Washington -- Arabic, now designated a "strategic" language by the U.S. government, faces unprecedented demand for instruction in schools across America, from kindergarten upwards. Not long ago, Middle Eastern languages comprised only 2 percent of all foreign language classes in the United States, led by Hebrew. Then, a Modern Language Association survey revealed a 92 percent rise in Arabic enrollments between 1998 and 2002 -- to 10,600.
While there's buzz about the high demand for Arabic linguists, the real story lies beyond the headlines. Besides the dramatic rise in Arabic enrollments, government and education leaders are intensely collaborating to foster earlier and sustained study, to build Arabic language capacity and cross-cultural understanding in the United States.
Recently, the U.S. Defense Department teamed with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages to publish an assessment of the linkage between foreign language awareness and national security and to outline an action plan. The assessment stated that foreign languages are "a core academic subject".
Once the purview of scholars and select professionals, Arabic has been categorized as a "super hard" language, requiring over 2,200 class hours to achieve relative fluency. Now, it is sought after by a broad base of learners. Some are government or contract employees, seeking work in the Middle East; others are adult individuals challenging themselves to pursue this language; some are curious high school students.
The U.S. Department of Education has responded to meet the demand for new Arabic education. Federal funds for various international education programs are up 33 percent since 2001 to $103.7 million in 2004. Specifically, grants for foreign language and area studies rose 65 percent during this period; $455,000 has been allocated specifically for evaluation and national outreach.
Ralph Hines, director of international education programs at the U.S. Department of Education, said a myriad of federally-funded opportunities are available for students and educators to learn Arabic in the United States and abroad -- typically in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria or Tunisia. Currently, 480 Americans are studying at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, a doubling since 2001; among these, 40 are studying advanced Arabic through the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad -- a federally funded program since 1967. Hines said hundreds of students and teachers at various levels of Arabic proficiency are availing themselves of the government-funded programs.
To support Arabic instruction in the United States, the Department of Education began funding the National Middle East Language Resource Center (NMELRC) in 2002, Hines said. He said the center taps into the expertise of language professionals in the United States to build the resources and capacity in Middle Eastern languages nationwide. Now, 17 Middle East Studies Centers and 9 African Studies Centers at American institutions are models, offering Arabic language, culture and study abroad and community outreach programs to students and teachers, Hines said.
Of course, teaching the teachers is crucial to bridging the cultural divide, and the government's Fulbright Hays grants are making such field visits possible for hundreds of educators. In July, for the second year, the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California: Santa Barbara (UCSB), sent 28 teachers on a five-week training seminar in Egypt, to enhance their Middle East studies curriculum at all grade levels. According to UCSB's Garay Menicucci, teachers met with Egyptian educators, NGO leaders, environmental activists, attended cultural events. They heard lectures from experts such as Heba Raouf, from the Islamic NGO Islam-on-Line, talk about common stereotypes of Muslims and how to breach cultural differences between people of different religions.
Menicucci that noted on one school visit, "dozens of students, teachers, and villagers turned out to meet the Americans in an emotional outpouring of welcome and discussions about educational development and spreading literacy in rural Egypt."
"My outlook on world events has changed. I will be better able to relate to my Arab students. The trip has taught me much about respect for all cultures. I feel that I am a better teacher, a more tolerant person because of this trip," Menicucci quoted one teacher who participated in the program as saying.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government is encouraging schools to start foreign language training sooner. "We're living in a global society," said Wilbert Bryant, deputy assistant secretary for higher education in the U.S. Department of Education. "We must be able to speak the languages of many countries. The only way is to start at K-12. It's the only way to remain competitive and retain our position as the superpower in the world."
Today, students are learning Arabic at approximately 70 elementary and secondary schools across the United States, according to a survey by the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). The survey indicated that most of these 70 are private Islamic schools; however, with government funding, more public schools are adding Arabic.
In a pace-setting example, students at three high schools in the Seattle area are in second year-Arabic, creating an excellent base for future learning. "This is the kind of preparedness required for real proficiency long-term," said CAL's Dora Johnson.
Johnson noted that CAL recently received a $97,000 Department of Education grant to develop a national network of K-12 Arabic teachers, because of what Johnson described as "a desperate need for the Arabic teachers to talk to each other."
Katherine Keatley of the Modern Language Association is keenly aware of the need. Teachers are asking for materials to enable them "to teach Arabic successfully to American children," Keatley said. "In the U.S., we like to teach in a more participatory way to build communicative competence."
In June, the first online Arabic K-12 Teacher's Newsletter was launched in collaboration with Georgetown and George Washington Universities. This resource offers materials support, workshop and expert lecture information in Arabic and English.
Under a government grant awarded in 2003, work is under way to develop standards for learning Arabic in the United States to be published in spring 2005 and tested in Dearborn, Michigan, the location of the largest Arab-American community in the United States. Standards will be refined and implemented wherever Arabic is taught across the country.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)