When Loren Siebert struggled to learn vocabulary for his introductory Arabic class three years ago, he figured he would buy tapes or a software package. Those kinds of aids had helped him learn French in high school and, more recently, conversational Indonesian. What he was disappointed to discover was a scarcity in offerings for Arabic, despite explosive growth nationally in class enrollment since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And the lack of study aids has frustrated college faculty around the country, says Claire Bartlett, former president of the International Association for Language Learning Technology. "It's a supply-demand problem," she says. "Historically, there's been low interest in Arabic, and the demand for it is relatively new."
Written Arabic runs right to left, the opposite of English. That has daunted some U.S. software programmers so far, Bartlett and others say. Complicating things is the fact that many of the course management systems in Web-based instruction like Blackboard historically haven't been able to support right-to-left languages, Bartlett says.
For his part, Siebert, a former Marshall Scholar, decided to take advantage of his skills as a software engineer. He devised a program that became a personal study aid to learn Arabic at a University of California, Berkeley class that was only supposed to occupy him while recovering from a sports injury. His program helped him strengthen his vocabulary so much that his teacher not only read aloud one of his essays in class but also kept the essay to serve as an example for future classes. His classmates took notice and asked if he would share his software, which he continued using his second semester there. When UC Berkeley hired him as a part-time lecturer of beginning Arabic for the 2006 fall semester, he realized his software could help college students everywhere. So last year, he modified and commercialized it.
Called LinguaStep, the program offers students vocabulary lessons that vary daily from a few minutes to an hour. When students show proficiency in a topic, those words are automatically dropped from the flash-card program. Siebert likens this aspect to the TiVO recorder, which can suggest TV shows for someone based on his or her viewing habits.
"Based on the user's behavior, LinguaStep adapts the content," says Siebert, who holds a master's in computer science from the University of Manchester and has done postgraduate study at the London School of Economics. He's considering developing programs for Mandarin, Korean and Japanese.
Currently, more than 30 universities around the country subscribe to LinguaStep, including Florida State and Rice universities, he says. Its emergence comes at a time when college enrollment in Arabic is running at an all-time high, according to the Modern Language Association. The number of students studying Arabic has swelled 127 percent since 2002, pushing it for the first time into the 10 most-studied foreign languages. The 264 Arabic programs at universities around the country in 2002 almost doubled by the 2006 fall semester to 466 programs. Those 466 programs enrolled 23,974 students, according to an MLA survey.
Arabic can be difficult for Westerners because its alphabet shares only 15 letters with English, says Dr. Zeina Schlenoff, an associate professor of Arabic at Florida State. Some Arabic consonants don't exist in English, and some of the Arabic vowels don't appear in its alphabet.
Educators like Schlenoff and Bartlett attribute the growing interest in Arabic to young people wanting to better understand a region of the world most of them knew little about prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. The U.S. government also has called for more employees proficient in Arabic. Ten years ago, Schlenoff's single introductory Arabic class enrolled only about a dozen students. Last fall, she capped each of the two introductory sections at 35 students. "We would offer a third, or even a fourth section if we had more instructors," says Schlenoff, co-director of Middle Eastern studies and associate director of FSU's Middle East Center.
That would also be the case at Rice, where Bartlett is director of its Language Resource Center and associate director of its Center for the Study of Languages. Last fall, Rice offered two sections of introductory Arabic, compared to a single section a decade ago, she says. Indeed, the number of advertised teaching positions in Arabic at colleges everywhere is climbing, according to the MLA.
Meanwhile, several software publishers have been developing study aids in Arabic, Bartlett says. She and Schlenoff welcome the prospect. Schlenoff, a native of Lebanon, says even she is challenged to find resources for students. She now has satellite TV access at school to record shows and news programs from overseas. "Since it isn't too safe to travel to the Middle East, the opportunities to practice Arabic are limited," she says. "We have to bring the Arab world to our students."