UNT among few universities in Texas to offer advanced study of Arabic

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Although he learned some German in high school, University of North Texas student Brian Wright had never studied a foreign language in depth before.

When he declared a major in international studies, however, Wright, a senior from Odessa, was required to take at least six hours, or two courses, of advanced foreign language courses, in addition to having to obtain the intermediate level proficiency required of all students earning bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degrees from UNT's College of Arts and Science.

Instead of expanding his knowledge of German, however, Wright chose a foreign language that is rarely studied by college students - Arabic. He's earning a minor in the language, which has been taught at UNT since 2002 but has only been offered as a minor since this past August.

"I thought, ‘Why not give Arabic a try?'" said Wright, who is a teaching assistant in the Arabic program. "Learning it gives you a wonderful perspective on many different things in the world, and that's really important regardless of the field that you are in. I know that Arabic will play a big part in my career."

Wright is one of 18 UNT students who have declared a minor in Arabic, which consists of two beginning language classes, two intermediate language classes, an advanced course focusing on Arabic documents in classical prose and an advanced class exploring the history and culture of the Near East from the time of the prophet Muhammad to the present.

The minor is part of UNT's Program on Peace, Democracy and Global Development, which is in turn part of the Department of Political Science's international studies major. The program, which has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education, added new courses to the international studies curriculum, developed additional internship and study abroad opportunities for students and created a lecture series in addition to adding the minor in Arabic.

UNT is the only college or university in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to offer a minor and advanced study in Arabic. The University of Texas at Dallas, Richland College and Brookhaven College each have only beginning and some intermediate courses. Among Texas universities, Baylor, Rice and Texas Tech offer advanced Arabic courses, but no minor, while only the University of Texas at Austin has majors in the language.

Dr. Liljana Elverskog, lecturer in foreign languages and literatures at UNT, began the Arabic courses at all four campuses and directs UNT's Arabic language minor. She said demand for Arabic classes increased after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

According to the New York-based Modern Language Association, enrollment in Arabic courses rose 92.5 percent at U.S. universities and colleges from 1998 to 2002, faster by far than any other language except for American Sign Language. However, Arabic ranked only 12th among all languages studied at U.S. universities and colleges in 1992.

Earlier this year, President George W. Bush announced a $114 million National Security Language Initiative, which will provide funding to dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need foreign languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi, through new and expanded programs in schools, universities and workplaces.

The Pentagon and branches of the U.S. military are now offering incentives for service members who speak or learn Arabic or other Middle Eastern languages and agree to work as translator aides, after the U.S. military found itself lacking in translators during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Elverskog said most of her students at UNT "are majoring in international relations and political science and want to work for the government or in the Middle East."

But Emily Wachsmann, a master's student in communication studies from Waco, said she chose to study Arabic to better understand the language behind rhetoric. She also plans to study at the University of Cairo in the future, after three trips to Israel, Jordan and Palestine.

"Learning Arabic is really important to me. I'm really interested in knowing the culture of the Middle East, and if you understand the language, you can better understand the religion and culture," she said.

Elverskog said UNT students primarily learn Modern Standard Arabic, which is used in books, newspapers, radio and television news programs and political speeches, but sounds formal in everyday conversation.

"The hardest challenge is learning and understanding the many spoken dialects. You often hear French, Spanish and Italian being spoken, but you don't commonly hear Arabic," she said. "We teach some colloquial Egyptian Arabic. The alphabet is also somewhat a challenge, since Arabic has a completely different system of letters."

Kristyn Admire, a sophomore international studies major from Roselle, Ill., started taking Arabic in August for the minor. She is also earning a minor in Japanese.

Arabic, she said, isn't more difficult to learn than Japanese.

"With any language, it's all about learning vocabulary. The main challenge with Arabic is working on the spelling differences between long and short vowels," said Admire, who is also practicing the Lebanese dialect of Arabic by talking with a friend from Lebanon.

Admire said she wanted to learn Arabic because she plans a career in foreign diplomacy or counterterrorism, with the goal of "working my way up to being Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense."

"It's very important to understand the people of the Middle East, and they will have more respect for you because you're making the effort to speak the language, which will help with diplomacy," she said.

Elverskog said she's proud that Admire, who plans to study in Cairo next year, and other students in the Arabic language program are being accepted for prestigious study abroad programs as well as Middlebury College's Summer School of Arabic, which has become the primary destination in North America for students who wish to learn and live the Arabic language and culture in a relatively short period of time. The nine-week program is taught entirely in Arabic.

"We have great support from UNT for the Arabic program, and that shows in our students," Elverskog said.

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