The popularity of Arabic and Chinese classes is booming on American college campuses as more students see the advantages of knowing those languages for global business, politics and travel.
Spanish and French are still by far the most widely studied languages, as they have been for decades, but students are signing up for Arabic and Chinese in record numbers, according to a report released this month by the Modern Language Association. The association, a group of professors and graduate students in English and other languages, surveyed 2,795 colleges and universities.
"College students recognize that the world has changed," said Rosemary Feal, the association's executive director.
Portland State University senior Jason Brown is one of those students.
Brown, a 29-year-old majoring in Middle East history, is studying Arabic so he can travel to the region and read research materials in their original language. He also hopes to learn more about Middle Eastern cultures and history by studying the language.
"People have been vying for position in the Middle East for a long time," he said. "I think it's going to be a point of interest for the next 20 to 30 years, at least."
From 2002 to 2006, overall enrollment in foreign language courses rose by 13 percent nationally, while the number of students taking Arabic more than doubled, moving it into the top 10 most studied languages in the United States for the first time, the report says. Chinese course enrollment grew by 51 percent.
The trend holds true in Oregon, where PSU, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University all report rising interest in foreign languages, including Arabic and Chinese.
At OSU, there is so much interest in Spanish classes that students are being turned away, said Guy H. Wood, a Spanish professor and acting chairman of the foreign languages and literatures department.
Students "know full well if they have some capability in another language it will help them land a job somewhere," Wood said. "The opportunities for students who can combine language capability with another profession are just incredible."
The enrollment increase is encouraging, but the United States still lags far behind other countries where students start learning a second language, often English, in elementary school and take up a third in secondary school, Feal said.
More K-12 schools in the United States are starting to teach a wider range of foreign languages at earlier grades and in immersion programs, she said. Still, she added, "we've got some work to do."
Students are interested in learning Chinese because of increased business and travel opportunities in China, said Jonathan Pease, a Chinese language professor at PSU. This fall, 134 students signed up for Chinese courses at PSU, up from 98 students in 1997. The numbers, which grew during the 1980s but fell after the Tiananmen Square protests, are rising again, he said.
"It's a major nation, and it's much more accessible than it used to be," Pease said.
So many students signed up for professor Dirgham Sbait's first-year Arabic class this fall at PSU that he split the class in two. Enrollment in Arabic at PSU has grown from 37 students in fall 1997 to 164 this fall.
Sbait said many of his students want to travel, work or live in Arabic-speaking countries and want to learn more about the region because of conflicts there. Interest in Arabic grew after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and it continues.
It's a complex language that is time consuming to learn, Sbait said.
In a recent class, he taught Arabic letters, words and sounds to about 40 students, asking them to practice rolling their R's and making a throat-clearing "ha" sound.
After class, Anna Brown, a 28-year-old PSU senior, said learning Arabic makes her feel like a first-grader.
Brown is majoring in French and hopes Arabic will come in handy in her future studies, travel and work. But she's still trying to figure out how to hold her pencil to write the unfamiliar letters and words.
"It is difficult," she said. "But it's so fun, I don't even care."
Suzanne Pardington: 503-412-7054; firstname.lastname@example.org