Despite a growing demand for Arabic translators in the United States, UC Berkeley officials said budget problems will force the university to cut introductory Arabic enrollment and turn away scores of students who want to learn the language in the fall.
The projected number of lower-division Arabic classes offered by the university's Department of Near Eastern Studies will fall from four to two after the department received a 20 percent cut to its temporary academic staff budget, department officials said.
"We're extremely upset about it," said Daniel Boyarin, head of the department. "We should be expanding our offerings in Arabic and Islamic studies, not limiting them."
UC Berkeley is one of the few universities in the country that offers a bachelor's degree in Arabic, which is spoken as a first language by more than 195 million people.
In recent years, student interest in Arabic as a second language boomed in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Professors have deemed Arabic important for students entering the fields of military affairs, politics and diplomacy.
"There is no question that Arabic is one of, if not the, most important languages," Boyarin said. "It has special status in our world."
After Sept. 11, both national and international demand for Arab-language programs soared. The CIA and FBI both said they needed more Arabic translators.
More than 120,000 hours of terrorism-related recordings in Arabic and related dialects have not been translated by the FBI, according to a declassified U.S. Department of Justice report released last year.
"You would think the university would have a finer understanding about what's going on in the world," said Judy Shattuck, a graduate assistant in the department. "Making it harder for students to learn Arabic reflects poorly on us."
The challenge also lies in the difficulty of the language. According to rankings created by the government last year, Arabic is a Category IV language, equivalent in difficulty for native English speakers to Chinese or Japanese. Foreign language instructors said Arabic takes twice as long to learn as a Category I language such as Spanish.
Besides the political implications of Arabic in world politics, UC Berkeley instructors said the language helps students gain a social understanding of the Middle East.
"The Arabic language is a gigantic part of history," Shattuck said. "It's not just another language."
Boyarin said the department is currently trying to restore the cut sections by searching for alternate funding sources.
"If it was up to me, we'd teach every student who wants to learn Arabic," Boyarin said. "I am trying with all the power I have to restore these sections."