People who can read, write and speak Arabic are a key weapon in the war on
terrorism. But they're in short supply.
True, things look rosy in percentage terms. At Washington University, for example, the number of students majoring or minoring in Arabic language studies has more than tripled in the past four years and is on its way to quadrupling.
That rise mirrors a national surge. But locally and nationally, the percentage jump masks a stark statistical reality:
In actual numbers, the ranks of U.S. collegians studying Arabic remains surprisingly small - at last count, not quite 10,600. That's less than 1 percent of the collegians studying any foreign language.
"When I came here in the fall of 2000," says Washington University Arabic professor Nargis Virani, "we had maybe one student majoring in Arabic, and one minoring in it. Last June, we graduated four majors and three minors. And now, we have three majors and five minors in the pipeline."
So in real numbers, the big percentage jump translates into a mere blip. As a result, the demand for college graduates who can speak Arabic far outweighs the supply.
America's intelligence agencies are scrambling for Arabic speakers. But the supply is held down by many factors, chiefly the sheer difficulty of mastering Arabic.
Kirk Belknap runs the government-financed National Middle East Language Resource Center at Utah's Brigham Young University, where he also teaches Arabic.
He says: "On the advanced level, it would be good if we were cranking out 300 a year nationally. We're lucky right now if we're producing more than 40 graduates a year with fully competent language ability."
Even 40 may be an optimistic estimate. In "The 9/11 Commission Report," the authors write, "The total number of undergraduate degrees granted in Arabic in all U.S. colleges and universities in 2002 was six."
The need for more Arabic students has been obvious since Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists who plotted in Arabic attacked the United States.
Just last month, President George W. Bush called for a 50 percent increase in the number of CIA officers adept in such "mission-critical languages" as Arabic.
James Carafano of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation says that analysts at the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency are awash in untranslated gleanings of intelligence in Arabic.
"There's an enormous backlog, because they don't have enough linguists," says Carafano, who specializes in national security affairs. "And now, they lack interpreters to handle the captives in Iraq."
Spokesmen for the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the NationalSecurity Agency all cite a demand for Arabic speakers. But they decline on security grounds to give any numbers.
The FBI's Bill Carter says that since 9/11, his agency has processed 30,000 applicants for jobs as linguists in Arabic and other tongues. But he says, "Out of 20 applicants, we'd be lucky to get one or two." Still, the FBI now has more
than 1,200 linguists, a jump of 50 percent.
"Our goal is to have at least two Arab linguists in each of our 56 field offices," Carter says. (In St. Louis, Agent Peter Krusing says the local field office has yet to get a full-time Arab linguist and instead contracts out for linguists as needed.)
On a broader front, a Pentagon advisory panel known as the Defense Science Board reported recently, "The United States today is without a working channel of communications to the world of Muslims and Islam." The message: A failure to put across the U.S. point of view is undermining the war on terrorism.
That led New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to comment, "We are losing a public relations war in the Muslim world."
Iraqi native Saadia Baker teaches Arabic to youngsters at St. Louis' Bunche Middle School. She says: "More than 22 countries have Arabic as their official language. We need to open doors for these kids so they can understand the Arab
Just outside Detroit, among the 100,000 residents of Dearborn, Mich., about a third are Arab-Americans. In fact, says spokesman David Mustonen of the Dearborn school system, "We have some bilingual programs for students who speak
But Dearborn is almost unique. To most Americans, Arabic is especially alien. As Brigham Young's Belknap puts it, "Any language that's not a cognate - not one with a close genetic relationship to your own - will be a challenge."
What Belknap calls "a challenge" is what the Defense Language Institute calls a Category IV language. This category has four languages - Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic - and spokeswoman Lauren Solis says they have one thing in common: "They're the hardest."
At its campus in Monterey, Calif., the institute teaches 23 languages to 3,000-plus service members. About 2,000 of them take the Category IV languages.
Solis says Arabic ranks first among the Category IV classes in enrollment, with 850 students. That's up from 500-something before 9/11, she says, "and I think it will be increasing over the next 10 years."
One gauge of the difficulty of Arabic comes from spokesman Steve Pike of the State Department. In Arlington, Va., that agency also runs its own language school, with 3,500 students - 301 of whom are studying Arabic, up from 133
before Sept. 11, 2001.
"French or Spanish is a 24-week course," Pike says. "A harder language, like Russian, takes 44 weeks. And for four languages - Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean - the course is 88 weeks."
At St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, Laura El-Hage Chehade teaches a beginners' Arabic course that goes out by closed-circuit television to the Meramec and Florissant Valley campuses. This year, she started with 23
students. By early last month, she mustered only 18.
