Each fall, when Ruwa Pokorny greets her first-year Arabic students on their first day of class at the University of New Hampshire, she's clear: Get ready to work.
"Do you want to learn just to get by saying just cordial expressions or whatever? This is not the program for you," Pokorny tells them. "This is going to be a long commitment."
And yet, for the past four years, the students have not only stayed, they've been telling their friends how much they enjoy studying this notoriously difficult language with Pokorny.
The result: The numbers of students have nearly doubled, and with a little help from the Fulbright Scholar Program, Pokorny and school officials hope to have a greater number of course offerings in the years to come.
Consider the experience of Tony Hamoui, a 20-year-old junior of Lebanese descent from Massachusetts in the first-ever advanced Arabic course offered at UNH.
"I did not expect at all to learn as much as I have been learning," said Hamoui, who grew up hearing his extended family speaking a dialect of Arabic but struggled to read and write the language or follow televised news reports.
"I thought maybe I would learn a few things about the language I had been speaking. But I ended up really, really benefitting from it. It's nothing
like joke Spanish class in high school."
For Pokorny, who immigrated from Iraq in 1979 when she was 19, fostering the Arabic program isn't just about credits and enrollment.
"I do it as one little part I can play to bring peace to the world . . . to bridge the gap a little bit," she said. "To me it's service to humanity to try to teach Arabic."
The Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures first began offering Arabic in the fall of 2007, officials said, after there was a groundswell of interest from students who were also studying political science and history and wanted to better understand that region of the world.
Laura Roach, a 22-year-old economics student from Rhode Island, said it's a sign of respect to speak to people in their native languages. She's in the small advanced Arabic class, and she recently studied for two months in Oman on a U.S. State Department critical languages scholarship and is applying for a master's degree program at the National Intelligence University in Washington, D.C.
"I think we take advantage of the fact that you can go in a taxi in Oman and have a conversation about Barack Obama, but I don't know anything about Omani politics," Roach said. "I think that we should really be focusing on expanding our studies of international studies."
Pokorny, who spent years translating Arabic and working as a speech therapist in area school districts, took over teaching the program a year after its launch.
That year, she recalls teaching about 30 students, the bulk of them in the introductory course.
Intimidating at first
In the 2011-2012 academic year, she taught a total of 65 students enrolled in introductory and intermediate Arabic, school officials said.
Her students are a self-selecting, hard-working, open-minded group, Pokorny said.
They have to be. At first glance, Arabic can seem impenetrable.
First off, there are many dialects of Arabic. A vendor in Cairo, for example, speaks a dialect so different from a street vendor in Beirut that they may not understand each other.
But there is one standard, formal Arabic that crosses borders and is used by the educated in, for example, the diplomatic corps and major news outlets. But if you want to haggle in the bazaar, you need to learn the local tongue.
At UNH, Pokorny has long tried to teach both the Egyptian dialect – the most widely spoken in the Middle East – and the formal, modern standard. It makes her program unique, students and officials said.
The language itself is a challenge, too. Students have to learn to read and write in a new alphabet. Sentences go right-to-left across a page – the opposite of English. The language's grammatical structure and sentence syntax is more complicated than English and many others. And many of the sounds in Arabic don't occur in English, which means Pokorny summonses her time as a speech therapist to help her students produce noises they never had to before.
Melanie Platt, a 19-year-old sophomore from Exeter in her second year studying Arabic with Pokorny, said it's harder than the Japanese she studied in high school."The Japanese pronunciations are more straightforward. The character has a pronunciation and that's it," Platt, a linguistics major, said. "But the Arabic, a lot of them, it's hard for me to create the sound."
She's interested in a career as a translator and wants to continue to study Japanese, too.
With success, challenge
The program's growth has come with other challenges: Namely, Pokorny is a one-person Arabic program already teaching a full load. She doesn't have the time to take on more classes.
Students who wanted to study a third year of Arabic had no options but to study abroad which, for some of them, was unfeasible.
But it wasn't clear if the department could justify the expense of bringing another professor on board to accommodate a handful of students.
So Pokorny successfully applied to a U.S. State Department program that brings early-career English teachers from other countries to the U.S. And since August, UNH has hosted Samah El-Said – a graduate student in English from Mansoura, Egypt.
In exchange for her room, board, two noncredit courses and access to the university's state-of-the-art facilities, El-Said teaches UNH's first-ever advanced Arabic class and performs other tasks for Pokorny. (The federal government covers her expenses.)
"This is a wonderful opportunity for us to test the waters," said Kenneth Fuld, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
"There have been claims that there is a demand for Arabic, and we weren't convinced that it was there. We knew at the introductory levels it was doing well, enrollments were good. But we didn't know whether it would generate much interest above that."
About a half-dozen students are taking advanced Arabic this year, which is a small figure compared with the 250 enrolled in French and 650 in Spanish. But for an advanced class of a difficult language, it's not a bad start, he said.
El-Said's presence has meant the students can move up to advanced Arabic for the first time, which means they won't lose the skills they spent so much time and money on.
And El-Said – a Robert Frost fan – will bring to her English students in Egypt a better understanding of America.
"I have always been dreaming of coming to the United States because I love the language so much," El-Said, 26, said in a recent interview. "I love the culture so much, your movies, your songs."
A recent trip to Boston was like being in one of those movies, she said.
"It was snowing. It was like the Christmas spirit for me, which is something I used to watch in movies, so to see it in real life, this was amazing. I like it so much," she said.
El-Said often assigns students news articles from outlets in the Middle East and then uses them as a way to practice Arabic. For the students, it's like having living history in their classroom.
"At least for us it's been so interesting to have somebody who's so politically minded and who was in Tahrir Square protesting to tell us her side of current news events," Roach said. "It's just incredible."
For students who are interested in politics and careers in diplomacy, international business and intelligence, reading foreign news articles with someone with such a vested interest in the subject matter is invaluable.
"I'm personally interested in politics quite a bit, and I am happy that we can utilize it in our language studies more than just talking about a boy and his dog and a ball and other simplistic, meaningless things that we could have used as a medium for learning it," said Conrad Nawrocki, a 21-year-old junior from Durham studying political science and international affairs.
El-Said will return to her studies in Egypt at the end of the spring semester.
Pokorny said she is applying for a second year of the grant to bring a second assistant next year and continue to teach advanced Arabic.
UNH can participate for only two years in the program, but Pokorny said her hope is that after two years there will be enough interest in advanced Arabic to justify a further investment. She'd like to see a minor in the language, if not a major.
Such a success would be her way of making the world a little less prejudiced, she said. "I really, truly believe that if people learn about each other's culture and especially language – language is such an integral part of getting to know a culture – that hopefully prejudices will just vanish one day," she said.