Americans Learning Arabic
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SPENCER MICHELS: The terrorism attacks and the war in Afghanistan have prompted many Americans to try to learn more about Islam and the Arab world. In addition, U.S. intelligence agencies and the military have been scrambling to hire or train speakers of Middle Eastern languages like Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto, all languages spoken in Afghanistan. This program in near-eastern studies and Arabic language at the University of California at Berkeley is one of fewer than a dozen at major U.S. universities. Sonia S’hiri teaches many of the hundred students who are enrolled in Arabic classes here. More students are expected next semester. But programs like Berkeley’s are rare, as sociology graduate student Sara Gilman found out.
SARA GILMAN: Part of the reason why I had to stop studying Arabic for a period of time is because I’d pursued a master’s degree at the University of Oregon that doesn’t have an Arabic program.
SONIA S’HIRI: I think it’s a shame. There should be more and more programs of this kind because this is the way people manage to understand a little bit more about each other. When you learn a language, you learn the culture, and this is the way we teach it here.
SPENCER MICHELS: While Stanford has no Arabic or Middle Eastern Studies Department or major it does teach beginning Arabic. This semester, enrollment doubled in that class to 28 students. Khalil Barhoum says one positive effect of the current crisis is that it may have coaxed Americans to learn more about the Muslim world, the Arabs, and their language.
KHALIL BARHOUM, Stanford University: What you need is involvement with the culture, with the people over there. The Arabs and Muslims around the globe have felt for a long time that the U.S. is only interested in the economic aspect, but there is no matching investment in the people, in the cultures, and the language is part of that.
SPENCER MICHELS: At California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, they specialize in languages. This private graduate school teaches 700 students, half of them from other countries. Language dean Ruth Larimer says most Americans avoid foreign languages.
RUTH LARIMER, Monterey Institute of International Studies: Americans are slow to respond unless something touches them personally. They don’t tend to be people who learn a lot of language for fun. They feel they’re not good language learners. I don’t necessarily agree with that.
SPENCER MICHELS: Larimer says her school dropped its regular program in Arabic a few years ago because of low demand, but now that has changed.
RUTH LARIMER: There have been a large number of people interested, probably 20 or 30 in the first months after the events, and I think some of them are realistically hoping to learn more about the cultures, and others are unrealistically hoping to get a job right away with the government if they learn some Arabic, but of course it’ll take a little longer. (Speaking Arabic)
SPENCER MICHELS: Only one student at the institute studies Arabic right now. Tyler Hoffman takes private lessons to improve his Arabic, which he studied in Syria and used while working for the U.S. Consulate in Yemen.
TYLER HOFFMAN: I wanted to work in foreign affairs, and I knew one of the ways I needed to make myself more lucrative for the job market was to distinguish myself in some way. By choosing Arabic, that’s how I’ve decided to do that, through language.
SPENCER MICHELS: His private teacher, Khaled Sellami, says training Americans in modern standard Arabic for intelligence work is a long shot, especially since there are 22 distinct dialects of Arabic, including modern standard Arabic, which he teaches.
SPOKESMAN: You simply have to live the culture and the environment, and it’s a long process, you know. It’s not overnight.
SPENCER MICHELS: Hoffman, who already speaks well, realizes how difficult being truly fluent is.
TYLER HOFFMAN: You can become proficient, and you can become conversational to certain levels. Fluency’s a whole other… Whole other game.
SPENCER MICHELS: He and others studying Arabic may have better job prospects than before. Hoffman has been approached in what he calls “routine recruiting” by intelligence agencies.
TYLER HOFFMAN: The government’s looking for Arabic speakers. From what I understand, there have been a lot of applications, people turning in applications to possibly work with the different intelligence agencies. I’ve basically done this, turned an application in, or a resume, I should say, and it’s a possibility. It’s one of many things you could do with Arabic.
SPENCER MICHELS: At Berkeley, second-year Arabic student Matthew Evans has not been recruited, but it’s on his mind.
MATTHEW EVANS: My dad’s always like, “Yeah, so has the CIA called you yet?” You know, “Have you been recruited?”
SPENCER MICHELS: The military has its own school of languages, the defense language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, with an enrollment of nearly 3,000. The institute began teaching Japanese during World War II, and historically it has tailored the languages it teaches to the military needs of the day. Those in the Middle Eastern program, most fresh out of basic training, spend 63 intense weeks learning Arabic while maintaining military discipline. They are given proficiency awards as they advance. Last year, 409 students of Arabic were graduated from this program, and an additional 200 students soon may be added. The military will not say if it is teaching or will teach Afghanistan’s major languages, Pashtu or Dari. Language instruction here has become very sensitive. This formerly open post has now been closed to the public, and even though more teachers are being hired, turning out proficient linguists will take more than a year.