A record number of students are enrolled in Arabic courses both nationally and at Washington University. While many universities have had to pick up the pace in teaching the Middle Eastern language over the last few years, the University has been at the forefront of Arabic scholarship for almost three decades.
"The institution recognized [Arabic] as a need and really invested in a proper way, and we are getting the fruits of that now," said Fatemeh Keshavarz, professor of Persian and chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures.
Keshavarz said that the University committed itself to building a premier Arabic department in the early 1980s, when former professor of history, Henry Berger, decided that the University needed a strong Islamic Studies Program.
Today, the masters program in Jewish and Islamic Studies places its graduates in top Ph.D. programs.
Nationally, the number of students taking Arabic has increased by 127 percent since 2002, and for the first time, the language is currently one of the ten most studied languages, according to a report released last week by the Modern Language Association.
This year the number of students enrolled in first-year, second-year and third-year Arabic courses at the University are at all-time highs. The number of students enrolled in first-year Arabic has doubled since 2000.
"Actually, what's really interesting about the numbers is the number of students in the advanced classes," said Housni Bennis, lecturer in Arabic.
Bennis explained that since Arabic is such a difficult language to learn, the increase in the number of students enrolled in upper-level courses is particularly noteworthy.
Many attribute the increase in the number of students taking Arabic to the current political climate since the September 11th attacks.
Keshavarz, however, pointed out that she has seen a steady increase in the numbers of students enrolled in Arabic courses over the last 20 years.
"In general, people think that it's mostly an outcome of political developments in the region," said Keshavarz. "I'm skeptical of interpretation."
There has also been an increase in the concentrations of students taking Arabic.
Students who take Arabic tend to major in Arabic, Jewish, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Anthropology or History. But Keshavarz pointed out that in recent years, she has seen a variety of students taking on the language-even pre-medical students and Spanish majors.
Bennis attributes the increase in enrollment to students' belief that Arabic will be useful in the job market. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, recently requested that he inform students about a research grant opportunity to study Arabic abroad.
In response to increased enrollment, the Arabic program has been steadily expanding. Asad Ahmed joined the faculty this semester, and another associate professor is scheduled to teach in the spring.
The department has also expanded its course offerings. Starting next spring, the University will offer colloquial Arabic in addition to Modern Standard Arabic; the colloquial Arabic course will allow the University to further distinguish itself as a leader in Arabic teaching.
"We are one of the very few places offering colloquial [Arabic] as a separate course," said Bennis.
Senior Margaux Buck, a fourth-year Arabic student majoring in Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Studies, said that she plans to take the colloquial course in the spring.
"I think it's really great that it's here. I think it's really necessary for a lot of people who are going to need to translate Arabic," said Buck.
Upon graduation, Buck plans to attend Rabbinical School, where her Arabic will allow her to study the primary texts of Maimonides.
While Buck decided to take Arabic after enrolling at the University, sophomore Nikki Spencer, a double major in anthropology and Arabic, chose the University for its Arabic department.
Spencer said that she had never even heard of Washington University until her college guidance counselor gave her a list of universities where Arabic was offered as a major.
Keshavarz said that this is often the case.
"A lot of prospective students come in and have picked us because we provide a strong program in Arabic," she said.
Ever since Spencer took an international issues course in high school, she has been set on learning Arabic.
"I was frustrated with getting media from someone else's perceptive," she said.
Spencer plans to incorporate her Arabic with her anthropological studies in places such as Egypt and Morocco.
"I want to know it so I can go to these places from a perspective of anthropology and not have to rely on a translator or someone else who might have a bias."