Although Penn's enrollment in Arabic language courses has decreased slightly over the last few years, national averages prove the language is gaining popularity.
During the 2009-2010 school year, 214 students were enrolled in Arabic courses, compared to 248 last year, according to estimates by the Near Eastern Languages and Culture Department. However, Modern Language Association studies have found that national rates of enrollment in Arabic courses have increased significantly over the past decade.
Despite discrepancies in enrollment numbers, the federal government encourages studies in Middle Eastern languages — such as Arabic, Persian and Turkish — through grants and scholarships.
"It's important for America to conduct relations with the Middle East, especially today," Arabic and Islamic studies major and College freshman Emily Goshey said.
She added that compared to French and Spanish, Middle Eastern languages are rarer and the number of speakers is "not enough to fill the positions that the U.S. needs."
Goshey received one of seven U.S. Department of Education summer scholarships awarded to Penn students. She hopes to incorporate Arabic into her career after college, either by teaching the language abroad, translating, interpreting or joining the Peace Corps.
The Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship Program covers tuition costs and offers students a monetary stipend. Fellows of all language levels can study within the United States, but only intermediate or advanced students may study abroad.
Goshey will use the scholarship to study in Egypt and take modern formal Arabic and colloquial Egyptian Arabic. "You cannot at all separate culture and language," she said.
"There are entire ideas and distinctions they make that we would never understand if we didn't speak their language," she explained.
Such scholarships and fellowships allow students to "spend a significant amount of time beefing up their language ability" by "moving beyond the basic ability to communicate … to more substantial discussions, negotiations, arguments, statements [and] opinions," NELC Department Chairman Roger Allen said.
At Penn, close to 100 students enroll in introductory-level Arabic courses every year, followed by around 50 students in second-year Arabic, and 20 in third-year courses — a trend which is standard across the nation, according to Allen.
However, it takes more than the four-semester language requirement to "be able to actually use the language in any meaningful way," he emphasized.
In an effort to provide a more interdisciplinary major focusing on the Middle East, the Modern Middle Eastern studies major and minor were created in 2006 to combine humanities and social science courses.
Thirty-seven students currently major or minor in the program, according to Program Assistant James Ryan. Ten students are graduating from the program this year, compared to four last year.
As former director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, Allen found that students' experiences abroad — which are required through the dual-degree program — permitted them to learn beyond the basic realm of the classroom.
"They came back changed, they came back different people," he said.