The reason? Each midsemester, she stops using Arabic that's transliterated into the Roman alphabet. Instead, she switches to Arabic in the squiggly characters of the Arabic alphabet - one more big challenge for students.
Unlike English, Arabic reads from right to left. Unlike English, Arabic lacks capital letters. Unlike typeset English, most Arabic letters are connected, like cursive penmanship.
Brigham Young's Belknap plays down the difficulty but points out another challenge. "With Arabic, it's more about time than difficulty," he says. "It's the amount of what you have to learn, not the difficulty."
"Rivet and intoxicate"
Students who try to learn Arabic do so for a variety of motives.
Forest Park's El-Hage Chehade says that by far, most have a blood or personal relationship with an Arabic speaker - a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a parent and so on.
Among them is Leslie Khoury, 20, of University City, whose father emigrated from Lebanon.
"I was raised with the Lebanese dialect" of Arabic, Khoury says. "Over the years, I lost a lot of it. But after my folks got divorced, I moved back in with my dad, and I learned it once more. Now I want to learn how to read and write Arabic."
Some students fall for the romance of Arab culture. El-Hage Chehade grew up in St. Louis of French and Albanian descent. "But as a 5-year-old," she says, "I saw 'Lawrence of Arabia' and loved it." Eventually, she got a
master's in Arabic from Washington University.
That school's Virani - she's a native of India - says, "The warmth and hospitality and generosity of Arab culture are transmitted through the Arabic language."
And Arabic transmits in a special rhythm. Military writer Ralph Peters once traveled the world as an Army intelligence officer. He says, "It's commonly accepted among scholars that spoken Arabic, when wielded well, can rivet and
At Washington University, says Virani, "One motive is the intellectual challenge of learning Arabic. And we have some very bright students."
Among them is graduate student Ben Nicholson, 26, of Chesterfield, who is on leave from St. Louis University's medical school. He is taking Arabic so he can practice medicine in the Middle East.
Classmate Omid Ghaemmaghami, 25, says, "I hope to do research in the academic arena."
Relatively few students seem to take Arabic with the thought of a career in intelligence, diplomacy or the armed forces.
The Heritage Foundation's Carafano has a theory: "Universities in the United States aren't defense-friendly, which means that the people going into the Arabic programs won't be very security-minded."
Washington University's Virani says, "Those looking to Arabic for career prospects are a lower number," although she adds that some freshman students have expressed a bent that way.
Forest Park's El-Hage Chehade reports just one student with a vocation in mind - a job with the CIA, or maybe a stint in the Army's Special Forces.
And at Bunche Middle School, only one of the 13 students in Baker's Tuesday morning class takes a dollars-and-cents approach.
He's Dorian Dean, 11, and he says: "I've heard they have lots of rich oil and you can go over there and make money."
The religious factor
Religion offers a key motive for studying Arabic. The language is to Islam what Latin once was to Roman Catholicism, maybe more so.
Imam Muhammad Nur Abdullah, 58, directs religious affairs at the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis in west St. Louis County, near Queeny Park. He says, "Arabic is the proper language to learn the Quran," Islam's holy book.
In the five daily prayer sessions at the center's mosque, he says, "The language is Arabic. When we recite the Quran in prayer, it's in Arabic."
Trouble is, perhaps 85 percent of the 70,000 to 100,000 Muslims in this area grew up with a language other than Arabic. Abdullah says, "They're Muslims from non-Arab countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Bosnia."
So Abdullah offers beginning and intermediary courses in Arabic, but with a twist. The Quran dates from the seventh century, so that's the type of Arabic the imam teaches - classical Arabic, which is to Modern Standard Arabic what
Shakespearean English is to modern English.
Abdullah's beginner classes usually draw about 20 students once a week for sessions that run from 30 minutes to two hours. The intermediate classes attract seven to 10 students.
And although classical Arabic is even more difficult than its modern counterpart, Abdullah says, "Classical Arabic will give you the tools to understand the Arabic spoken in the seventh century," the time of the prophet
At Bunche Middle School, religion spurred Faduma Mohamed, 12, the daughter of Somalian immigrants. She wears an Islamic head covering and says, "I want to read the Quran in Arabic."
She may have to go well past middle school to learn enough. Egyptian native Nahed Chapman runs the city's language program for such children. She says: "Realistically, we don't expect the kids to be fluent or learn how to read
Arabic. What we want to do is entice them. We want them to appreciate the culture - to have an open mind."
Brigham Young's Belknap calls Arabic studies "an opportunity to be involved in the world and maybe make a difference - to make the world a better place by cultivating international studies."
And Bunche's Baker insists that Americans can meet the challenge of learning a tough language. She says:
"If you like languages - and if you practice, practice, practice - you can learn Arabic. You don't have to be a genius."