Five weeks into their intensive introductory Arabic course, and the words seemed to flow with ease around the classroom at George Washington University, the 16 undergraduates chanting together.
"Wahad ithnein thalatha arba'a khamsa sitta saba'a thamania tisa'a a'ashara. . . ."
"A'a-shara!" said their teacher, correcting their emphasis.
"A'a-shara!" they repeated.
Almost, he said. "Aachhh," he rasped again, craning his neck and touching his throat -- "a stronger one!"
"Aachhh-shara!" they said, and he smiled. They had done it: They had counted from one to 10.
Scenes like these have been playing out increasingly in classrooms across the country as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq have spurred a growing interest in Middle East affairs -- and pointed out the need for fluent speakers of Arabic.
According to a survey by the Modern Language Association, the number of students at U.S. colleges enrolled in Arabic language courses nearly doubled from fall 1998 to fall 2002 -- the largest growth rate of any foreign language during that period. At Georgetown University, enrollment in Arabic courses is up by 300 percent since 2001. At George Washington, twice as many students applied as could be admitted into the new summer-long intensive Arabic program.
Many in George Washington's free-tuition honors class said they believe Arabic could help their careers. "I'm thinking about going into intelligence, and it's a really useful language to learn," said Katrina Loffelman, a junior from Bridgewater, N.J.
Yet despite the growth nationwide, the overall numbers remain tiny at a time when there is a critical need for experienced translators, analysts and diplomats. The 10,584 students said to be taking Arabic in 2002 accounted for less than 1 percent of all language students across the country. More than twice that number took Russian, and nearly three times that many took Latin, the survey found.
"From 5,000 to 10,000 -- so what?" said Richard Brecht, executive director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Language, a joint venture between the University of Maryland and the National Security Agency. "If you assume that one out of 10 will make it to some kind of working proficiency, that means we're turning out a thousand people, which is nothing to feel comfortable about, to say the least."
In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, a report by the General Accounting Office found that a shortage of fluent speakers of Arabic and other Near Eastern languages in the Army, FBI, State Department and other agencies had "adversely affected agency operations and hindered U.S. military, law enforcement, intelligence, counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts." At the time, the FBI reported that it had thousands of hours of backlogged audiotapes waiting to be translated because of a lack of qualified linguists.
Brecht and others argue that the federal government has not done enough to bolster foreign language instruction. But even with additional federal funding, college-level Arabic programs "still have a very slim base to draw on," he said, arguing that grants should start with elementary and high schools to jump-start interest in language studies early that can take years to complete.
"Even if students start the language, they lose interest because it takes so long," he said. "That's why it needs some federal initiative."
Indeed, the difficulties of mastering Arabic provide their own challenge. The State Department characterizes the Arabic tongue as a Level Four language, on a difficulty scale of one to four, the same as Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Scholars say it takes roughly twice as long to reach proficiency in Arabic as it does Spanish or French.
The language holds no relation to English in terms of root words or grammatical structure or even alphabet. Words are written right to left, in an elaborate cursive in which each of the 28 letters of the alphabet can take four shapes, depending on where they occur in a word.
"In terms of the learning experience, it's very demanding," said Karin C. Ryding, chairwoman of Georgetown's Arabic department. The short vowels in Arabic script are not written, so students learning to read the language must puzzle out an outline of consonants, she said. "This is something that takes a lot of time and practice."
Still, Ryding said, Georgetown is seeing more students who are determined to push past the introductory years, prompting the university to expand the number of sections across all levels and hire more instructors.
A greater hurdle for Arabic programs, then, might be simply keeping up with the demand. Edward S. Walker, president of the Middle East Institute, a Dupont Circle area policy and research group, said the institute has doubled the number of students in its Arabic language programs in recent years -- and could double it again -- but is having a hard time keeping enough linguists on staff when they can command substantial salaries elsewhere.
"It's getting harder and harder to find teachers because so many people have been drained off by the government," he said.
Many universities have faced the same difficulty while trying to build up departments that barely existed not long ago. The Washington area offers far more opportunities to take Arabic than most parts of the country. Still, only Georgetown offers a major in Arabic -- as well as a master's and a doctorate. American, Howard and George Mason universities offer four semesters of Arabic, and the University of Maryland offers six. Catholic University and a local campus of Johns Hopkins University offer Arabic as part of graduate studies.
At George Washington, students can take up to eight semesters of Arabic. The new honors program, though, was structured to condense the first two semesters into a 12-week summer session. Thirty-one students are enrolled in two sections of the course.
George Washington President Stephen J. Trachtenberg said he came up with the program last year, announcing it in an off-the-cuff toast at a dinner hosted by Edward W. Gnehm, U.S. ambassador to Jordan. The program, named in honor of Gnehm and his wife, Margaret, offers students the extra studies for free to encourage more to start Arabic.
"It's an investment in the kids, an investment in the country, an investment in an important discipline," Trachtenberg said. If the students take another year of Arabic, "by the time they graduate, they should be conversant. This will strengthen them in the job market."
But one month into the program, many students couldn't say for sure whether it was sticking. Despite her best intentions, Loffelman said she fears the rigorous demands of her international relations major won't leave her with time to take Arabic in the fall.
Ashley Spillane, a junior from Boston, said she had expected that her longtime enthusiasm for Arabic music and culture would ease her way into the language. "But it's so difficult," she said. "It's definitely harder than I thought."
Then again, it depended on one's perspective. Emanuel Dash, a senior from Boulder, Colo., said he had always wished he could speak Arabic to his Palestinian neighbors during his childhood in Israel but that few Israeli schools taught it.
Dash, who said he hopes to return to Israel to work on grass-roots peacemaking efforts, had previously taken Chinese for many years but leapt at the chance to switch languages when he heard about the new free program.
"Arabic," he said, "is much more simple than Chinese."