When Mia Tabib was in high school, some of her classmates referred to her as "the wacky Persian," and one teacher even called her a terrorist.
But Tabib, a freshman at Franklin & Marshall College who is half Iranian, is confident that remarks like these will fade if people educate themselves about the Middle East.
That's one of the reasons why Tabib, 18, of Colorado Springs, Colo., enrolled in F&M's Middle Eastern Language and Societies class, a linguistics course in which Tabib studies the roots of words and examines dialects and how concepts are interpreted in different cultures.
Like thousands of others across the country, Tabib is satisfying an intense curiosity.
The number of people interested in learning languages less commonly studied in the U.S., such as Arabic and Chinese, has exploded in the last several years.
Uri Horesh is teaching Tabib's linguistics class, as well as a new introductory course in Arabic at F&M. Horesh said he's seen the number of people studying Arabic rise dramatically in recent years.
"9/11 was a trigger," Horesh said. "What motivated the trigger was the whole security hype."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, more than 20,000 people in the U.S. have enrolled in Arabic-language higher-education programs, according to a 2006 report by the Modern Language Association.
Horesh said an interest in national security and the wide availability of jobs for those who have a background in Arabic are the reasons people study the language — but not the only reasons.
"I don't think that everybody who takes Arabic wants to be a spy or work for the FBI," Horesh, who grew up in Israel and started learning Arabic in high school, said.
Horesh said people are studying languages other than Spanish, German and French because they're becoming more curious about the world beyond Latin America and Europe.
Hongchang Yao, the instructor for the school's new Chinese program, agrees with Horesh.
Yao said that since coming to the U.S. from China eight years ago, he's seen a dramatic increase in those interested in studying Chinese.
"Chinese is a global language," Yao said. "Some who are interested in learning Chinese are influenced because of the business world. But I think more people are learning Chinese because it's different from a Western language."
Yao, who taught at Princeton University for three years before coming to F&M, said he saw the Chinese program grow from 200 students to about 360 in his time there.
According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the number of primary and secondary students enrolled in Chinese courses has soared from 5,000 in 2000 to about 50,000 today.
The number of students taking Chinese on the secondary level has risen by 51 percent since 2002, according to the Modern Language Association.
While China is a major contender in the world's financial markets, Horesh said, the Middle East also plays a large role in world economics.
That's one of the reasons F&M sophomore Weston Fillman said he's taking Arabic — that and the fact he finds the language fascinating.
"I've always had an interest in foreign policy," Fillman said. "I believe the Middle East is becoming a big player in terms of the world financial market and economics."
Chinese also is offered at Elizabethtown College.
Susan Traverso, the provost and senior vice president of the college, said the school has been offering Chinese off and on for a few years, depending on the availability of an instructor, but she said she'd like to see a more structured Chinese program at E-town in the future.
"We are very engaged at looking at building a major, but we are not there yet," Traverso said.
Horesh hopes people continue to explore all languages.
"Languages are a picture of how people live their lives," Horesh said. "Languages are a prism where you can view society."
Acquiring a language goes hand in hand with understanding its culture, Horesh said.
"A lot of people only see negative connotations of the Middle East," Tabib said. "But it's issues with the leaders are not the culture. My culture is beautiful in poetry and rich in colors and food."
Millersville doesn't offer Chinese or Arabic language courses. Harrisburg Area Community College has been offering Arabic at select campus locations since 2005.