Arabic Language Classes on the Rise

A new study shows Arabic has exploded in popularity on college campuses, shooting up to the tenth-most popular language studied. And 13 percent more college students are learning foreign languages — especially non-traditional ones, like Farsi and Chinese.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So are you bilingual? Are you bilingual, Luke?

Dr. ROSEMARY FEAL (Executive Director, Modern Languages Association): Want to speak some Spanish?

STEWART: Yeah, whichever.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

(Speaking in Spanish)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FEAL: (Speaking in Spanish)

BURBANK: (Speaking in Spanish)

STEWART: (Speaking in Spanish)

Now, more students are learning a second language in college: Spanish at the top of the list, followed by French, then German. But also in the top 10 -Arabic - for the first time, according to a new study. There are almost 24,000 college students in the United States learning Arabic. That's more than double the number in 2002.

Rosemary Feal is the executive director of the Modern Languages Association. The MLA did the study that we're talking about.

So, Rosemary, this spike - 126 percent in Arabic speakers. I mean, that's huge. What do you attribute it to?

Dr. FEAL: It is huge and it actually is double from 2002, and 2002 is double from 1998.

STEWART: Wow.

Dr. FEAL: So it's really an explosive language in schools - secondary schools. Obviously, one of the reasons students are attracted to Arabic is the aftermath of 9/11, and they see the Middle East as a hotspot for political issues, for social issues, and there's a natural attraction towards study. Some students want to use Arabic in their careers, but a lot of them it's just really curiosity and it's an attempt also, I think, to kind of make cultural bridges even if they're small.

STEWART: Mm. One of the things, I think, is sort of interesting is - I'm wondering if there are competent professors out there to teach if we have all of these kids flooding classrooms because, as we know, that was one of the big issues that came out of even some of our own intelligence agencies. They didn't have enough…

BURBANK: Yeah, there was, like, one or two guys that…

STEWART: …Arabic speakers.

Dr. FEAL: There were, like, seven.

BURBANK: And they're all famous because they were so, you know?

Dr. FEAL: Exactly.

STEWART: Yeah. How about the people who are available to teach?

Dr. FEAL: In general, to teach language and literature at the college level, you have a Ph.D. in the field. And, there certainly is, right now, more demand than supply. So what a lot of campuses are doing is they're using different kinds of instruction: They're using lot more with the Internet, they're bringing in visiting instructors, and they're using professors from other fields like political science or history or linguistics who can also teach language courses.

You might know that the Title Six under the Higher Education Act provides a lot of centers for the study of languages and regional activities - the area study centers. So there's a lot of languages, like Arabic and other less commonly taught like Persian or Farsi, also being done through these Title Six programs.

So we're meeting the demand as a profession, but believe me, there are far more students who want to study Arabic than there are classes available right now.

STEWART: The other language which took a big jump that didn't surprise me as much: Chinese.

Dr. FEAL: Right, Chinese.

STEWART: So, is the bottom line that American college students who want to study a second language; maybe they're just practical?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FEAL: They are very pragmatic, indeed. And I also think that they respond to world situations. I mean, if you're going to go to college in general, sure, you want to get a better job, but you also have to have a degree of intellectual curiosity. So what's going on in the world, I think, impacts on students.

Yeah, Chinese is up 50 percent; it's also being taught in elementary schools and secondary schools now with a lot of help from the federal government. So now we're getting kids who are arriving at college with some background in these languages when before, it would be very rare to have a student in college who had any exposure to Chinese or Arabic.

BURBANK: But can a kid really learn Mandarin or Arabic in college in a semester or two? I mean, or is it just they're going to have two - like, I took Swahili in college and I can say, jumbo. That's it. I mean, is this really going to be a useful amount of information they're getting out of this?

Dr. FEAL: Oh, good for remembering that word, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Well, yeah.

Dr. FEAL: That's good.

BURBANK: Thank you.

Dr. FEAL: That was worth an A, right?

BURBANK: That was worth $4,000 to the University of Washington. But seriously, can…

Dr. FEAL: No, seriously…

BURBANK:…kids learn these language that are very complex?

Dr. FEAL: Not in a semester, Luke. No. No. They can't. And so, therefore, they need, really, to have a commitment to it, study aboard, intensive language classes. I mean, sure, something's better than nothing, so if you take two semesters of Chinese, you're going to know something. But for real communication, you need several years and you need some study abroad and you need an intensive experience. That's the truth. But I still think that everybody I talk to, including my own, you know, students who took Spanish in the, I don't know, the reduced method of one semester and (speaking in Spanish), right?

STEWART: Si.

