When course registration rolls around each semester, at least one class, Arabic, was always a no-brainer for junior Hannah Niedel. But after completing five full semesters, the international relations student's course path was thrown out of whack.
This semester, advanced Arabic professor Ikram Masmoudi took a sabbatical, leaving only one professor teaching the language at the university. That professor, Khalil Masmoudi, Ikram's brother, could only offer 100-level classes for the spring, and students like Niedel, who have advanced far past those courses, have struggled to maintain their studies.
Niedel's personal solution has been to create the Arabic Club, but her plan has encountered problems.
"I'm trying to stay involved in the program, but nobody really shows up for the club's meetings, so that's kind of hard," Niedel said. "I'm trying, but I don't really have time to do private study of Arabic. I'm getting really rusty."
With two employed professors and only one currently teaching at the university, there are limitations to the number of Arabic classes that can be offered. While part of the problem is the lack of faculty, another consideration is the Arabic program's relative infancy. According to Khalil Masmoudi, the program was assembled approximately five years ago and is still in the building phase.
"There was nothing, no infrastructure for Arabic, so it was from scratch," Masmoudi said. "Now we're getting it together. We need another faculty member to help expand."
While many students are interested in the language, Masmoudi said the university's financial limitations do not currently permit the department members to hire another Arabic professor.
Senior international relations major Gustavo Acosta, the Arabic Club's vice president, found himself in the same situation as Niedel. But while he understands the university's financial limitations, he still feels the Arabic language deserves more attention.
"It's probably the most important language to learn right now," Acosta said. "The economic interests and political interests in the Middle East are so important. It's really a place that we'll want to develop communications that aren't so Western-centric. Geographically, it's probably the epicenter of the world, a gateway between civilizations."
The foreign language department's website states that the department provides a wide selection of courses that seek to build language competence and solidify students' awareness and understanding of the literatures and cultures within a foreign language.
Within the university's program, however, gaining that true ability to apply students' skills and communicate in the region is not easy, according to Niedel. Arabic students also face an additional challenge: differences between formal Modern Standard Arabic, which is taught in class, and between the many informal, regional dialects.
"Formal Arabic is used in Al-Jazeera, or news broadcasts," Niedel said. "But if you're on the street in the Middle East, you're not going to be using Modern Standard Arabic. A lot of times people won't understand you. You have to know their dialects."
Acosta agreed. Each dialect is mutually exclusive from the others, and learning the different dialects is crucial to gaining employment in specific fields, he said.
Masmoudi said he has a possible alternative for students who want to learn the differing dialects.
"The formal will do the job, and you can deal with all educated Arabs," he said. "But what we advise students to do, for those that want to pursue a career that involves Arabic, is to travel. Once they reach a certain level, we always facilitate and give them advice on how to travel to an Arab country and learn the dialects."
While university officials were unable to comment on the specific difficulties facing the Arabic program, they also emphasized study abroad programs as a valuable learning tool.
Acosta said while he does possess certain language skills, he recognizes that there is only so much understanding he can gain from studying a language and a culture while living in the United States.
"I feel like I have a great foundation and I understand the grammatical structure," he said. "But to get comfortable and really expand your vocal skills and understand dialects, you have to be there."
Despite all these difficulties, from the limited teaching staff to the structure of the program to the language itself, Masmoudi still sees hope for students studying Arabic. The key, he says, is hard work.
"It's a very logical language," he said. "It makes sense. Learning it, of course, takes some sacrifice, dedication and commitment. But it's doable. Anyone willing to do all that can achieve it."