Over the past decade, the federal government has provided resources to colleges to strengthen programs in Arabic and other languages deemed critical to the economy and security of the United States. That effort has increased the number of undergraduates whose first major was Arabic from 13 in 2002-3 to 57 in 2007-8, notes the Education Department's 2009 "Digest of Education Statistics," released on April 7.
And the number of students taking Arabic courses nearly doubled, to 24,000, between 2002 and 2006, according to the Modern Language Association.
But some scholars say that linguistic competence does not equal cultural competence—and that the latter is what is sorely needed.
The numbers alone are not surprising. The government pushed for more Russian majors during the cold war, and the number of graduates in that language rose from seven in 1948 to 54 in 1953, according to data compiled by David C. Engerman, author of Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America's Soviet Experts (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Mr. Engerman, an associate professor of history at Brandeis University, said it is likely that nonmajors taking Russian also grew more numerous during the cold war, at a rate similar to that of nonmajors in Arabic in recent years.
Global vs. Area Studies
However, Mr. Engerman said, one of the great effects of the cold war on universities was the rise of language and area-studies programs. Unfortunately, such whole-culture programs are not getting much federal support today.
"Area-studies programs have given way to 'international' or 'global studies' programs that too often stress transnational connections at the expense of knowing much about any one particular area or language," said Mr. Engerman in an e-mail message to The Chronicle.
"And even before the fiscal shock wave of recent years," he said, "universities have struggled to maintain the strength of departments and programs, like modern languages, that don't fit an increasingly narrow definition of relevance."
John O. Voll, interim chair of Georgetown University's department of Arabic and Islamic studies, said nonmajors are increasingly taking Arabic classes. The number of students pursuing bachelor's degrees in foreign service has exceeded the number of Arabic majors enrolled in Arabic classes, he said.
Mr. Voll attributed that trend to a rising interest in the Middle East and its economy, as well as to new career opportunities.
"I would say it has a lot to do with the reorientation of the global policy institutions, which have become more conscious of the importance of Islam and the importance of Arabic for policy making," he said.
'Critical Needs' Languages
Arabic isn't the only language that has seen an uptick. The State Department lists more than 15 languages that it deems "critical needs" for national security or commerce, and the Defense Department and Education Department have crafted programs to improve competency in those languages. Undergraduate degrees in Chinese rose from 190 to 289 between 2002-3 and 2007-8, and in Korean from five to 15.
Yet scholars worry that some students may forget that fluency does not equal understanding.
Roger Allen, chair of the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, said he is concerned that students will focus on learning languages while neglecting vital cultural context. He believes study-abroad programs could help alleviate that problem.
"Without some form of connection between language competence and a knowledge of the indigenous situation," Mr. Allen said, "... we are really not that much further forward."
Madeline K. Spring, director of Arizona State University's Chinese Language Flagship Partner Program, said different students may need different levels of cultural knowledge for what they want to do. But "from the very beginning," she said, "there's absolutely no way to teach language without teaching culture."