Dr. FEAL: So…

STEWART: That's all - yeah, that took three years (unintelligible).

Dr. FEAL: But they still feel that they gained something from it. So, you know, I think, yeah, there's two groups of students: those with the - who are, like, sampling and then those who are really committed to advanced proficiency.

STEWART: This might be an - you have to give me an anecdotal answer about this, but in this study, 52 percent of those students who chose to take a language chose Spanish. Nothing - well, anything to pose(ph) Spanish at this point, is that - that's the most necessary at this point.

Dr. FEAL: Listen, the - over 80 percent of high school courses in languages are Spanish. So by the time they get to college, the huge majority of those students have only been exposed to Spanish. Also, as you know, the number of Spanish speakers in the United States just keeps growing. So, it's not just here in New York where I speak Spanish half the day and never have to resort to English but throughout the country. So I think, really, it is the second language of the United States.

BURBANK: What about…

STEWART: I give more directions in Spanish because people think I - a lot of people think I'm Spanish.

BURBANK: Yeah.

STEWART: I can tell you how to get some place in Spanish. I mean, actually, I have to take a little while to get it out, but I usually get somebody to the right.

BURBANK: Yeah.

Dr. FEAL: But do you know the difference between (speaking in Spanish)?

BURBANK: (Speaking in Spanish)

Dr. FEAL: Derecho is straight.

STEWART: Straight, and derecha is to the right?

Dr. FEAL: A la derecha is right. See? The Spanish teacher got a chance. I earned my pay today.

BURBANK: What about Canadian as a language? I mean, they're also a border country.

STEWART: Hey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: That's it, right? That's advanced Canadian?

STEWART: About - what are you talking about?

Dr. FEAL: About.

STEWART: Well, we started this conversation with Rosemary…

Dr. FEAL: Ho, ho, ho.

STEWART: …who's the executive director of Modern Language Association because of the study which found that Arabic, for the first time, made it into the top 10 languages that students are studying. So, Rosemary, we're going to ask you to stand by. We're going to go to somebody who made this choice.

BURBANK: Yeah. We've got somebody named Bryan Pellet(ph) on the line. He's a sophomore at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Hi, Bryan.

Mr. BRYAN PELLET (Caller): Hi. How are you?

BURBANK: Great. Welcome to the show.

Mr. PELLET: Thanks.

BURBANK: So you are taking intro to Arabic.

Mr. PELLET: I am at the moment, yeah. I'm taking it six hours a week. It's the most credits I have, but it's a great class so far.

BURBANK: What can you say so far for me in Arabic?

Mr. PELLET: Well, to just say welcome, you basically say (speaking in Arabic) which just means welcome many, many times.

BURBANK: Wow.

STEWART: Rosemary gave you two thumps up there, our professor in the studio.

BURBANK: That sounded fancy.

Mr. PELLET: Yeah. And then just to ask how are you - it's just (speaking in Arabic), and you can respond with (speaking in Arabic), I don't know. It's just - it's a different sort of sounding language. We had to learn a lot of the - a lot of different letters before we could even get started and learning how to say things because certain letters are completely foreign to our English ear.

BURBANK: What did you take in high school?

Mr. PELLET: I actually took French. I took French since third grade and then just kind of jumped into this for a scholarship that I'm getting next year. I'm studying abroad for the whole year, so I kind of thought having some Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country would give me an upper hand over there.

BURBANK: That was kind of the motivation. What about the other kids that are in your class?

I keep calling them kids. I mean, these could be 35-year-old people that are taking college classes.

Mr. PELLET: Yeah. A lot of them married.

BURBANK: What are the other students doing?

Mr. PELLET: Kind of surprising, but…

BURBANK: Why are they in the class, you think? Or what do they say?

Mr. PELLET: A lot of them are actually involved in the Foreign Service or want to be, so just getting involved in Arabic, it really makes them more marketable. And I guess, for some of them, they even get paid more according to them. So it's definitely a practical language to learn nowadays.

STEWART: Hey, Rosemary. Do you have a question for our student - for Brian?

Dr. FEAL: Not in Arabic.

STEWART: No, just something about his decision.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FEAL: Yeah. Have you ever spoken to a native speaker of Arabic yet?

Mr. PELLET: I have…

Dr. FEAL: Have you tried out any of your phrases?

Mr. PELLET: Well, I have a language partner that I meet with every week. And basically, the point is for me to help him learn English. But it kind of works out for me because I get to practice with Arabic. He's from Saudi Arabia, so, yeah, I do that and (unintelligible), I guess.

Dr. FEAL: And did you make any of those classic mistakes, you know, where the word you said - came out a different way and it turned out to be, you know, one of those funny words?

