Tanner Wycoff is studying Arabic. His reasons are both personal and global.
"There's a lot of hatred right now," he said. "Maybe I could be a good influence."
During class recently at the University of Kansas, Wycoff and fellow students huddled in threes, struggling to perfect a translation. They are among a burgeoning number of American college students enrolled in Arabic courses.
The growing interest led the university to add a new section of Arabic this fall, and it's the same across the country. Enrollment in Arabic studies at the University of Kansas jumped 58 percent over last fall. Enrollment in the subject has quadrupled in the past two years at the University of Pennsylvania. At Georgetown University, where 370 students make up the largest Arabic program among U.S. colleges, fall enrollment is up 36 percent over last year.
Wycoff, a 25-year-old senior from Lawrence, Kan., wanted to experience a new language and culture. So he studied Arabic in Morocco through the school's study-abroad program. He made lasting friendships with his host family and their son, with whom he roomed.
"I was so grateful," Wycoff said. "They took me under their wing."
Wycoff had dropped out of college for a time but returned the semester after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, determined to make a difference. He is interested in securing a Middle Eastern assignment with the State Department.
Arabic is the language of 200 million people and the liturgical language of more than 1 billion Muslims. Europeans and other Westerners have studied Arabic language and culture for a thousand years, experts say.
But wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, helped create new demand for Arabic college courses in the United States. The most recent national numbers, which cover the period 1998 to 2002, show enrollment in Arabic language classes growing from 5,000 to more than 10,000, according to the Modern Language Association, a group of educators and scholars.
A shortage of Arabic speakers has been lamented by U.S. military and intelligence officials for years. But their objectives can be at odds with academic interests.
The proposition that Americans suddenly need to understand Arabic to fight terrorism upsets many who teach and love the language and culture.
"It's sickening to me to say this is a language of interest simply because of Sept. 11," said Naima B. Omar, an assistant professor of Arabic at Kansas. "That's a very limited, narrow-minded perspective."
Roger Allen, a professor of Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledges the tension. The program there has grown from 30 students to 115.
"My hope, my goal, as an academic in this field for 36 years, is to advocate for the need to learn a great deal about the Middle East," Allen said. "That includes its history, its culture and its contribution to our culture, which has been profound."
Several students in Wycoff's class, an intermediate course, share such goals.
Jenny Wurtz, a 22-year-old senior, said she simply wanted exposure to a language and culture about which she knew little. Jessica Adkinson, a 19-year-old sophomore, is interested in the foreign service. Her father worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, and she lived there for 20 months from about age 9.
Michelle Tran, a 20-year-old sophomore, said she had overlooked the importance of the Middle East. She previously had studied Russian.
"I like traveling, writing and meeting people," Tran said.
Karin Ryding, a Georgetown professor of Arabic, said it is not surprising that students are responding to world events through their choice of language courses.
"Americans tend to be very pragmatic learners of foreign languages," said Ryding, noting that about half of the Georgetown students taking Arabic were studying for the foreign service.
While Arabic is experiencing the largest enrollment increase of any foreign language among U.S. students (except for American Sign Language), the raw numbers are small. About 750,000 college students take Spanish, for instance, and about 200,000 enroll in French, according to the Modern Language Association.
There is no doubt that the supply of those studying Arabic is not keeping up with demand, Ryding said. Colleges that want to offer Arabic often cannot find qualified instructors. Others are hesitant to start a program because of the expense and the potential risk if student demand drops.
Although more and more students are continuing Arabic studies into their third and fourth years, enrollment historically has dropped off quickly after one or two years.
Only about 10 percent became proficient enough to hold a professional job requiring Arabic.
One reason: Arabic is a challenge for Americans. A Semitic rather than a European language, Arabic requires extra focus and intensity for Western learners.
Although Arabic looks exotic to Americans, said Allen, the alphabet can be learned fairly quickly. But challenges abound.
Arabic is written from right to left. Some letters change shape depending on placement. Some vowels are "invisible" in the written language. Certain sounds are unfamiliar to Western speakers. Word order is generally verb-subject-object.
One of the biggest challenges, Ryding said, is that Arabs read and write in one form but speak in another, and the spoken language varies from region to region.
The State Department rates Arabic as a "level four" language, on a par with Chinese and Japanese in difficulty, she said. Becoming proficient, for Americans, can take twice as long as learning a European language.
Allen believes the "clash of cultures" between this country and the Arab world can be altered: "Let's build a whole new generation of people who know a heck of a lot more."