Penn State's School of Languages and Literatures in the College of the Liberal Arts will be offering a new minor in Arabic language starting fall semester 2011, responding to a growing interest from high school and college students.
"Interest in learning the Arabic language has been growing rapidly among high school and college students," said Caroline Eckhardt, director of the school and head of the Department of Comparative Literature, which offers Penn State's Arabic curriculum and successfully proposed the new minor. "The 'Arab Spring' pro-democracy activism throughout North Africa and the Middle East attracted broader American interest in the peoples and their cultures. Knowledge of a critical language such as Arabic can be invaluable to American students in their future careers. Our Arabic language program has experienced significant growth over the past several years."
Arabic is sometimes thought to be a difficult language for English-speakers to learn. One Penn State student, Christopher Lee Tutolo, wrote in his blog, "Considering the difficulty that learning a second, let alone a third language can be for a nonnative, my own learning curve [in Arabic] seemed particularly extraordinary to me. Where I'd been studying French for a number of years and did feel comfortable with it, I was already beginning to feel myself reaching that level of capability with Arabic after just a few classes."
His full comments about language learning are available at http://www.psu.edu/dept/laus/2011/07/love-thy-languages-fluency-factors.html
The School of Languages and Literatures now offers a three-year curriculum consisting of six courses in modern standard Arabic, ranging from beginning to advanced levels. Further independent study credits and a course in classical Arabic, for reading earlier texts, also are sometimes available. The courses attract students from across the University with interests in many fields, including the humanities, political science, business, engineering, and the sciences, and interdisciplinary fields such as Middle Eastern studies.
In addition to obtaining strong language skills, students are finding that studying the Arabic language and its cultures immensely increases their understanding of global cultural movements and enriches their overall international education at the University.
There were more than 200 enrollments in the basic and intermediate Arabic courses in the most recent academic year. In addition, during the summer of 2011, more than 50 students are enrolled in the various Arabic language courses coordinated by the Summer Language Institute, including 20 high school and college students who attend Penn State's STARTALK Arabic Academy, which is funded by a competitive federal grant. STARTALK (named for "start talking," not astronomy, according to Eckhardt) is a federal initiative, with nearly 100 summer programs nationally, that seeks to expand and improve the teaching and learning of strategically important world languages such as Arabic, Chinese and Turkish.
Earlier this year, the school received its third STARTALK grant, providing federal funding of nearly $100,000 to support summer 2011 Arabic language courses for high school and college students, along with a new online and residential program on innovative methods for teachers of Arabic. Teachers from as far away as Idaho, California, and Qatar came to Penn State in June to participate in this program on teaching methodology.
The Penn State STARTALK Arabic Academy has been praised for its updated and learner-centered methods of instruction. Instead of focusing on traditional memorization and drills, the instructors work with students to use only the new language from the very first day of class, without relying on English translations or explanations. Students determine the meanings and culturally appropriate uses of words directly in simulated work and social settings. Through activities such as skits and role-playing, students become adept more quickly at communicating in the language, often assisted by technology that brings them closer to the realities of other parts of the world. For Arabic, this includes using Modern Standard Arabic, which is widespread internationally, and achieving an awareness of varying dialects, such as Egyptian or Tunisian Arabic.