Demand for Arabic Studies Increases at Middlebury Language School

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(Host) For nearly 90 years, Middlebury College has offered summer language courses. Over the years, the offerings have been driven by economic and political concerns. When the Cold War was at its peak, many people came to learn Russian. When the economy of the Far East was booming, Japanese was popular. Lately, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people who want to learn Arabic.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Chuck Kyle is a captain in the Texas Army National Guard. Kyle is back from Iraq after serving in the U.S. led Coalition Provisional Authority. In his somewhat formal way of speaking and his military bearing, Kyle exudes a crisp efficiency. He prepared for service in Iraq by reading books on Arab culture and history. But once he arrived there he found he was missing the most important key to the culture: it’s language.

(Kyle) “I found that was one thing I did not have. I couldn’t even do the typical pleasantries that you do when first meeting somebody. How can you win the hearts and minds of people if all you can do is smile and shake a hand?”

(Zind) Kyle says he plans to return to Baghdad – this time with a knowledge of the language. He is one of 114 people enrolled in the summer Arabic language program at Middlebury College.

The program is part of Middlebury’s language school. Since the school opened in 1915, interest in specific languages has ebbed and flowed. Now people are turning to Arabic.

In a Middlebury classroom, a group of students listens intently as two teachers put on a skit in Arabic. With tuition, room and board, students pay more than seven thousand dollars to enroll in the intensive nine-week program, although many received financial aid.

(Michael Katz) “Arabic has blossomed since September 11, 2001. The demand for Arabic is enormous.”

(Zind) Michael Katz is dean of the language schools at Middlebury. Katz says this year the college had over 800 inquiries for the Arabic program. Many are academics, historians and language students; some are journalists, military personnel and government employees.

Mahmoud Abdalla is director of the Arabic School. Abdallah says Arabic language skills are in demand. A number of government agencies visited the campus to recruit members of this year’s class.

(Abdallah) “Particularly CIA and FBI and government foreign offices. This year there was a big turnout.”

(Zind) The Arabic spoken here is not confined to the classroom. It’s the only language participants are allowed to speak, hear or read – whether they’re talking over lunch in the dining hall or watching television, which only shows Arabic language stations. No English is permitted. Michael Katz says the school is strict about what’s called “the pledge.”

(Katz) “We control what’s happening in the environment as best we can. We restrict newspapers and magazines if they are not in language. We harangue them about using e-mail and Web surfing. We let them go swimming at Lake Dunmore but we take them and we make them swim in Arabic.”

(Zind) Katz says there’s also a cultural element to what’s taught at Middlebury. Students watch Arabic language films, study the Koran and learn about Middle Eastern cooking and music.

Andy Higgins is a senior correspondent with the Wall Street Journal and a student in the Arabic language program. Higgins is based in Paris but increasingly he’s filing reports from the Middle East. Higgins also speaks Russian and Chinese. He sees learning the language as an important part of doing his job.

(Higgins) “I think one of the big problems in journalism is you go to these countries and if you have only English or French you tend to fall into a ghetto of English speakers or French speakers, who immediately by the nature of the very fact that they speak these Western languages are Western oriented. They give a very distorted view of what the country is all about, because you’re speaking to a tiny elite.”

(Zind) Higgins says few members of the Western press corps in the Middle East speak Arabic.

Language Schools Dean Michael Katz says there’s clearly a need to expand the Arabic language program at Middlebury. One limitation is the number of good teachers. This summer the school is hosting a two-week course designed for language instructors in the hope of increasing their numbers and providing more opportunities here and elsewhere for people to learn Arabic.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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