Hype vs. Reality in Arabic Enrollment Boom

While numbers are up, instructors are in short supply, raising questions about the quality of instruction and viability of moving students to advanced levels.
November 29, 2007

Conventional wisdom holds that the United States needs all the Arabic speakers it can get. But in Seattle this semester, Hussein Elkhafaifi had to turn 150 would-be Arabic students away.

“This is a major challenge for us because there is no correlation between the increased enrollment, which is now up about 127 percent, to the number of teachers who are trained,” says Elkhafaifi, an assistant professor and director of the University of Washington’s Arabic language program. “There’s no correlation between this desperate national security need, and here we are turning away 150 students.”

A report released earlier this month by the Modern Language Association found that the number of students taking Arabic in higher education institutions rose by 126.5 percent from 2002 to 2006 -- to a total of 23,974. The number of colleges offering Arabic instruction also nearly doubled, from 264 in 2002 to 466 in 2006. The highest rate of growth in enrollments, meanwhile, has been at the community college level, where enrollments grew 135.8 percent over four years. Leaders in foreign language learning hailed the results as promising news – proof that interest in such a strategically important and yet tricky-to-learn tongue continues to grow.

But beyond the numbers lies a significant problem. “Although there’s a great deal of hoopla about spending money on the teaching of critical languages and this and that, the infrastructure that would really support the development of good, highly-trained, pedagogically-trained university instructors isn’t there,” says Catharine Keatley, associate director of the National Capital Language Resource Center, a joint project of Georgetown and George Washington Universities and the Center for Applied Linguistics.

“It gets lost in the conversation,” Keatley says, but “that is the reality on the ground, when it comes to sitting down at universities, setting budgets, setting priorities.”

Supply, Demand and Systemic Causes

So who is teaching all these extra students?

With university leaders generally reluctant to allocate tenure lines based on a sudden surge of interest in a language, many of the hires in recent years have been on the lecturer level. “Many of these instructors have been selected on the basis that they are native speakers of Arabic, not because they are professional language teachers,” says Mahmoud Al-Batal, an associate professor of Arabic at the University of Texas at Austin and associate director for teacher development at the National Middle East Language Resource Center, based at Brigham Young University. These instructors are often hired part-time, and bring with them doctoral or master’s degrees in what can sometimes be entirely different disciplines, says Al-Batal, who also heads the Center for Arabic Study Abroad. “Some of them may be qualified at the minimum level, but they need the support....Some of them are just thrust into that position without any institutional support.”

The problem does not stem only from issues of supply and demand -- although the mismatch between the two of course plays a role. “The demand has simply surged, and it hasn’t stopped growing since 9-11. We thought maybe it would plateau at some point but it really keeps growing and truly, in terms of people who are graduating from graduate schools with Ph.D.s in Arabic language and literature, well, there are still very few of those,” says Karin Ryding, a member of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages and a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University. “The pool is very shallow even for tenure-track positions."

At the same time that increasing demand is clearly a factor, many in the field say the supply shortage also stems from systemic failures in the delivery model for foreign language instruction more generally – specifically the two-tiered instructional model that leaves adjuncts teaching language, tenured and tenure-track professors teaching literature, and generally relegates second-language acquisition and its instructors to second-class status. (The MLA also called for a dramatic change in the division of labor in foreign language departments in an earlier report this year.)

“Although they’re exacerbated right now because of the increased demand, I think the problems we’re facing right now are very similar to those in other languages,” says Martha Schulte-Nafeh, an assistant professor of practice and Middle Eastern language coordinator at the University of Arizona. Schulte-Nafeh relies heavily on teaching assistants for Arabic language instruction – but many TAs don’t see their long-term goal as being to teach language. Furthermore, because of the structure of the Near Eastern Studies department where Arabic instruction at Arizona is housed, Schulte-Nafeh can’t currently require that they even take a training course in language teaching (though she’s working to change that). “There’s a real dearth in people who can delivery quality language education across the board who are truly dedicated to the endeavor of second-language acquisition,” she says.

“It’s a systemic problem where the status of language teaching in higher education is so low that it doesn’t attract very many people, the kinds of inspiring people that you’d like to have given all that’s at stake,” says Kirk Belnap, director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center and a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young. In research he recently conducted, Belnap found that while most Arabic teachers reported that they were generally satisfied with their jobs, less than half responded positively to the survey prompt, “If a student asked for advice about a career, I would encourage him/her to pursue a career as a language teacher." Satisfaction with salary, professional advancement opportunities, and influence on school practice were all accurate predictors of how likely instructors were to recommend language teaching as a career.

“It’s not just that we happen to have a serious bump in demand and we’ve exhausted the pool," says Belnap. "The problem is before 9-11, the pool was already low.”

“This is definitely not something that just snuck up on us. People have been very concerned about this since at least the mid-'90s.”

The Short and Long Term

"Definitely there are universities that are doing great jobs. These are the universities that have been teaching Arabic historically. These are the Harvards, the Georgetowns, Texas, the University of California," says Al-Batal, naming a few. But with 466 colleges -- nearly twice the number four years ago -- suddenly teaching Arabic, the concern is community colleges, liberal arts colleges and state universities that have added programs reliant on one (often part-time) instructor. “Many universities pay lip service to the fact that they have an Arabic program.”

Yet, in describing the increase in Arabic language enrollments, many professors point proudly to the seriousness of students, who in many cases are tackling the language with specific professional goals in mind. Applications for the CASA program, a study abroad program known for bringing students from advanced to superior levels of proficiency, have climbed from 42 in 2000 to 140 this past year, Al-Batal, the director says -- and the program expanded this summer to a second site at the University of Damascus (The program first started offering intensive Arabic language training to students at the American University in Cairo 40 years ago in 1967). A forthcoming report Belnap's writing based on pilot studies at Brigham Young and the National Middle East Language Resource Center will recommend the creation of a network of Arabic programs in and outside the United States that can move students up the proficiency ladder.

While there are certainly some individual programs that are succeeding in bringing students to advanced levels of Arabic, there are eight students enrolled in first- or second-year Arabic for every one in advanced level courses, according to the MLA data. While a shortage of qualified Arabic teachers is not the only factor in that disparity -- the ratio of introductory to advanced-level enrollments in all foreign languages is 5 to 1 -- the shortage no doubt presents challenges to many colleges that want to expand their upper-level offerings.

So what to do? Entities like the National Middle East Language Resource Center offer intensive training programs for teachers over the summer. Although such training can seem out of reach for adjunct instructors who are holding down a separate full-time job or lack a travel stipend, it is at least, those involved say, a start.

The short-term solution, adds Al-Batal, who has worked as a trainer, is to answer the question of how to provide professional support through the national organizations. “But in the long run, we need to have more radical solutions in preparing a new generation of teachers of Arabic to continue to provide quality instruction.”

Some solutions might rest at the graduate school level. Al-Batal describes the need for a strong emphasis on teacher training as part of graduate education, while Ryding, of Georgetown, points to a need to increase fellowship support, which has stayed fairly flat even as demand has shot up. There's a bottleneck at the graduate admissions level, she says -- a point in which dedicated Arabic speakers have to be turned away for lack of funding.

Back at the University of Washington, Elkhafaifi is training TAs – some of whom come from departments outside his own – above and beyond his own teaching load. He conducts training two weeks before each quarter starts, observes and videotapes classes, and meets with TAs at least once weekly. Given the transient nature of TAs, it’s a job that never ends.

“It’s a very demanding job. But we do it,” “Elkhafaifi says. “Otherwise things can fall apart.”


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