WASHINGTON - Michigan State University student Katherine Pitsch decided to
study Arabic after seeing the word jihad in news reports and not understanding
what it meant.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11,2001, terrorist attacks, the international
relations major decided she needed a deeper understanding of the Persian Gulf
"To truly understand the Muslim world and culture, we need to understand the
meaning of their words," said Pitsch, 19 and a junior.
The number of college students taking Arabic classes has almost doubled since
1998, according to a study released Thursday.
"Part of it can be attributed to the tragic events of September 11," said
Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, which
conducted the study.
In general, the number of college students learning foreign languages and the
variety of languages being taught are at their highest points ever, according
to the association's study. It surveyed 2,780 colleges and universities on
their enrollment in language classes other than English between 1998 and 2002.
Rises by 17.9%
The number of undergraduate college students learning foreign languages
rose by 17.9 percent, to 1.4 million, the survey showed. That far outpaced the
7.5 percent increase in undergraduate enrollments overall.
Students took classes in 163 languages in 2002, including 148 that aren't
commonly taught, the survey showed. Those include Swahili, Swedish and
Excluding American Sign Language, the biggest increase was in Arabic classes,
where enrollment jumped by 92.5 percent, to 10,596.
Pitsch's Arabic professor, Malik Balla, said enrollment in his classes almost
tripled after the terrorist attacks. To accommodate the increased demand,
Michigan State added a third beginner class and a part-time instructor, he
Before Sept. 11, most of Balla's students were Arab or Muslim, but he said
that's no longer the case.
"Mostly they say, 'We want to study Arabic because it's an important
language,' or 'We want to study Arabic because we want to know more about the
region,' " Balla said.
Growth in Islam
Another factor in the popularity of Arabic is the rapid growth in the
number of people practicing Islam in the United States, said Reed Dasenbrock,
dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of New Mexico.
Muslims say their prayers in Arabic.
Dasenbrock said the trend is partly the result of "new Muslims attempting to
learn more about the cultural context of the religion they have embraced."
"And some could be looking for jobs in the State Department," he said.
American Sign Language also has been increasingly popular because there are
many job opportunities for people who can communicate with the deaf, Feal
Spanish is by far the most widely taught language on campus, accounting for 53
percent of foreign language students, the survey showed. French and German
rank second and third.
The study of foreign languages is popular in general because of major
international issues that have grabbed students' attention, Feal said.
Those issues include the events of Sept. 11, large numbers of immigrants
entering the country and globalization of the world economy.
The association's survey also tracked solid increases between 1998 and 2002 in
the study of biblical Hebrew and ancient Greek. Feal and Dasenbrock attributed
that to increased interest in studying religion, archaeology and the ancient
civilizations of Greece and Rome.
"It's impossible for undergraduates to believe that only knowing about English
and U.S. history and culture is enough for them," Feal said.