NORWALK -- Students looking to immerse themselves in Arabic, a language deemed by the U.S. State Department as one of the hardest to master, will be able to do so this fall at Norwalk Community College and eventually at Brien McMahon High School's Center for Global Studies.
Both institutions will join a handful of schools in the state adding Arabic to their foreign language offerings to meet a growing demand from the State Department for more fluent Arabic speakers.
"Arabic is the next language that is really required from international employers of American citizens and the government, yet there is a real lack of Americans who are fluent in Arabic," said Joan Glass, housemaster of the Center for Global Studies, an inter-district magnet school housed inside Brien McMahon.
Norwalk Community College will be the only community college in the state to offer an introductory Arabic language class this fall, NCC officials said.
Arabic is one of the fastest-growing languages taught in high schools, community colleges and universities. The U.S. State Department recently called Arabic a "strategic" language and stepped up its efforts to recruit more fluent speakers.
"Arabic is definitely moving out of just the specialty realm and getting more attention," said Kirk Belnap, director of a federally financed consortium, the National Middle East Language Resource Center.
Administrators from the Center for Global Studies said they plan to offer a Middle East studies program in the fall of 2006 because of the growing demand for fluent Arabic speakers, a need heightened by the war in Iraq and the ripple effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
The school will offer classes on the history and literature of the Middle East in addition to the classes in Arabic.
Professors from Yale University's Center for International and Area Studies will help the faculty at Brien McMahon design a curriculum that will emphasize the culture and language of Arabic countries
Brien McMahon students who learn Arabic during high school will have an edge if they choose to continue their study of the language in college, said Greta Scharnweber, director of Middle East studies at Yale's Programs in International Educational Resources Center.
"The sooner you can get people exposed to learning about a language, particularly, Arabic, the better chance they will have of sticking to it," she said. "If you get kids excited about it in high school, you might influence them to start studying it earlier in college."
According to the Modern Language Association, the number of university students enrolled in Arabic courses doubled from 1998 to 2002, to 10,584 students. But less than 1 percent of all college students enrolled in foreign language courses are taking Arabic, the survey said.
There are no official figures on how many high schools offer Arabic, but experts say it is a handful, many of which are private Islamic schools.
Norwalk Community College officials said they believe it is important to offer a class that would introduce students to the language spoken by people in the Middle East.
"I don't know how much you can learn in an Intro to Arabic class, but it is a beginning to learning about the Arabic speaking culture," said John Alvord, chairman of the Humanities Department at Norwalk Community College. "By learning more about other cultures, we broaden our collective perspective."
Few secondary schools offer Arabic because it one of the most difficult languages to master. The Semitic language has its own alphabet, reads from right to left and has many dialects.
Despite its challenges, it is a sonorous language filled with poetry and imagery, said Kareem Adeeb, an engineer who teaches Arabic at the Stamford-based American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies.
"I have not seen a language as rich as the Arabic language," Adeeb said. "It is beautiful, it is a picturesque language. It expresses itself in pictures."
The U.S. State Department rates Arabic, along with Chinese and Korean, as "superhard" languages. To master Arabic, a student needs to study five to six hours a day for two years to reach entry-level proficiency. Other languages, such as French and Spanish, take six months to reach that same level.
Yet more educators are starting to realize the importance of increasing cross-cultural understanding between the United States and the Middle East.
Arabic is gaining popularity much in the same way Russian did after the country launched Sputnik in the 1950s, said Dora Johnson, a research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistic Studies.
"Arabic was in the backwater forever and ever and September 11 just kind of changed that," Johnson said. "Whether it is going to be a fad or it will be something that will stick is up for a question in my mind."