As a University freshman last year, Zane Hager needed one more class to round out his course load.
"I was looking for something to pad out my schedule, something exotic," he said.
Hager found himself learning Arabic through the Self-Study language program, a tutoring program the University's Yamada Language Center administers for students interested in studying languages not typically offered at the University.
"(YLC) is the service, technology and teaching resources for all languages taught at the U of O," explained Director Jeff Magoto.
Now as a sophomore, Hager is one of about 140 students studying Arabic for credit. Because of its popularity, six credited courses in the language are now offered in the YLC's World Language Academy, in which students can also study Korean, Portuguese and Swahili, the native language of millions in East Africa.
"In Self-Study, we were teaching at least 20 students per term for at least a couple of years there and self-study is very obscure," said Arabic professor Chris Holman, a 2001 graduate of the University.
Holman, who learned Arabic 12 years ago while in Kuwait as a soldier in the U.S. Army, was initially hired to teach Arabic last year. The courses filled immediately and were so popular that the University added second-year Arabic to the course catalogue.
"We doubled in size this year. I don't know if we'll double again, but I'm sure we'll increase," said Holman, who added that an Arabic minor will possibly be available in Fall 2009.
If the Arabic minor was offered sooner, University senior Margaret Ormsbee would have declared it.
Ormsbee, an anthropology major who likes learning about different cultures and what goes into their policy decisions, said her Arabic courses have prepared her for an immersion program in the Middle East this summer.
"I think it's great," Ormsbee said. "It's definitely really hard, but it's wonderful. I'm going to Jordan for the summer and I definitely feel like, just taking one term, I feel prepared to go into the culture."
Some things that make Arabic popular, according to Holman and Magoto, include current world issues, its widespread nature - Arabic is the official language of more than 20 countries - and the alternative it provides to Spanish and French, the only languages offered in many American high schools.
Jenna Schmidt, a sophomore political science major interested in a career in counterterrorism, sees studying Arabic as a way to bridge the cultural gap.
"Especially with current world issues, I just think it's important people get a better understanding of Middle Eastern culture," she said. "We're going to be dealing with (the Middle East) for a long time. Neither culture really understands the other, at least on a broad degree."
Schmidt attributes her eagerness to learn about other cultures to her childhood, during much of which she and her family lived in American Samoa.
"I've seen that there are other cultures that function differently than Americans and that's OK," she said.
The Arabic alphabet is different from the Latin alphabet used for English which makes it more difficult to learn than romance languages, but easier than Asian languages, said University professor Mohamed Jemmali.
Jemmali, who was hired to teach Arabic in response to the popularity of Holman's initial courses, grew up speaking Arabic in Tunisia, a small north African country across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. He learned English while studying at Humboldt State University, located about 100 miles south of Oregon in Arcata, Calif.
"Arabic is the fastest-growing second language in America right now, even more than Chinese," Jemmali said. "(The students) are very enthusiastic, their evaluations show a lot of continued interest in learning more. Their enrollment keeps growing. We have almost all our available seats taken. So far, so good. I can't complain, for sure."