AMMAN, JORDAN -- Much has been said in the last five years about the lack of Arabic speakers in the United States, especially those willing and qualified to work for the federal government. After 9/11, America scrambled to find qualified linguists to help fight terrorism.
Long overshadowed by the more easily learned romance languages, Arabic got short shrift at most American colleges and universities. With the rare exceptions of schools such as Georgetown University and Middlebury College in Vermont, which has been recognized for its intensive summer language program, American universities simply did not have advanced Arabic programs or the professors to lead them.
Now, because of the job opportunities Arabic provides, those universities are overrun with students wanting to study Arabic but are unable to accommodate many of them.
But American students have not given up. Instead, they are traveling to the Middle East in large numbers to study Arabic. Determined to meet the demands for Arabic speakers in the current governmental and business job markets, they have migrated eastward by semesters to Arabic schools in the Middle East and North Africa, on year- or summer-long programs.
Universities in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and even far-flung Yemen, for example, are admitting American students wanting to study Arabic, Islamic culture or Middle Eastern media. For the first time, universities in these countries are luring large numbers of Americans from the more traditional study-abroad destinations in Europe.
American graduate, undergraduate and even some high school students are flooding the Arabic language school at the University of Jordan in Amman, so intensively that the university recently cut the ribbon on a multimillion-dollar language center dedicated solely to teaching Arabic to foreigners.
Before 9/11, during the 2000-2001 academic year, 21 Americans among 169 students were studying Arabic at the University of Jordan's language center. By 2003-2004, the number increased to 85 among 382 total students, and in the last full academic year, about 120 Americans were enrolled among 480 students studying Arabic at the center.
In Egypt, the American University in Cairo is so crowded with American students wanting to study Islamic civilization and Arabic that university officials recently broke ground on a new campus, which will double the size of the old one and will be built outside Cairo. Part of the reason was to accommodate the growing number of Americans.
Unable to locate and hire adequate numbers of Arabic professors, some U.S. colleges and universities, to their credit, are doing whatever they can to help facilitate seasonal forays for students.
Georgetown University recently established a branch of its School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar. The University of Virginia forged ties with Jordan's Yarmouk University, where students can get full academic credit for Arabic courses. Similarly, Emory University in Atlanta leads an Arabic school in Cairo, and Chicago's DePaul University announced in July the construction of a sister campus in Jordan.
An added obvious benefit of this trend is the face-to-face interaction being experienced by a new generation of Americans. Shared classrooms cultivate understanding in a common language. Helen Keller wrote that "the highest result of education is tolerance," which, if true, means that a generation more tolerant and better informed about the Arab-Muslim world is climbing America's ranks.
Former presidential adviser David R. Gergen recently wrote about some of the shortcomings of the baby boom generation, arguing that most Americans are dissatisfied with the quality of leadership in the United States. But he said that "eyes turn for help to those just behind the boomers, the leaders on the rise."
Will they be better? Is help on the way? If a young generation of hungry American students can make the most of their extraordinary education abroad in terms of national security as well as Middle Eastern relations with the United States, the answer to these questions could very well be a resounding yes.
Justin Martin is an American Fulbright Scholar living in Amman and a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.