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In Memory of the Good Old Days How American Learners of ArabicChanged after 9/11 :
2008-06-17 07:18:02


Yehia Abdelmobdy

The Nation Press -

Alluding to the post 9/11 difference in the type of students who are interested in learning Arabic, a graduate student at George Washington University told me in an eloquent Arabic accent, “The good old days of students are over!” He added that most students these days choose to study Arabic primarily to enhance their resumes when seeking job opportunities in the U.S. intelligence community, Department of Defense, or Federal Bureau of Investigation which have increased hiring as a result of the demands of a post 9/11 America. Similarly, his comments echoed those of Emad Rushdie, coordinator of University of Pennsylvania’s Arabic Language Program, who described the sharp rise in the number of UPenn students interested in the language as a clear indication of the natural realization of this period as the age of Arabic learning and a time when job opportunities abound in this field. 
   
Who is learning Arabic in the United States?

 
According to the statistics of the Modern Language Association of America, the number of Arabic language students at U.S. universities in currently 12,000 which represents nearly 7,000 more students than the academic year prior to events of 9/11. In an interview with Voice of America on February 17th, Dr. Mahmoud Al-Batal who is an Arabic language professor at Emory College in Atlanta, Georgia, said that the number of students enrolled in Arabic language departments increased by 100 percent following 9/11. Alongside the increase in students, the number of universities and institutes who offer Arabic courses has also increased.    
             
In the light of this unprecedented, historical rise in the field of Arabic language learning in the U.S., the team of the Washington Report took to the various programs available to interview both students and professionals about their views on the reasons for this huge increase in demand in addition to their opinions on the motives and aims of students for studying Arabic post 9/11. Beginning at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., Dr. Shukri Abed who is the director of its language department which enrolled over 950 students this year alone classified the types of Arabic students as follows: (1) experts and professionals who are employed by either government or private entities dealing with the Middle East region (such as diplomats, military personnel, etc.); (2) college students with interest in academic research; (3) heritage speakers with Arab roots who want to connect with their culture; (4) students whose interest stems from a social relationship such as an interracial marriage; or (5) Muslim students of non-Arab origins wishing to read and comprehend original sources in the Islamic sciences.
 
In agreement with the view, Dr. Mohssen Esseesy who is an Assistant Professor of Arabic at George Washington University and the Coordinator of its Arabic program said that, indeed, Arabic students in U.S. universities have a wide range of backgrounds, coming from almost everywhere. He added that there is a growing number of Americans who study Arabic for academic or vocational reasons like members of the diplomatic, military, or business communities whose interests are associated with the Middle East region in addition to Arab and Muslim students who want to reinforce their cultural and religious identities emphasized this view saying that Arabic language learners at American universities and institutes come from everywhere. He provided ARAMCO Petroleum Company in Saudi Arabia as one example of those students from the business sector. Much like the other Arabic programs in the U.S, Esseesy has witnessed his program expand to accommodate a growing number of interested students, reaching 260 students this year.

This sharp increase in the number of students learning Arabic who come from a variety of different categories of American society correlates with a desire and commitment from the U.S. government and U.S. institutions to provide support and financial resources to attract more Arabic learners who can fulfill critical duties in the current political and security atmosphere. Dr. Alaa Elgibali, professor of Linguistics at Maryland University of Maryland and the Director of the National Flagship Initiative Language Program for Arabic which is subsidized by the U.S. government and provided to students who agree to fulfill a federal service requirement for a period of a least one full year, attributes the change in the type of Arabic students to the dire, strategic need for proficient speakers in federal institutions. However, this increase in newcomers with specific targets for learning Arabic does not change the constant presence of conventional categories of students who also seek knowledge about other cultures and want to communicate in unfamiliar environments.
 
What do the students say?
 
While most students have not formulated supporting sources and research for their arguments like their teachers regarding this topic, they can express their own motives and goals better and provided much needed insight into this phenomenon. For their perspectives, the Washington Report conducted a survey of a diverse group of Arabic learners including both university students and working professionals. On request, names and personal information included in this survey have been withheld on occasion to protect anonymity.
 
Based on the results, approximately one third of university students interested in Arabic have Arab or Muslim origins like Paul Gabriel who commented, “I simply study Arabic because I am the only one in my family who cannot speak or communication in Arabic with my family and friends.” Another student, Nushin Allo, who is a female graduate student born into a Muslim family expresses a desire to learn Arabic in order to bridge the gap between the United States and the Islamic world by adding to the number of Arabs and Muslims working for the American government. She added that increasing the number of federal workers who share both Eastern and Western cultures would lead to change and improve the relationship between these two sides. Lastly, Namika Zaman, a biology student, says that aims at understand her religion, Islam, more clearly by learning Arabic.
 
Another thirty percent of the answers of this survey revealed vocational motives for studying Arabic, such as seeking new job opportunities or developing professional skills. One university student, Keith Mantel, said that his aim is to obtain a job in the security field abroad. Another student mentioned the possibility of CIA employment. As for Elan Raffel whose mother is Israeli, his dream is to work for the U.S. State Department. Also, as a Jew who visit Israel, he wishes to understand and communicate with Arabic in the Middle East. Furthermore, an anonymous female student who has worked for the U.S. Army since 1993 stated that she started learning Arabic after being chosen by her superiors for this specialization.

Although considered the minority in comparison to the two previous mentioned groups, some learners stated their goal at studying Arabic is either purely academic or based on a desire to relate to Arabs and bridge cultural gaps. Also, it is interesting to note that mere chance often played a role in motivating some students to pursue Arabic study. One student who is deeply committed to Arabic study describes his story of Arabic as beginning when he went on a journey to explore the world in 1999. After starting in Tunisia and continuing on to Alexandria, Egypt, he developed a fondness for the Arabic language and culture.  As for student, Anju Kaippallil, her interest is studying Arabic stemmed from her childhood as she was born in Saudi Arabia to Indian parents. This background has also made her consider working in the international relations field after completing her studies. Finally, Jason Brownlee who has holds a PhD in Political Science from Princeton University believes that his interest in Arabic stems from his wish to see democratic transformation and an improvement in the areas of development and human rights take place in the Middle East. This is in addition to his love for the Arab culture and way of life.

What is the difference between pre and post 9-11 students?
 
Among professors, the answer to this question differs. For instance, Dr. Elgibali disagrees with the description of post 9/11 students as opportunists. Instead, he does not see any contradiction between their concern over securing their professional futures and their academic desires to study about the Arab world and its culture. Professor Esseesy also agrees with this view saying that calling these students “opportunists” has many negative connotations. Instead, he says that we should take into consideration that Arabic students do not belong to one category and that the mere matter of quantity plays a role in the increase of a certain type of students. 
 
This essence of this issue is that American have become more interested in Arabs and Islam due to the aggression to which the U.S. has been exposed. Dr. Abed mentions the principle of “knowing one’s enemy” as the possible intention of Arabic students. However, he notes that if this is the case that students will reap the benefits of its positive results. He believes that what starts as an attempt to “know your enemy” soon changes into “know the other” and subsequently, “know your neighbor”. One learner goes even further stating that now there is a practical, applicable reason for studying Arabic instead of just forming scientific arguments and participating in intellectual conversation, i.e. working for the federal institutions. Along these same lines, another female students views the rise in job opportunities for those who have a strong background in the Arabic language and Islamic culture as positive, irrespective of their motives or the types of new students. Instead, she sees this as eventually serving the interests of both sides by securing the U.S. while improving the current image of Arabs and Muslims. 
  
Source : Taqrir Washington
 
 
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