As a teen-age busboy working the posh hotels of Tunis, Tunisia, Taoufik Ammar was fascinated by the babble of tourists. Although he spoke Arabic and French, and was learning English in school, there were so many other languages that the tourists spoke.

"It developed my need to learn," Ammar said, and he did. Spanish was next, then some German. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in language from the University of Tunis and came to the United States in 1984 to study for a Ph.D. in linguistics at Louisiana State University. Language was an opportunity that Ammar snagged. Now he is giving some of it back- to Dunbar High School.

Initially hired last year to teach French, Ammar, 30, has developed the city's first high school Arabic course, one of only a handful in the nation. Dapper and personable, Ammar had noticed an opportunity, and grabbed it by approaching the school administration with a proposal backed by 40 students in his newly formed Arabic club. Such student interest brought a quick blessing from Marion Hines, supervising director of foreign languages for D.C. Public Schools.

"Arabic has been tremendously important for centuries and is impacting more and more," Hines said. "Studying a language gives a new level of confidence. It's also a direct line to another culture; to see their art, their clothing, their practices. {The student's} world becomes larger and perhaps one or two of them will become a national, regional or local resource."

Such success, Ammar said, will take time. "There were students who didn't even know what the word 'Arabic' was," when the class began in October, said Ammar.

Now there are 15 students -- including three teachers and two parents -- who are studying al-Kitab al-Asasi, a basic conversational text, daily at 8 a.m. Parents are permitted to take classes at Dunbar because they do volunteer work at the school at 1301 New Jersey Ave. NW.

For each current student there is a different reason for his or her interest in Arabic. Gresma Abdullah, 36, a secretary at the Federal Trade Commission, decided to join her son Phaylen in the early morning class.

"He thinks I'm really competitive in the classroom," she said of her son. "But I'm really impressed with myself. We lose our age in class and just revert back to kids. He can imagine what type of teen-ager I was." Abdullah, who converted to Islam in 1973, said she was also prompted to join the class in order to study the Koran in its original language and to set an example for her son.

By contrast Cynthia Jones, an English and humanities teacher at Dunbar, said learning Arabic, and Hebrew, has always been a dream of hers, primarily to better understand the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"This was an absolutely marvelous opportunity that I couldn't refuse," she said. "I love it. If I miss even one class I'm disappointed." Jones credits Ammar for the class' success, noting his enthusiasm as "one of the things that holds our class together. It feeds off and fires each other. Interest is very, very high."

For Dunbar students, the class qualifies as part of the two-year foreign language requirement for graduation. William Bacquilod, 18, president of the Arabic and French clubs, said the class has helped inspire him to pursue a linguistics major when he begins college next year. A senior, Bacquilod has studied French for five years and Spanish during the past year after year spending the summer in Ecuador. He said he is taking Arabic for fun.

Eugene Williams, Dunbar assistant principal and supervisor of its language teachers, said the school recruited an Arabic teacher in order to increase the scope of its program. "Yes, give them language skills," he said. "But also give them the knowledge of a new culture to establish a bond and linkage. The experience will put them in good {career} standing."

Other District schools are exploring the possibility of offering less commonly taught languages, Hines said, although it is difficult to find teachers who have such diverse linguistic knowledge.

Despite the apparent ease with which Ammar inaugurated the course, he emphasizes the importance of preparation and of spreading the word. It took him two months to develop the class, although he had done it before at Tulane University, La., while earning his second master's degree in linguistics.

Ammar notes that such organizations as Friends of International Education, the National Foreign Language Center, Advocates for Language Learning and the American Association of Teachers of Arabic, have helped support the teaching of less commonly taught languages. It is these -- Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Japanese -- that Ammar said lead to jobs in such areas as translation, international finance and journalism.

Gerald Lampe, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic, agreed, saying that it is in the national interest to teach difficult languages. "Learning language is also learning how others think, learning about their cultures and how to understand and appreciate them. It gives us skills to compete in the international market."

Ammar said he feels confident that Arabic is in Washington to stay. "{The students} are proud of it. It will be there forever."