Mr. PELLET: Yeah. He doesn't call me out on it though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PELLET: I think he just saw it as being nice.

BURBANK: The thing that's so remarkable when you try to take on a language like Arabic or, like, you know, Mandarin, is you realize how - even Russian - how hard it is as a native English speaker. And then I think throughout my day in New York, I talk to a hundred people for whom Arabic or Farsi is their first language.

STEWART: Yeah.

BURBANK: And they learned English. And I am, like, that guy who's driving that cab or, you know, doing whatever he's doing is his brain is so much more giant than mine just by virtue of the fact that he's speaking intelligible English to me. I mean, it's kind of - it's really humbling, actually.

Mr. PELLET: Oh, I know. You have to get into a different mindset and just realize that everyone else is learning English just to function in the society. And most of those people probably actually know more than two languages. So just the fact that so many people in America only know English is kind of, I don't know, disheartening in a way.

BURBANK: Well, we're adding you to the numbers, Brian, those who can at least say hello and how are you in Arabic.

What country are you going to?

Mr. PELLET: Well, I find out in December where I'm actually going. I got the Rotary Ambassadorial scholarship.

BURBANK: Oh, congratulations.

Mr. PELLET: Yeah, thank you. And they send me abroad. And my first three choices are Dubai or Cairo or Ephraim(ph) and Morocco. So I find out December 15th, as I said. If I end up in Dubai or Cairo, I should be fine because both of them pretty much speak modern standard Arabic or at least they understand it. But if I end up in Morocco, apparently, it's a completely different language. It's much more slang, much more shortened. So at least I have a French background to fall back on.

BURBANK: Do you think - I mean, are you interested going in the Foreign Service? Or, I mean, what about this scholarship? What appeals to you about doing this stuff abroad? You're just curious?

Mr. PELLET: Well, ultimately, I think that I want to be a foreign correspondent of some sort. And working in the Middle East would be ideal at the moment, as Rosemary said earlier, with the political situation there. It's a very appealing country at the moment or region at the moment. So getting my foot in the door by studying abroad there would give me a huge advantage in the future.

And I just want to know what it's like to be out of the western mindset. I've been here for so long that it'll be nice to experience something completely different.

STEWART: Rosemary, you look like you had something you wanted to add.

Dr. FEAL: Just that a lot of times students tell me that one of the best things they get from language study is the ability to see themselves from that other perspective.

I also wanted to add that about 20 percent of people in the United States speak a language other than English in the home. So there's this myth that in America, we don't have languages other than English. We've got a lot of them.

STEWART: Wow.

Dr. FEAL: Yeah.

STEWART: That's interesting statistic.

Hey, Brian, I've got a question for you. You know, when you learn a language, you often learn about customs of the country you're studying, you know, especially with Spanish. You learn, okay, I'm going to address you formally as opposed to the informal. Was there anything in Arabic that you've learned that you were surprised about the way you have to address someone or speak to someone?

Mr. PELLET: Well, one interesting thing is our professor is actually from Baghdad. He's a linguist from Baghdad.

STEWART: Oh, cool.

Mr. PELLET: So he teaches us all these little customs on a daily basis. One thing that's very interesting is that, basically, every time you meet with someone or they come to your home, you are obligated to offer them coffee or a snack of some sort and basically, you're obligated to take it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: All right.

Mr. PELLET: Keeps good relations with them.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. PELLET: So I'm sure you'd be strung out on caffeine if you met a few people in one day, which probably won't be bad since it's 6:30 in the morning.

BURBANK: Brian Pellet, Rotary scholar extraordinaire, future NPR foreign correspondent, man of the world starting very soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: For now, a sophomore at University of Missouri, Columbia. Hey, thanks for coming on the show.

Mr. PELLET: Thank you so much.

BURBANK: (Speaking in Arabic)

STEWART: And, Rosemary Feal, the executive director of Modern Language Association. Thank you so much for coming in the studio. It was a pleasure to have you.

Dr. FEAL: My pleasure.

BURBANK: Coming up on the BPP, we're going to talk about this writers strike in Los Angeles and in New York, I guess. We had a guy from New York on this very show. It - of course, you're hearing about the writers - what's the effect on everybody else who does the things - does the dry-cleaning and parks the cars and all that stuff related to this writing business? How are they doing? We'll find out.

STEWART: The fall out.

BURBANK: Yes.

STEWART: And, you know, when really rich people die, their heirs pay a hefty tax. You're finding it hard to shed a tear for the bereaved billionaires. We're going to bring an expert who will try to make you care.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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