There was a 338 percent increase in the study of Arabic as a primary major between 2002-2003 and 2007-2008, according to the Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics, released on April 7.
Because of U.S. economic and security issues, the U.S. government has played an active role in increasing interest in the study of Arabic over the past decade by providing funds for studies in that field.
Abeer Mohamed, a lecturer of Arabic at UCLA, said she believes the increased interest in Arabic began after the events of September 11, 2001. But she added that since then, the trend has changed into a genuine interest in the Arabic language and culture, not just in securing the U.S. economy and security.
Mohamed added that people want to be educated about the Arab people and their culture in order to understand and improve relations with the Arab world.
Mohamed said while interest in Arabic was sparked by the events of September 11, 2001, the growing interest in the field has yielded positive results. Students who study Arabic become interested in the culture and explore further studies in that field, which reveal various contributions to science, literature and exploration by Arab scholars.
"In my classes I teach language, but I teach culture through language," she said.
Besides the increased interest in Arabic civilizations and cultures, another reason for the trend is the new career opportunities that have opened up to people with a background in Arabic, as a result of the tense relationships between the U.S. and the Middle East as well as new business endeavors in the area.
Government jobs as translators, teachers or even jobs at the Central Intelligence Agency are readily available for people who know and can understand Arabic. The knowledge and understanding of Arabic could be invaluable for students seeking government work in the future.
Walter Ortiz, a third-year English student considering a minor in Arabic, said there are a large number of political science students in his Elementary Standard Arabic class. The hope is that by having students who go on to careers in politics immersed in the Arabic language, diplomacy between the U.S. and the Arab world will be facilitated.
With American companies now going abroad to the Middle East, the knowledge of the Arabic language could also open up new career opportunities in those fields of business.
While there are some "heritage learners" who are descendants of Arabic people and have some knowledge of the language, the majority of the students in the department are from very diverse backgrounds, said Elizabeth Carter, chair of the UCLA Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department.
Mohamed also noticed growing interest from American-born students, adding that they outnumber heritage learners in her classes.
She added that the study of Arabic by American students can help to defeat the misconceptions the American public has about Arabs.
"My hope for the future is that the people who learn about the real Arabic culture from the original resources will participate in reforming or reshaping how the media pictures or depicts the Arab world," Mohamed said.