On a tour of the United Nations in New York, a group of grade school students from New Jersey met a king from Africa. The king, whose English was perfect, was startled when some of the children greeted him in French. He was even more surprised when one boy spoke to him in Arabic.
"Marhaba," the eighth grader said.
"Marhaba," the king said, returning the Arabic for "hello."
The students were from St. John the Baptist school in Fairview, New Jersey, a grade school that began teaching Arabic to seventh grade pupils last year. Although they are getting an earlier start than most language students, they share a new enthusiasm for learning Arabic which has spread to many educational institutions in the United States.
In the last five years, the enrollment in Arabic language courses has almost doubled. There are currently about 700 Arabic language students in United States colleges and an unknown number in grade schools and high schools that have added programs. Last December, teachers of Arabic met as a professional group for the first time. The growth has been so rapid that the Modern Language Association is making a special survey of Arabic and other previously neglected languages this year.
Students in the Western world became interested in Arabic during the last century—usually for the religious study of Islam. English, French, and German scholars led the way.
But after World War II, students in the United States turned to Arabic. The expansion of United States political and economic interests and the vital position of Middle Eastern countries opened an important international door to student inquiry.
Then, six years ago, when the Russians launched Sputnik, they indirectly prompted American schools toward new efforts in science, mathematics, and language. Some comparisons between the two countries tended to show that the United States was lagging in foreign language instruction. Many language courses were strengthened, but many teachers think that Arabic showed particular gains.
Why did American students turn to Arabic?
To many scholars there's no clear-cut answer. Charles Ferguson, who heads the Modern Language Association's Center for Applied Linguistics, isn't sure why the teaching of Arabic has increased so rapidly in the past few years when "there has not been such an increase in the teaching of Hindi and Portuguese," which are other important but neglected languages.
Like others in the field, Maan Z. Madina, Arabic professor at Columbia University, New York City, agrees that the teaching of Arabic is definitely increasing from year to year because people are more interested in the Middle East from an academic and practical point of view. "On the whole, the impetus for Americans to learn the language comes from government and businesses in the countries. In line with the American position of leadership, it's necessary to have ambassadors who speak the language; and American companies abroad want more people who know the language and customs."
A spokesman for Harvard University, Boston, which has taught Arabic "for some decades now," finds that most students take the language because of the demands of scholarship (to understand Middle Eastern history or literature) or because they want to enter government service or industry in the Middle East.
But what do the students themselves say—why are they studying Arabic when European languages are generally much more popular?
A second-year Arabic language student at Columbia University began studying the language after he spent a summer working in Jordan. An older student returned to Columbia to study Arabic after a successful career as an economist and management consultant. Another second-year student, from California, wants to be an anthropologist, and a junior from New York says he plans to teach Arabic or enter government service.
Arabic courses in the United States also are drawing more foreign students. Enrollment in the language at most universities reads like a small United Nations roster: at the University of Utah, candidates in Arabic come from Afghanistan, Egypt, Japan, and a half dozen other countries.
Takaya Suto, of Japan, an elementary Arabic student at Columbia, is the third man being trained in Arabic by the Japanese Foreign Service. Next year, he will move on to Lebanon for two more years of study before entering the Japanese diplomatic corps.
Another first year foreign student, Francis Botchway, of Ghana, intends to work in Islamic jurisprudence when he finishes his studies.
Although the students' background and motivation range widely, one trait is common to most: they are serious students. A few try Arabic out of curiosity, but soon drop out. Professor Madina admits that in his elementary course "the rate of fatality is often high" and only the most promising students survive.
Because the vocabulary is vast, the syntax unlike anything the Westerner has seen, and the accent and sounds, especially guttural sounds, are difficult, students often must work harder at learning Arabic than other languages. But, though Arabic presents some problems for a Western student, it is not as impenetrable as many imagine. One teacher says, "Fortunately my students approach Arabic with a sense of fascination—it is mental gymnastics."
The government is spurring student interest by offering large scholarships in Arabic studies. Fellowships of the National Defense Education Act pay as much as $2250 for an academic year, plus tuition and a stipend for books.
This year the N.D.E.A. awarded 108 fellowships for advanced students of Arabic and related area studies to students who are enrolled at 20 different institutions.
Across the country, schools have responded to this encouragement with programs nearly as varied as the language itself. California leads the nation, with five universities and the United States Army Language School teaching Arabic. While several Ivy League schools in the East have offered courses in the language for some time, Midwestern and Southern state universities have started Arabic programs more recently.
The Program in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton was established 16 years ago as an outgrowth of summer seminars and the training of army students in.Arabic and Turkish during World War II. Since then its curriculum has expanded to include courses ranging from beginning Arabic language to reading and translation of selected passages from the Koran.
An extensive Arabic program developed in Utah after a Utah college administrator headed an agricultural mission to Arabic countries and personally encouraged an interchange of studies. Besides college courses, Utah high schools teach Arabic to more than a hundred students. Middle Eastern Studies department at the University of Utah, headed by Aziz S. Atiya, offers conversation courses, great books of the Middle East in Arabic, and basic classes.
The dialects appear at various schools: the University of California, in Los Angeles, teaches spoken Moroccan Arabic, while Columbia University specializes in Egyptian colloquial Arabic.
Scholars are not in complete agreement as to whether a student should be taught to write or speak the language. Yale emphasizes grammar and reading; at Harvard University stress is placed on speaking, reading, and writing—"one strengthens the other." A professor at one Eastern college commented that "anyone not interested in Arabic for serious purposes takes colloquial courses," but a course in conversational Arabic begins the program at Portland State College, Portland, Oregon. Most schools teach a combination.
With the growth in Arabic studies, the number of qualified teachers also has increased. But most scholars think more research is needed on the problems of teaching Arabic to Americans.
Will Arabic studies in the United States continue to attract more and more students?
Yes, the teachers say. They suggest more students should be sent to Arab-speaking countries, in programs like the new Princeton plan which sent eight students to Lebanon this year (NUPOSA—National Undergraduate Program for Overseas Study of Arabic).
Summer studies such as the Inter-University program in Near Eastern Languages have proven highly successful, and teachers hope they will be expanded. "Students fight to get into the Inter-University program," Professor Madina said. "They meet every day for two hours of instruction, one hour of tutoring, and a language lab in the afternoon. They do nothing during these seven weeks but learn a language."
Almost everyone in the field expects more students and more extensive programs. Dr. Atiya believes there will be "scores of high school seniors enrolling in Arabic in the coming years."
The seventh graders at St. John's who stay an hour after school to learn Arabic and the language students in colleges across the country have a common bond—they soon may demolish Arabic's reputation as a neglected language in the United States.