Interest in studying Arabic up post-9/11

A survey released by the Modern Language Association in November reported a boom in interest in Arabic studies by college students around the country. “That certainly reflects our experience,” said Roger Allen, professor of Arabic studies and comparative literature and director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business. “We have seen a 92 percent increase. I had to hire additional instructors.”

Penn is one of only nine universities, including Harvard, Princeton, UCLA and Brigham Young, with long-established Arabic programs. “We don’t have one of the bigger programs—we never had,” explained Allen, who has taught here since 1968. “But we’ve gone from having one section in the first year with between 20 and 25 students to having two sections of the same size. We teach in the daytime and in the evening on two separate tracks.”

Four levels of study

There are four levels of Arabic taught at Penn. “I call them elementary, intermediate, advanced intermediate and advanced,” said Allen. “Because it is a non-Western language, the intermediate phase is much longer than it would be for a European language. At some point, probably in the third year, there is an option to switch off and concentrate on the standard language or add one semester of colloquial.”

There are also reading courses for third level, including Allen’s “Introduction to Arabic Texts.” “I have a seminar for graduate students that I teach in Arabic. They have probably gone abroad for a year before they take that course.”

The MLA survey found that nine out of 10 colleges and universities did not offer an Arabic course. “Since 9/11 every liberal arts college around the country has decided to add Arabic,” Allen reported. “I placed my students as teachers at Temple, Swarthmore, Drexel, Philadelphia Community College, and that’s just around here.”

The MLA predicts a bottleneck in the near future. “There are only a few prestigious universities in the country where the whole program from undergraduate through Ph.D. is offered,” Allen said. “Suddenly all these students from other institutions are going to be looking to continue. Will there be room for them?”

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Originally published on January 15, 2004