Fresno State has started teaching students how to speak Arabic and Persian -- languages the government considers critical to national security as the U.S. battles enemies in the Middle East.
While university officials don't see themselves training future CIA agents or soldiers, they hope to make students more savvy and sensitive to Middle Eastern cultures now at the forefront of American foreign policy.
Americans have been motivated to learn other foreign languages in the past. Russian had its heyday during the Cold War of the 1950s and '60s. Japanese was popular during that country's economic boom in the 1980s. Now with wars being fought in the Middle East, the U.S. government wants Americans to learn the region's languages -- and is paying to help that happen.
California State University, Fresno -- which joins a growing number of American universities in offering Arabic -- is tapping government money to develop the new language programs and a Middle East Studies minor that will examine the history, economics and languages of the region.
Learning languages "gives you a better way to understand the differences that create tensions," said Jose A. Diaz, Fresno State's associate dean of arts and humanities. "Hopefully, that produces harmony because we're all living on this planet together -- and it's not a very large place anymore."
Arabic is spoken in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, while Persian -- also known as Farsi -- is spoken in Iran and Afghanistan.
"We need to know the languages of the people we're dealing with in international affairs," said Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education -- which for decades has given schools money to promote foreign language instruction and which awarded Fresno State a $172,000, two-year grant to develop the new programs.
The university's introductory courses in Arabic and Persian met for the first time last week at the start of the spring semester.
Fresno State wanted to expand its curriculum and offer languages that reflect the Valley's diverse population, said Vida Samiian, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and a native of Iran.
And, she said, "Critical languages are important for the security of the United States."
Finding qualified teachers has been a challenge, and Samiian is adding to her administrative duties by teaching the Persian class.
The Arabic class is being taught by Mohammed Al Thahib, a linguistics graduate student from Saudi Arabia. It's not unusual for graduate students to teach a university course, Samiian said.
Finding students has been a problem, too -- the Persian class has five students and the Arabic class has nine students. The federal grant provides money for the university to operate smaller classes until the programs develop and become self-supporting, Samiian said.
Nationwide, college enrollments in Arabic classes are soaring, though far more students continue to study the languages spoken in Europe.
Enrollments in college Arabic classes increased 127% from 2002 to 2006, the biggest jump in a survey by the Modern Language Association of America, an organization of language teachers and scholars. Persian enrollments grew 82%.
Spanish, which had the most enrollments, grew 10% nationwide. Spanish had 822,985 nationwide enrollments in 2006, compared with 23,974 for Arabic and 2,037 for Persian.
In addition to Arabic and Persian, Fresno State teaches American Sign Language, Armenian, Chinese, French, German, ancient Greek, Hmong, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
While the number of U.S. colleges offering Arabic increased from 264 in 2002 to 466 in 2006, it's questionable how many schools will produce fluent Arabic speakers. Most college students don't study languages long enough to become fluent, said the survey of the Modern Language Association.
For Fresno State students who want to extend their study of Arabic and Persian, the university plans to eventually offer additional courses at the intermediate level.
Both languages are difficult for native-English speakers because the alphabets, grammar structures and formation of sounds are so different from English, said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the language association.
Some students do persevere, though. At San Diego State University, only 10 students were enrolled in a basic Arabic class in fall 2001. Yet by fall 2007, more than 200 students were taking classes in a program that now offers three years of Arabic. San Diego State also offers Persian.
Students have used the languages in travel, business, schools and the military, said Ghada Osman, an Arabic Studies professor at San Diego State.
In conjunction with its languages programs, San Diego State has a recently approved major in social science that allows students to emphasize either Arabic Studies or Islamic Studies, and the university also has "a very popular minor" in Islamic & Arabic Studies, Osman said.
Fresno State plans to offer the minor in Middle East Studies by fall 2009 -- a possibility that already has one critic speaking out.
Software developer Vic Rosenthal of Fresno -- who writes a blog at FresnoZionism.org -- said he is concerned that such a program could develop into a platform for anti-Israel political action. He said that has happened at other universities.
Samiian responded that academic freedom requires that professors be allowed to teach what is relevant and important. But, she added, existing courses at Fresno State that will become part of the Middle East Studies minor "have not become platforms for anti-Israeli attacks and propaganda."
Meanwhile, students in the Persian and Arabic classes were talking about how the classes could benefit them and the world.
Javier Alcantara-Rojas said the timing of the Arabic program "truly felt serendipitous" as he begins research on Arabic influence in southern Spain from the ninth to the 15th centuries.
But the program serves a greater good, too, said Alcantara-Rojas, a 25-year-old music education major from Victorville. It will introduce "a new generation into a culture that has tremendous importance to everyday life," he said.
Early Boykins III said knowing Persian could help break down barriers -- and create commercial opportunities.
Said Boykins, a 21-year-old interdisciplinary major from Vacaville: "It needs to be, 'I understand you. You understand me. Let's do business.' "
One student in the Persian class wonders whether the CIA will try to recruit him if he masters the language. Said Michael Knierim, a 23-year-old linguistics graduate student from Clovis: "I'm not quite sure how I would feel about that. I'm not quite sure we should be in the Middle East and doing what we're doing. But since we're there, what is the duty of the average American?"