Supply of Arabic teachers impeded as demand soars

November 19, 2004

World events have fuelled growing demand for Arabic language courses at American universities, but visa restrictions have created a shortage of people who can teach it, writes Jon Marcus in Boston.

The Modern Language Association reports that enrolment on Arabic classes nationwide has more than doubled to some 10,000 since 1998, a faster rate of increase than any other foreign language.

But despite government grants to universities to expand these programmes, there are so few qualified teachers that many universities are turning away applicants, or assigning graduate students or religion or history professors to teach entry-level classes.

A Justice Department audit has found a worrying shortage of translators needed for intelligence-gathering and other work.

Michael Levine, executive director of education at the Asia Society, which promotes instruction in Arabic and other languages, said: "The state of language instruction and proficiency among students is woefully inadequate in light of today's national security and economic needs."

Georgetown University has 370 students learning Arabic, the most of any university in the US; enrolment this semester rose by another 36 per cent.

At the University of Pennsylvania, the number enrolling on Arabic language classes has quadrupled in two years from 30 students to 115. The University of Kansas added a new section of Arabic this semester after enrolment jumped 58 per cent. The number of students enrolled in Arabic at Northwestern University has nearly tripled in three years to about 70.

The University of Colorado added Arabic to its continuing education programme this year, and has 48 students enrolled, most of them professionals working in the military, international business and diplomacy.

The Department of Education and the Pentagon have given more than $2 million (£1.1 million) to US universities in the past three years to help them train more Arabic speakers. But there are insufficient instructors, due to visa and immigration restrictions that make it increasingly difficult for native speakers from the Middle East to enter the US.

The University of Iowa turned away 15 students because, until this year, it had no full-time Arabic instructor. Tufts University gave a full-time position as head of its Arabic-language department to a part-time instructor.

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