As interest in Arabic-language studies has risen over the past decade among Westerners, language programs in the Middle East and North Africa face new challenges.
According to educators in the region, students today want courses that emphasize colloquial Arabic and expect classes to have a greater focus on cultural and social issues. Historically, programs in the region taught grammar and classical Arabic, which is used in the Koran and other Islamic texts.
The shift in focus has left Arabic programs scrambling to change how they teach and to find enough qualified instructors.
"There's been a revolution" in Arabic studies, says Zeinab Ibrahim, who began teaching Arabic in 1980 at the American University in Cairo and who now teaches Arabic to businesspeople at Carnegie Mellon Qatar, in Doha. "We're employing the same methods and same approaches that are being used for English, French, and German—a communicative approach."
Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, academic interest in the Arab world has steadily increased, and along with it, study abroad. During the 1999-2000 academic year, 695 American students studied in the Middle East, according to the Institute of International Education. That number rose to 3,416 by 2007-8, the latest year data are available.
As a result, new university programs, along with new private providers, have cropped up in the region. And existing programs have had to expand their capacity to meet demand.
At Qasid, a private language institute in the Jordanian capital of Amman, enrollment has jumped from 80 students to more than 200 students per term over the past three years. Many of those enrolled are college students, who receive course credit for language training.
"There are a lot of high achievers who are going into Arabic for their careers and not just because they love the region," says Omar Matadar, program coordinator at Qasid, an American who himself learned Arabic as an undergraduate in the United States.
Teaching Methods Mature
As the levels of students have become more advanced, so have the teaching methods.
"Now, it's more student-centered learning," Mr. Matadar says. "In 2000, there was very much a grammar and translation approach. Now, students are engaging in society, by learning some form of Aamia," or colloquial Arabic.
This approach creates a more active classroom environment, where students are expected to think on their feet and take initiative. It is an approach that requires more selective hiring criteria for language instructors. They can't always be found at universities in the West, where qualified instructors are scarce. Even in Arab countries such as Jordan, Mr. Matadar says, finding the right instructor isn't easy. Last fall the institute had 300 applicants, 100 of whom they interviewed; seven went through training, and three were accepted for a three-month trial.
"Sometimes the best teachers aren't always the most experienced," he says, adding that a lot of them are sensitive to being evaluated or having to change their methods. "We like to hire people who are open to new ideas and methodologies. If they can grow with the organization, then we give them experience and prefer them to someone with a Ph.D. and 20 years of teaching."
The regional specialization of Arabic language study also means that standard textbooks are likely to be replaced by books that emphasize local cultures and dialects. The most widely used textbook for modern Arabic is now Al-Kitaab, published by Georgetown University Press, which holds most of the market.
The Saifi Institute for Arabic Language, founded in Beirut in 2008, has created its own textbook, called Urban Arabic—a beginners' manual for learning the Lebanese dialect. Unlike most institutions, Saifi teaches students the local spoken Arabic before they learn the standard language, because, as its instructors point out, that's the natural way children learn.
Saifi, which started in one room with 10 students, now has its own facility in central Beirut, complete with dorm rooms and a cafeteria, and it can house up to 120 students in a given term. Mac McClenahan, who co-founded the institute with his wife, Rana Dirani, says that up to 95 percent of their students learn urban Arabic because "there's more demand from Westerners to learn Arabic to communicate." (Saifi is working on a way to give its students university credit for their course work at the institute.)
Mastering the Language
It is increasingly this more integrated and modern approach to Arabic language teaching that is appealing to students who want to master the language.
"As an American lawyer, my primary interest is international law. Building my Arabic skills could help lead to a future career in international law," says Steven Koh, 27, who started studying the language while at Cornell three years ago. He has just completed an intermediate-level intensive summer course at the American University of Beirut and plans to continue studying Arabic until fluent. He has found that most of his classmates, like himself, are learning the language for the long term. He was surprised to learn that the vast majority of these students had no Arab heritage, but they had previously visited the Arab world.
At the American University of Beirut, the administration has made it a point to keep class sizes low—no more than 12 students, and preferably even fewer. The rest they direct to Lebanon's other language institutes, which number about 20. Most of them have opened within the last five years.
Lebanese American University, which has been running its own Arabic program in Beirut for over a decade, will now be expanding into the spring term, adding to its existing summer and fall terms. "Students are reaching more advanced levels, and they want to continue," says Mimi Jeha, director of the university's Summer Institute for Intensive Arabic Language and Culture.
Other well-established Arabic teaching schools in the region are facing similar growing pains. At Mohammed V University at Souissi's study-abroad program, in Morocco, which opened in 1998, the founder and academic coordinator Mohamed Ezroura says more demand has meant more competition between the various language institutes, including some U.S. institutions that have established themselves in Morocco.
"This, of course, has led to a number of things: more demand for quality teaching (à l'Américaine), globalizing the American way of teaching—which sometimes might not allow these students to learn the authentic ways of teaching by the Moroccans—ways that are certainly behind the more sophisticated current U.S. pedagogic ways. ... The Moroccan teachers become required to perform like the U.S. teachers in the U.S.," Mr. Ezroura says in an e-mail message.
He believes that this switch in teaching style is having a cultural effect. The American approach is more student-centered. "The student-centered approach gives the student's participation in class more weight, and the teacher does not lecture all the time. The Moroccan traditional method conceives of the master teacher as the source of all knowledge and the student is mainly a receiver, often not allowed to challenge the voice of the master. All of this has political implications for the society at large."