Arabic is fastest-growing language at U.S. colleges

Denes Gazsi, UI lecturer and Arabic program coordinator teaches an Arabic Language class in Phillips Hall Monday, March
Denes Gazsi, UI lecturer and Arabic program coordinator teaches an Arabic Language class in Phillips Hall Monday, March 22, 2010 on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. UI is seeing huge enrollment growth in its Arabic language classes, mirroring a national trend showing the most growth in Arabic and Chinese. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Arabic is the fastest-growing foreign language taught at U.S. colleges and universities, a trend mirrored at the University of Iowa.

Enrollment in Arabic classes grew 127 percent nationally from 2002 to 2006, by far the largest jump of any language, according to the Modern Language Association.

At the UI, enrollment in Arabic classes tripled from their launch in fall 2006 to fall 2009 — from 34 students to 102 students. The UI in December added an Arabic minor.

“That’s fast growth,” said Roland Racevskis, chairman of the UI French and Italian department, which also houses Arabic. “Interest in languages is often influenced by the world political scene.”

Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have fewer Arabic offerings than the UI, but the three universities participate jointly in a regents study-abroad program in Morocco for students in Arabic. Officials at Cornell College in Mount Vernon are considering adding Arabic classes.

Students often have interest in Arabic because of family background, because they are in the military or because they have career interests in linguistics, said Denes Gazsi, UI lecturer and Arabic program coordinator.

Arabic is the main language in 24 countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa.

Diversity in dialects and a different alphabet written from right to left make Arabic tricky to learn, said Gazsi, a native of Hungary. The UI program offers three years, six classes total: two elementary, two intermediate and two advanced.

“It seems every fall, the numbers almost double,” Gazsi said.

Arabic, Chinese and Korean show the biggest growth nationally, but enrollments in those languages remain dwarfed by the big three — Spanish, French and German, which combined account for about 70 percent of foreign language enrollments.

While Spanish enrollment grew 10 percent in the most recent Modern Language Association study, French and German grew by only 2.2 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively. That compares with the 127 percent growth of Arabic, 51 percent for Chinese and 37 percent for Korean. Arabic in 2006 became the 10th most-studied language in the United States.

There is an ebb and flow in language popularity, partly linked to economic and political trends, said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association.

Another factor is what students learn in high school, Feal said. German and Russian used to be common offerings, but now more than 90 percent of high school language instruction is Spanish, she said.

The UI suspended enrollment to German graduate programs for one year, but undergraduate enrollment remains steady. Russian, Spanish, Portuguese and French are all growing at the UI, said Helena Dettmer, associate dean for undergraduate programs and curriculum in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.Dawn Bratsch-Prince, associate dean in Liberal Arts and Sciences at ISU, said interest in Russian has dwindled as fewer high schools offer it, and ISU may downgrade Russian from a specialization to a minor. It would make sense to upgrade Arabic to a minor because of demand, but ISU needs more than the two courses it has, she said.

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