Three years after terrorists struck the United States, enrollment in Arab-language courses across the nation is booming and colleges are working to meet growing student interest in Middle Eastern studies and government demand for Arabic speakers.
Arabic is now the fastest-growing foreign language on the nation's college campuses and one of the most requested classes for students looking for careers in military intelligence, translating and homeland security jobs.
"I have students who want to go into the FBI, CIA and NSA (National Security Agency)," said Paul Sprachman, vice director for undergraduate studies at Rutgers University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "People see it as a future and they are intensely interested."
Statistics gathered by the Modern Language Association, a national professional organization for language and literature teachers, showed enrollment in Arabic classes had nearly doubled to 10,596 students between 1998 and 2002, its latest survey year.
At Rutgers, enrollment in Arabic and Persian language courses is up nearly 50 percent. The program enrolled 230 students this semester, making the school's Arabic program one of the largest on the East Coast.
Rutgers turned away about 20 students this semester because it cannot add Arabic classes fast enough, Sprachman said.
At Princeton University, enrollment in the Arabic program has quadrupled since the terrorist attacks. The program now enrolls about 83 students, though only a dozen take advanced-level classes.
The current shortage of fluent Arabic speakers is hurting American intelligence. Last week, the U.S. Dept. of Justice released a report outlining a severe backlog of terrorism-related recordings and documents that have not been translated, at least in part because the FBI does not have enough qualified linguists.
More than 120,000 hours of intercepted phone calls, conversations and other intelligence recordings remained untranslated as of April, according to the report. The FBI has made an effort to add linguists since 9/11, but the current staff of 1,200 still can't cover the work.
FBI Director Robert Mueller said improvements need to be made to the translation program. "We are giving this effort the highest priority," he said in a statement.
President Bush's administration put out an urgent call for more Arabic speakers after 9/11 and the Army began advertising for Arabic-speaking recruits. Corporations and news organizations also began searching for people who could communicate in the Middle East.
However, there was far more demand than fluent speakers. Part of the problem is that Arabic, Farsi and other Middle Eastern languages are among the hardest to learn.
Arabic is a Category IV language, equivalent in difficulty for English-speaking students to learn as Chinese and Japanese. Foreign language experts say it takes twice as long to master Arabic as French or Italian, classified as Category I languages.
The standard Arabic alphabet has 28 letters and words are written right to left. To make it more frustrating, the letters are joined together and can take different shapes depending on where they are in a word. The language has numerous dialogues and can differ greatly from country to country.
In an elementary Arabic class at Monmouth University in West Long Branch last week, students struggled to learn a few basic vocabulary words from Manal Hanna-Miller, their Egyptian-born instructor.
The students, who are the first to enroll in Monmouth's new Arabic program, carefully copied the professor's writing as she wrote Arabic words in flowing script on the board. She included each word's pronunciation using English letters.
Near the end class, Hanna-Miller played a game of charades to test her students on their new vocabulary.
The professor held up a book. The class said "el ketab." She dangled her keys. They answered "el meftah." Then, she pointed to her watch and the students said "el sa'a."
In the back of the class, junior Paula D'Ambrosa took careful notes. The history and political science major recently applied for an internship at the CIA. The intelligence agency's recruiters told her it would help her career if she learned Arabic as quickly as possible.
"It's hard, but I expected it to be hard," D'Ambrosa, 20, of Manalapan. "It's worth it. I'll keep plugging along."
Classmate Anthony Corcione, a 22-year-old criminal justice major, also enrolled in the class to help his chances of getting a homeland security job after graduation.
"Arabic is basically the new Russian," Corcione said, referring to the spike in American students learning Russian during the Cold War. "It's challenging. But it will pay off."
TO SPEAK IT IN PEACE
New Jersey professors say about half of the students in their Arabic classes are students who want to learn the language for government work or business purposes.
The other half are "heritage" students, like Monmouth University junior Ahmed Rizvi, who come from Arabic backgrounds but never learned to properly read, write or speak the language.
"I'm actually Muslim. I used to be able to read it for the Quran," said Rizvi, whose family is from India. "It's easier to read it than to know how to use it."
By the end of the semester, Hanna-Miller expects her students will know the Arabic alphabet, numbers, basic vocabulary and short phrases, including how to introduce themselves.
Mastering the language will take much longer. By then, maybe the wars and terrorist attacks that inspired the boom in Arab-language classes will be a distant memory Hanna-Miller tells her students.
"I tell them, hopefully you will speak it in peace," Hanna-Miller said.