Cairo, Egypt - Someday, maybe someday soon, Leonard Wood hopes to appear on Arabic-language television and speak Arabic to the Arab world, with no help from a translator.
Maybe he'll speak in the capacity of a diplomat, academic or businessman - he doesn't know yet. But he believes that just speaking Arabic well is one way he can help bridge the many gaps, political, perceptive and otherwise, between the Arab world and the West.
"I do think that language is very important," said Wood, 26, who is earning a doctorate in history and Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. "It's very important for the Americans who go and work in the Middle East or who work in Middle Eastern-related fields."
A growing number of Americans seem to agree. Colleges in the United States report rising demand from Americans to study Arabic. At the same time, more Americans are traveling to Arab countries to study the language, and anecdotal evidence suggests more centers and schools are popping up to teach them.
Wood is spending a year at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, known as CASA, which is governed by a consortium of universities and housed at the American University in Cairo. CASA is an elite, intensive program - homework includes reading several Arabic novels - for advanced students.
CASA and the American University in Cairo's other Arabic language programs, the most famous in the Arab world, have leaped in enrollment to more than 400, administrators said. AUC would take more students if it had the space and the resources, administrators said.
U.S. government officials, faced with a need for Arabic speakers since Sept. 11, 2001, welcome the trend. Numerous government agencies are trying to recruit more speakers of Arabic, Farsi and other Middle East and Asian languages. Data from the Modern Language Association suggests there already was growing interest in Arabic before the Sept. 11 attacks. Between 1998 and 2002, the number of students enrolled in an Arabic language class in U.S. colleges and universities nearly doubled, an MLA report shows.
Nonetheless, the 10,584 students studying Arabic in 2002 are still a tiny group compared with those studying Spanish, Italian, French and other languages. But since that survey, the interest in Arabic has grown exponentially, said Jerry Lampe, president of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic and a deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland. In response, more schools are adding programs and hunting for teachers.
It doesn't hurt that there are more job opportunities for those who speak Arabic.
At the CIA, for instance, the need for Middle Eastern specialists, including Arabic speakers, grew fivefold after Sept. 11 (exact employment figures are classified), a spokeswoman said.
For the United States to truly build an infrastructure that produces enough capable Arabic speakers will take a long time, language experts warn. For one thing, Arabic is one of the hardest languages in the world.
Arabic script is entirely different from English (and written from right to left). Written Arabic differs from the many dialects spoken on the streets of Arab countries, and people from different Arab countries often have a hard time understanding one another. To master Arabic takes significantly more time than languages such as Spanish or French, which are more closely related to English.
"Arabic is not something you do as a hobby," Taha said.
Teaching students requires hiring qualified Arabic teachers, but that, too, is often a challenge.
Many U.S. professors who specialize in Arabic and fields related to the Arab world are at or nearing retirement age, said Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, a scholarly organization based in Arizona. Recruiting foreign-born Arabic speakers to teach is harder because of tightened rules governing the issuing of visas to the United States. Many of the students who graduate with proficiency in the language choose not to teach it.
Working for the U.S. government is by no means the sole motivation for many students of Arabic.
For one thing, not everyone studying Arabic is thrilled with U.S. policies in the Middle East. Even in the CASA program, according to several of its students, most participants are critical of certain U.S. policies toward the Middle East, especially regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Whether American interest in learning Arabic continues to rise probably will depend on world events. Russian departments, for instance, saw declining interest after the fall of the Soviet Union. Also, the ongoing rise of China and India as global powers could divert interest toward Chinese and Hindi.