How College Students in the U.S. are Helping the Arabic Language Survive
By: Ivey Noojin/Arab America Contributing Writer
In a time wrought with fear of the Arab World and the Islamic faith, many college students in the United States have decided to learn Arabic in spite. They are reacting to the harsh rhetoric of the current political climate in the opposite way it was intended. These college students are paving their own path and ultimately benefiting from it. I am one of those students.
I began studying the language in my freshman year at college because I wanted to talk to Arabs. To me, the images on the news, of war and bombings were not the only story. So I decided to major in Arabic, to my family’s utter dismay.
I am not the only one. Despite the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments that are growing throughout this nation, Arabic programs at universities continue to fill. In fact, some colleges are even expanding their language departments because of the increase in interest. College students know that Arabic is a language that is in demand and are reacting accordingly. In a time of less job security, learning how to speak Arabic increases many college students’ chances to find employment after graduation. In this case, the current political climate is actually making a bigger demand for Arabic speakers, the opposite of what it has been trying to do.
The Harsh Rhetoric
Ever since 9/11, images of bombings and jihadists fill up news coverage. It is much easier to focus on a foreign threat than the issues at home. Also, many people fear the different. After 9/11, they feel justified for labeling several countries as bad.
Even though the first Arab terrorist attack on U.S. soil was over 17 years ago, the rhetoric against that group of people has not changed. In fact, it has even spread to Americans of Arab descent. It affects us every day, and it follows us everywhere.
We cannot escape this prejudice when the president of the United States is openly hostile toward us. His rhetoric has trickled down, igniting others’ hatred toward a group of people they do not know. This condemnation is open now and more socially acceptable than ever before. However, due to this visibility, more and more people are reacting against the harsh rhetoric by the president and others.
The Role of College Students
Reactions from Others
Even though many college students decide to learn Arabic, that doesn’t mean they don’t experience any consequences. Mari Odoy, a junior at Middlebury College, received some pushback from her family, especially her grandparents when they found out she wanted to study abroad in Jordan. They didn’t understand why someone would want to converse with terrorists. That is until they realized what a resume builder speaking Arabic is.
Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world, and employers are taking notice. As the United States becomes more involved in the Arab World, organizations and businesses need more people who can speak Arabic. Therefore, it is advantageous to study Arabic.
“I want to learn this language responsibly and use it as a vehicle for change,” Odoy said.
This kind of positive change receives the most pushback from people in the United States. Many do not understand the desire to learn the language associated with terrorism.
“I got a lot of comments about if I would convert to Islam,” said Amy Hensler, a junior at Virginia Tech.
Hensler went to Oman last summer and often felt safer there than she does in the United States. Here, catcalls regularly bombard her, and she walks the campus in fear of the prevalent gun violence at schools.
However, the family of Maggie Thielens, a sophomore at the George Washington University, thinks the exact opposite: that the Arab world, not the United States, is the place full of insecurity.
“My mom was so nervous about me going to the Middle East; she had my mandala read to ensure safety was in my future,” Thielens said.
Due to news coverage, many families, including mine and that of Thielens, associate the Middle East with death and kidnappings. They don’t believe there is any good in that part of the world because they haven’t seen it.
Americans are not the only ones who are distrustful or straight up enraged by the other culture; Arabs also have issues with the United States. Many hate this country for intervening in their affairs, from erecting nonsensical boundaries for nation states to currently providing military aid to Saudi Arabia for the civil war in Yemen.
However, there are also Arabs who recognize the necessity of the two cultures’ interaction. Many are even excited to learn that an American speaks Arabic, Odoy and Hensler said. The same cannot be said in the United States in regards to Arabic.
“The language is not valued enough in American society,” Hensler said.
These three students are just a few of the thousands that are currently bringing value to Arabic. Despite the political climate, more people are wanting to learn the language. In fact, the harsh rhetoric of today continually brings up Arabic as a topic of discussion in the news. This ultimately increases the visibility of this language in the United States, and students are reacting to the newfound demand. They recognize its importance.
“Arabic has shown me that anti-Arab or Muslim rhetoric is purely rooted in phony fear tactics,” Hensler said.
These fear tactics have worked for some people in the United States, but not for these college students. They have looked past all the hate and empty words to see real people and job opportunities.