Spanish, French and German are still the most popular foreign languages for college students to study overall.
But these days, it's Arabic that's trendy. Chinese, too.
Interest in learning those two rather difficult languages has soared in recent years, and new courses are being added or expanded at colleges across the country — St. Bonaventure University, Canisius College, the University at Buffalo, Niagara University and Buffalo State College, among them.
While the numbers nationally are still relatively small — 51,000 enrolled in Chinese, 23,000 in Arabic — enrollment in Chinese language courses spiked 51 percent on American college campuses the last four years, while the numbers tackling Arabic shot up 127 percent, according to a recent survey by the Modern Language Association.
The trend mirrors global developments.
"With Iraq, and everything going on, I don't see it being a bad thing to learn," said Gregory Ferlito, a Buffalo State senior taking beginning Arabic. "I can see its importance growing over the next 15 to 20 years."
Students figure it couldn't hurt to know a little Chinese, either, considering that China is the world's most populous nation and a budding superpower with a booming economy.
Buffalo State has about 30 students studying Chinese. Niagara offers a Chinese course, as well as one in popular Chinese culture.
UB, meanwhile, has been teaching Chinese for years, but interest has grown, and the university has added classes recently to accommodate several dozen students, said David Fertig, associate professor of linguistics.
Arabic, too, has garnered more interest since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Not only does the government talk about the need for Arabic translators, but world events have heightened curiosity about this Middle Eastern language that has been a mystery to most Americans.
"It certainly is a resume builder," said Alice Sayegh, director of international studies at St. Bonaventure. "There are a lot of business students in the courses, a lot of journalism students taking those courses."
St. Bonaventure has about 45 students at some stage of learning Arabic, which has led the school to offer a minor in Arabic culture, as well as an overseas immersion program.
Canisius began offering Arabic two years ago, while Niagara introduced it this year.
Buffalo State also started a beginner's course in Arabic this semester, attracting 12 students.
"That doesn't sound like an awful lot," said Deborah Hovland, chairwoman of modern and classical languages at the college, "but when you offer a new language, no one signs up for it. They're afraid."
And it can be intimidating, since both Chinese and Arabic are so different from the Romance languages often studied in school.
"I think the students are somewhat shocked the first week of class and that it might be a little tougher than they originally thought," said Henrik Borgstrom, chairman of modern and classical languages at Niagara. "For both Chinese and Arabic, it's the writing. It takes a tremendous amount of time and practice to grasp that. You have to think in a different way. Also, the pronunciations are very difficult."
Ferlito, the Buffalo State student, thought Arabic would come in handy, since he's a history major earning a minor in religious studies.
Classmate Derrick Good-friend, a senior majoring in Spanish, was up for a new challenge.
Mohamed Muse, who is from Somalia, wanted to brush up on his Arabic reading and writing.
And Khente Koram, who has friends who speak Arabic, thinks it's a beautiful language.
"It's hard," said Koram, 22, a Buffalo State junior. "Learning to write the script is one of the main difficulties."
"I've taken French for five years, and it's just totally different," Ferlito, 21, said of taking Arabic. "You're trying to learn a new alphabet. I have trouble rolling my R's. Plus, you don't have a lot of interaction with other people who speak it."
But their professor, Rafika Merini, wants to dispel the idea the language is too foreign or too hard.
"What [students] need to realize is they need to try a little bit harder, because it's not a language they study in high school or junior high school," Merini said.
While Ferlito and Koram said they'll stick with it, it's possible that Arabic and Chinese could be just another foreign-language fad.
Growing numbers of students are taking introductory language courses in college, but the majority don't pursue advanced study to become fluent, according to the Modern Language Association.
These things tend to go in cycles, too.
"There was a big interest in Russian 20 years ago when Russia was opening up, and that really fell off," said Fertig, at UB. "And there was a period when Japanese enrollment really boomed when the Japanese economy was strong."