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Students See Global Possibilities in Learning Arabic

Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer

Arabic is Becoming a 'Hot' Language

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Growing up in a small town on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, Gordon Morrisette never thought about learning Arabic.

"There was maybe one student in our school that had a Middle Eastern background," said Morrisette, a School of Arts and Sciences honor student, and a native of Phillipsburg. "People only learned the languages they were brought up with or exposed to on a day-to-day basis, so it was really just English and Spanish."

But at Rutgers, he was captivated by an SAS Honors Seminar on counterinsurgency by Professor Emeritus of History Lloyd Gardner. Morrisette was similarly impressed by History Professor Toby Jones’ discussions on the Tunisian uprising and its impact on Egypt.

Finding himself drawn to international relations, Morrisette knew exactly what language he wanted to learn. He is now one of a growing number of Rutgers students studying Arabic.

"In order to craft a better foreign policy you have to understand the people," he said in a recent interview. "And you can only understand the people by understanding their language."

A decade ago, Arabic, which is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, drew barely enough Rutgers students to fill a few classes. Now the language typically fills 8 to 10 sections, including elementary, intermediate, and advanced classes as well as classical and conversational Arabic.

And the demand is continuing to rise, says Alamin Mazrui, chair of the Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures, in SAS, which provides Arabic instruction.

"We always have quite a lot of students calling, trying to get in," Mazrui said. "More and more people are realizing the value of Arabic language proficiency as they prepare for the challenges of a job market in a globalized world."

One of the reasons for the increase is an influx of "non-heritage" students like Morrisette, who are not of Arabic descent, but have a personal interest in the language and see it as an essential part of their studies. Those students now make up 30 to 50 percent of students in Arabic classes.

"We used to have a few non-heritage students," said Hala Issa, an Arabic instructor. "But we are seeing a steady increase, particularly students preparing for careers in the non-profit sector, government, and international relations."

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Indeed, students surveyed in Issa’s classes cite a variety of reasons for taking Arabic. Some say the language complements their majors, such as history, political science, and business. A few students say they’re planning for careers in the military or in human rights advocacy and see Arabic as particularly useful. Others simply say Arabic is a beautiful language and they want to master it.

Meanwhile, another group of students known as the heritage students - Muslims and Christians of Arab descent, as well as Muslims from a variety of ethnic backgrounds – are also seeking out Arabic classes.

Omar Kallon, a senior whose family moved from Egypt to the United States when he was 12, has completed two classes in advanced Arabic in preparation for a probable career in government or international affairs.

Although he grew up speaking Arabic, his family used the Egyptian dialect, which differs from standard Arabic.

"I was deficient in formal Arabic," Kallon said. "These classes have really helped me, and my parents are thrilled."

Kallon said he was amazed by the diverse makeup of students taking Arabic classes. Issa’s elementary Arabic class last summer, for example, attracted Jewish, African American, and Asian students.

"It was so moving seeing all these people taking on this challenge," Kallon said.

Issa is well-suited to handle a diverse class. A Palestinian, she grew up as an Israeli citizen in the city of Haifa where her neighbors, classmates, and teachers were Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

In her elementary Arabic class, Issa brings her students together through a fast-paced mix of lectures, visuals, and word games.

"I am so impressed with these students," she said. "Some of them have never taken a language before, and now they are throwing themselves into it and succeeding."

 

 

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