Arabic -- Advances and Constraints

At gathering on international education, experts see progress in teaching a crucial language, but worry about impact of keeping instructors at low pay and off tenure track.
March 20, 2009

WASHINGTON -- More students are pursuing intermediate- or advanced-level study in Arabic. But not all Arabic programs are created equal, and significant disparities exist in indicators of student learning across universities, according to data from a new study on Middle Eastern language learning presented Thursday. Long-term, presenters stressed that prevailing teaching conditions -- with large swaths of the instructor corps untenured or part-time -- represent a serious obstacle to the achievement of the nation's strategic language goals.

“Our educational system is shooting the nation in its foot,” said R. Kirk Belnap, director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center (NMELRC) and a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University. Belnap spoke during a conference organized by Michigan State University to commemorate 50 years of Title VI, the section of federal higher education law that supports international education programs.

Belnap and his co-presenters drew data on Middle Eastern language learning from a variety of sources, including the NMELRC’s own survey of 1,500 students, 191 instructors and 89 language program administrators; application data for premiere scholarship or fellowship opportunities in the field; and the Modern Language Association’s most recent survey of language enrollments, which reported a 126.5 percent increase in Arabic enrollments from 2002 to 2006 (and big increases in Persian, too). “All right, so there’s all this interest in these languages -- but what does it really mean in terms of moving people forward? Is it a flash in the pan kind of thing?” Belnap asked. In other words, after taking a beginning course or two, do students stick around?

In general, enrollments beyond introductory-level language courses drop off pretty quickly, as the MLA data have shown. But Belnap cited data demonstrating some progress in this domain. For one, the NMELRC survey found growth in third-year enrollments in Middle Eastern languages. And an analysis of a second indicator, applications for State Department-sponsored Critical Language Scholarships, shows that advanced-level applications for Arabic study increased 66 percent from 2008 to 2009, from 234 to 388, Belnap said, while advanced-level applications for Persian study increased 71 percent, from the much smaller base of 17 to 29.

Applications to the prestigious Center for Arabic Study Abroad, administered by the University of Texas at Austin with sites in Egypt and Syria, are at a high of 162 this year. But fewer fellowships will likely be available this year than in years past -- meaning many well-qualified students will be turned away, Belnap said.

At the same time, the researchers found significant disparities in indicators of student learning across private research universities that house government-funded National Resource Centers – in other words, universities with reputations for established language programs – and public, non-research universities without NRCs (the newcomers, so to speak). The mean amount of homework per week at the former was, at 8.8 hours, about double that of the latter, 4.6, and the percentage of class time spent using the language at universities with NRCs was 59.9 percent versus 39.8 percent among the newcomers.

Presenters also focused on the challenge of attracting good language faculty in the future if job conditions don’t change. In the sample of 191 instructors, “The majority of those who teach are in a category that is non-tenured, here today, gone tomorrow,” said Erika Gilson, a senior lecturer in Turkish at Princeton University. About a third of Middle Eastern language faculty teach part-time.

Most are very satisfied with language learning as a profession – “There’s a commitment to teaching, they love teaching” – but express widespread dissatisfaction with salary. Just over half, 51 percent, work elsewhere to supplement their income, either in summer schools or other institutions. “Only 47 percent would recommend language teaching to their students,” said Gilson.

The vexing issue of training language faculty -- and K-12 teachers -- was the focus of an afternoon panel Thursday. At the postsecondary level, “We continue to hire teachers whose area of expertise is not foreign language education and do that because we don’t have other qualified individuals to teach,” said Dianna Murphy, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Unfortunately it does seem to continue to be the case that the more challenging the situation in terms of needing to develop a curriculum from the ground up, needing to develop your own instructional materials ... those very teachers [in those challenging situations] are the ones who receive the least amount of support.”

Murphy and Antonia Schleicher presented on the National Online Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL) Teacher Training Initiative, a series of online courses. The courses developed so far are Fundamentals of Language Teaching Methods, Teaching African Languages, and Introduction to the U.S. Educational System. “Our target audience,” said Murphy, “is new LCTL instructors who’ve had very little experience to date as students themselves or as instructors in the U.S. educational system.”

Moving further down the pipeline, Johanna Watzinger-Tharp, of the University of Utah, presented on the Master of Arts in World Languages program, which aims to produce students with teaching certification in two languages. Utah’s legislature funded a pilot program that provided monetary incentives for schools to teach, and students to take, critical languages, but more qualified teachers are needed, Watzinger-Tharp said.

One challenge has been finding supervising teachers for the program's students. “Which is sort of this vicious cycle, right -- we have few qualified teachers in the schools so we’re sending student teachers where?”


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