Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, enrollment in Arabic language and culture courses at the University has doubled.
Following the attack, enrollment in Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish and Islamic Studies 331: Introduction to Arabic Culture and Language – a class on modern Arabic culture and society only offered in winter – increased from winter 2001’s 63 students to 85 students in winter 2002. Enrollment in the first-year modern Arabic language course – only offered in fall – jumped from 46 students in the fall of 2001 to 72 students in fall 2002.
By the winter 2007 semester, 149 students were enrolled in the culture class. There are 100 students enrolled in this semester’s introductory Arabic language course.
Interest in Arabic courses has been growing at a higher rate than other language courses offered at the University. Mary Fallert, senior business administrator of the Romance Language Department, said enrollment numbers for languages such as Spanish and French have held steady since 2001.
Arabic courses saw the largest spike in enrollment in 2004, the year after the beginning of the war in Iraq. The modern Arabic culture class ballooned to 161 students in the winter semester that year, and the beginning language class had 110 students in the fall 2004 semester. There was a small dip in both 2005 semesters, but the enrollment in both Arabic classes has held steady since then.
Mohammad Khalil, a former graduate student instructor in the University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies and religious studies professor at University of Illinois, said the Sept. 11 attacks and the resulting increase in media coverage of Arab nations encouraged more people to study Arabic.
“It made the Arab world and the Muslim world front and center in a lot of people’s minds,” Khalil said. “Before 9/11, people’s knowledge of Arab nations was really quite limited.”
Khalil, who started studying Arabic at the University as an undergraduate in 1997, said there has been a shift in the motivations for many of those taking Arabic language courses.
“(Before 2001) there was a good chance of having classmates who were generally interested in the language for its own sake,” he said. “Now many people see it as a requirement for what they want to do.”
Michael Bonner, acting chair of the department of Near Eastern Studies, said students who study Arabic for more than two years usually have a career goal in mind. Many of those are looking for jobs in government, military or journalism. But Bonner said students’ career goals don’t shape the program.
“We’re not just producing people for the intelligence agencies,” he said. “We’re not only about training people to do war on terror.”
LSA sophomore Amanda Canvasser said the Sept. 11 attacks got her interested in Arabic culture. She said she is taking Arabic courses because she wants to work in the State Department or run for political office.
Government officials on the national level should be familiar with Arabic language and culture, Canvasser said.
LSA senior Newell Blair is also considering a career with the State Department after studying Arabic, but he said his interest in Arabic language and culture preceded both his job search and Sept. 11, 2001.
The interaction Blair had with Arabic neighbors near his Manhattan home inspired him to learn about the cultures of Arabic nations beyond what the media highlights, he said.
“There was a whole culture happening beside me,” Blair said.
Blair said he is disappointed with the University’s Arabic language program because it emphasizes Modern Standard Arabic – which is used in news broadcasts and formal documents – but professors offer little instruction on the language’s regional dialects.
“It isolates them from what really is happening in Arabic countries, from what the person on the street is saying,” Blair said.