn more to the Romance languages.
The study found that in fall 2006, 23,974 students were enrolled in Arabic courses nationwide, representing a 127 percent increase from 2002, the last time a study was conducted. The number of colleges offering Arabic courses also increased from 264 to 466.
"It may be the only positive thing that came from that horror," Salti said of 9/11. "It made people realize language is what brings people together."
Immediately after the attacks, the Bush administration declared the lack of Arabic speakers in the government a security risk, and has since offered grants ($114 million this year) through the Department of Education to universities that offer courses in "strategic languages," such as Arabic.
Siebert, who enrolled in an introductory summer course at UC Berkeley in 2005, said he soon found himself overwhelmed by the unfamiliar utterances and vocabulary.
"In Arabic, you don't get anything for free," Siebert said. "There are sounds that don't exist in English, the grammar is complicated, it reads from right to left. And then there are the dialects."
Siebert's class used the textbook "Al-Kitaab" ("The Book"), which is used by most American universities. While a host of companies offer competing DVDs and audiotapes to assist students of French and Spanish, there weren't many teaching aids for Arabic learners.
But after Siebert researched the link between human memory and language-learning, he felt compelled to design software that could help a student memorize enough vocabulary - around 5,000 words is considered the mark of proficiency - that understanding grammar rules and conversation could easily follow.
The trick was to help students accumulate and retain a large vocabulary, but not waste time re-learning already familiar words, as many audiotapes and DVDs often do.
When a student uses LinguaStep, the program adjusts to the student's progress. Like thumbing through flash cards, a student can test his knowledge of words on the screen. But the words that a student knows cold are removed from the cycle, and those that he gets wrong show up more frequently.
A student's individual stats are kept on a computer file.
Gus Leonard, president of the SouthWest Association for Language Learning Technology, said he first tried out Siebert's LinguaStep at an industry conference three weeks ago.
"He's not a traditionally trained instructor who's made learning a lot easier," Leonard said. "He's figured out a way to make vocabulary learning more efficient and faster, which is the Holy Grail of language learning."
Since Siebert launched LinguaStep six weeks ago, he said, he's landed deals with about 30 universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley.
Siebert's friends now tease the former Marshall Scholar that he must work for the government - his talents have put him in high demand.
Instead, Seibert, who helped start Quote.com, a site that tracks world financial markets, is hoping to expand the LinguaStep platform to include other languages.
"I wanted to learn Arabic because it was difficult and wanted to see if I could do it," Siebert said. "And because I thought it was beautiful."