Do you speak Arabic?
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, interest in Arabic classes at American universities soared. Emory, which began offering Arabic in 1987, was well prepared for the influx.
“This year, we’ve had the highest enrollment in Arabic we’ve seen,” says Mahmoud Al-Batal (above), Arthur Blank/NEH Distinguished Teaching Chair in Emory College and associate professor of Arabic in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies. “The third-year class is the largest ever at Emory with sixteen students—last year we had seven.”
Spoken by about two hundred million people, Arabic is the predominant language in nineteen countries, including Morocco, Egypt, Somalia, and the Sudan. Arabic also is the language of religion for a billion Muslims worldwide.
In a recent class held on the second floor of the Woodruff Library, nearly a dozen students sat in a semicircle around Al-Batal, who spoke to them exclusively in Arabic and wrote phrases right to left on the dry erase board to reinforce their growing vocabulary. Teleconferencing allowed four additional students to join the class from Oxford College.
“I’ve been interested in politics as long as I can remember,” says junior Rebecca Hopkins, an international studies major. “I’m thinking about a career in diplomacy or conflict resolution, working with NGOs [non-governmental organizations], or teaching.
“I’m Jewish, and I know Hebrew and was raised knowing about Israel,” she says, “but as I grew older, I wanted to know as much as I could about the whole story in the broader Middle East region.”
This summer, Hopkins plans to continue her studies at the American University in Cairo, where Emory leads an Arabic school at which she can practice her language skills on native speakers.
Gaining proficiency in Arabic requires intensive study in and out of class. Second-year students have classes on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and most attend tutoring groups and individual sessions as well as completing up to two hours of homework each night.
“Arabic is not an easy language,” Hopkins says. “I had a roommate who used to say that if you’re taking Arabic, all you do is Arabic.”
Students are taught Modern Standard Arabic, which is primarily used in formal or written situations. Colloquial Arabic—Egyptian Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Sudanese Arabic—is used in daily conversation and varies from culture to culture.
Asif Khan, a second-year Arabic student at Emory, was born in Colorado but moved with his parents to Pakistan when he was eight. Khan’s first language was Pashto, which his parents spoke at home. He learned English in grade school. When he moved to Pakistan, he learned Urdu, the national language.
Khan decided to return to the United States for college after graduating from the International School of Islamabad.
“There is often the assumption that I can speak Arabic because I’m a Muslim, but many Muslims in the world do not speak Arabic,” he says. “People tend to clump the whole religion together and see Islam as one big monolith.”
Part of Khan’s reason for taking Arabic is that he wants to better understand what he reads in the Koran, which is written in a high form of Arabic prose.
“Now, when I say the prayers, I’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s what this means,’ ” he says.
For students who graduate with fluency in Arabic, job prospects are bright. The U.S. State Department has designated Arabic a “critical language whose study is of strategic importance,” and the government is hiring for positions from translators to diplomats.
“Americans need to learn more languages, period, and Arabic should be one of those languages,” says Associate Professor of Arabic Kristen Brustad. “Arabic is just such a wonderful language, and the culture is so warm, welcoming, and hospitable—the complete opposite of the stereotype. All kinds of doors open to you if you have even minimal fluency.”—M.J.L.