DUNLAP - Fifteen-year-old Sully Curtin is in his second year learning Spanish, but already the freshman is eager to pursue a more nontraditional foreign language.
While he plans to keep up with his Spanish studies, Curtin is among some 60 students at Dunlap High School who recently answered an informal survey saying they held interest in learning the Arabic language.
"It's something different, not very common," said Curtin, who is contemplating a future in the ministry and intrigued by the connections in the origins of Arabic and Hebrew, adding, "I'm interested in some of the history."
Such courses are virtually unheard of in central Illinois, much less at the high school level. The Dunlap School Board will vote tonight whether to add Arabic to the high school curriculum this fall.
"We have become a smaller and smaller world, and the Middle East plays a bigger part in our world," Superintendent Jeanne Williamson said, noting some 200 million people worldwide speak the language. "So we're looking at the opportunity to expand the foreign languages we offer."
The chance to expose Dunlap students to Arabic comes as Illinois Central College seeks to add the language to its course scheduling.
Jill Wright, ICC's interim associate dean of English and language studies, said more people are asking for Arabic - "something other than the traditional Spanish, German and French."
That's no surprise.
A survey released in November by the Modern Language Association showed enrollments in Arabic language at United States' institutions of higher education up 127 percent since 2002, from 10,584 to 23,974 in 2006. That was enough to move the Middle Eastern language into the top 10 most studied list for the first time.
The study also found the number of institutions offering Arabic nearly doubled, from 264 in 2002 to 466 in 2006.
Of central Illinois area colleges and universities, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the only to offer Arabic language courses.
ICC in the past has offered Arabic as part of its community education "Funshops," Wright said of the classes often geared toward travelers, but not at the accredited level they want in place.
"We like to be forward-thinking," she said of adding Arabic to ICC's course list.
While an Arabic instructor so far has not been selected, they are looking.
That same instructor would also teach Arabic at Dunlap High School, similar to a "satellite" program ICC and Dunlap have teaching Chinese, which is taught in the evenings. High school students can earn high school credit and college credit, although the course is also open to adults.
Dunlap has long offered Spanish and French. The Chinese program has only a handful of students.
Coincidentally or not, Peoria School District 150 has a job posted for a full-time, bilingual Arabic teacher. District 150 spokeswoman Stacey Shangraw said that is to aid the nearly 80 students identified this fall who speak Arabic as their native language. That's down from 84 students last year.