Allison White began studying Persian because of a chance meeting: Before she started her freshman year at the University of Maryland, she wandered into an office and a friendly professor talked her into taking a class. But by now, she feels lucky that she got lost that day.
"I'm really glad that I took Persian," she said. What once seemed obscure now seems increasingly important, with Iran constantly in the news; the U.S. imposed sanctions last month amid fears of a nuclear threat. "It's really necessary in today's world -- and it's a beautiful, beautiful language."
Persian studies is growing at U-Md., where students are speaking the language, reciting poetry by Rumi and other Persian writers, watching Iranian movies and, sometimes, debating the country's politics and its fractious relationship with the United States. The school hopes to add a major and a minor in Persian this year, according to Provost Nariman Farvardin.
That shadows a national trend. Interest in non-European languages, traditionally less commonly taught in the United States, has been surging, according to survey results released yesterday by the Modern Language Association.
More college students across the country are enrolling in language classes, and that is particularly true for Middle Eastern and Asian languages. Chinese language classes jumped 51 percent from 2002 to 2006 to nearly 52,000, and Korean grew 37 percent to more than 7,000. Arabic classes increased more than 126 percent to nearly 24,000.
And enrollments in Persian language classes nearly doubled nationally, although the total numbers, around 2,300, are still tiny, especially compared to popular languages such as Spanish.
There's a new sense of urgency. "Americans, above all, have been pragmatic language learners," said Karin Ryding, who teaches in the rapidly growing Arabic and Islamic Studies department at Georgetown University. So if they see a vital need, in terms of national interest, or a career, she said, they are willing to invest time and effort.
Earlier this year, President Bush announced a jolt of federal funding to encourage more students to learn strategic languages such as Arabic and Mandarin.
Something else has shifted as well: Schools such as Georgetown University are putting a greater emphasis on culture, politics, music, art, everyday life.
From the very beginning, U-Md. junior White said, the vocabulary words weren't just basic nouns like colors and foods, but names of poets as well. "If you don't have any access to the culture or the literature, I don't know what you would learn," she said.
White knew next to nothing about Iran in high school in Columbia. Now, along with ancient Persian culture, she's learned about the coup in Iran in 1953, the revolution in 1979, the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, the Iran-contra scandal and the Iran-Iraq war.
And now she sees references to Iran everywhere. "Especially in the last year, every time I open the paper there's something more about Iran," she said. "No one's quiet about it."
Along with the language, White is studying Persian literature and a class on modern Iran, in which students -- some of Persian heritage, some not -- ask lots of questions.
Whenever other students find out she's studying Persian, White said, she ends up in a long conversation about it. "Some people are a little weirded out by it," she said, "but most people are pretty accepting."
Others said they know plenty of people who are angry with the leadership of Iran but think it's important to learn more about the society.
Next year, White hopes to move into the language house, an apartment on campus that includes a close-knit group of students who speak Persian at home.
In a recent class, students read aloud poems by an Iranian writer of the 1950s and '60s. "One can draw back the drapes/with wrinkled fingers and watch/rain falling heavy in the alley . . ."
"Is that a life of one's own?" professor Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak asked, as the class talked about women's roles in Iran.
Afterward, White said, "Even when it's spoken, it sounds poetic, it sounds beautiful."
She's now rethinking her career plans. "I'm fascinated with Persian culture and Persian language. I don't ever want to stop studying it."