The Study Of Arabic Is Losing Importance

In the summer of 2009, I camped in the midst of rural Egyptian farming country with some American and Egyptian friends. Places like these often police themselves and shortly after dawn, we noticed a column of galabiya-clad locals drawing towards us. They all had identical bags hung over their shoulders that were about the size of a rifle. One of the Egyptians in our party muttered that we might be in trouble and I began to panic. I had been taught to expect that a situation like this would play out poorly for a group of Westerners. However, instead of accosting us or doing anything malicious, they waved and passed by without incident and, shortly thereafter, a car drove by and the man in the passenger seat gave us all candy while telling us to “go with God.”

It is ironic that ill-informed and negative views of the Arab world led me to that experience, which altered my views forever.

I entered university in 2006, which was during the height of sectarian violence in Iraq and was shortly followed by the U.S. troop surge. My goal at the time was to become involved in the Foreign Service, and I thought that there would be no better way than to learn the language of our nation’s enemy, Al-Qaeda. At the time, my naïve and narrow view of Arabs, Islam, and the Middle East/North Africa propelled me to study the language.

The political realities of the day impact would-be language learners’ selection of a language to study, and the War on Terror has been a major driver in the increase in the demand for Arabic study. Universities across the nation reported a cumulative 553.8% increase in degrees awarded in Arabic from 2004 to 2009 — the years following 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. However, Osama bin Laden is dead and the war in Iraq is winding down. It is virtually assured that Arabic studies in the United States will decline. The days of fighting Arabic combatants have passed.

The conflict of today has moved further east into the Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, and Dari-speaking places of the world. The drawdown of military presence in Iraq precipitated an equal, if not more extreme, drawdown in civilian attention to that country. While Arabic speakers do fight in Afghanistan, the importance of Arabic is minute in the face of the importance of the local languages of the region.

The “rise of China” is a political phenomenon that will sap away interest in Arabic. The growing clout of China on an economic and military scale has dominated American media in recent years. In light of current debt hurdles facing Western economies, it is likely that interest in Chinese language studies will rise as students seek the training to bring their talents to a growing marketplace. Educational statistics reflect this pressure. There has been a 106% increase in bachelor degrees awarded in Chinese from 2004 to 2009. Although this percentage increase is marginal when compared to Arabic’s meteoric rise of popularity, 1318 more people graduated with bachelor degrees in Chinese than graduated with bachelor degrees in Arabic over the same time period.

Chinese studies programs have larger outside support than Arabic programs. Dr. Kevin Lacey, the head of the Arabic department at Binghamton University, is well aware of the discrepancy. “Chinese has more funding, but some is coming from outside the state; from private Chinese or Asian-oriented foundations, or from the Chinese government,” he writes.

The disparity in outside funding is unsurprising. The Chinese government is a centralized force with a vested interest in increasing Mandarin speaking worldwide as a way to increase its soft power abroad. Arab regimes lack the economic clout to follow suit.

Although Lacey also writes that this does not directly inhibit the growth of Arabic by competing for its funds, Arabic departments seeking new students will undoubtedly have to compete with better-financed Chinese departments for student attention.

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