Seventy-four years ago, Henry Luce published “The American Century,” an essay that argued that American culture would play a starring role in creating a global environment in which the United States could thrive. Chief among his examples was American language itself; not just English, but an American-inflected argot that would be carried around the world via music, movies, comics, and popular culture. This was for Luce the sign of an internationalism that Americans themselves hadn’t yet acknowledged.
Today few would doubt that the reach and power of American culture is global, nor that the country is an international power. Colleges take a significantly different approach to teaching about the world than they did in 1941, and American studies has sought to be more global in its outlook. More foreign languages are taught than in Luce’s time, and study abroad has become a rite of passage for many students.
Yet a creeping monolingualism is overtaking higher education, despite the efforts of so many in the trenches. The signs are everywhere: Major universities are closing German departments and cutting Russian and French programs; general foreign-language requirements are easing up. Over all, college language enrollments tumbled 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the Modern Language Association. Despite the growth of study abroad, it is increasingly easy for college students to take their courses in English in such countries as Jordan, the Czech Republic, France, and Turkey. The widespread sense that English has become a global lingua franca contributes to an unfortunate sense that learning other languages doesn’t matter.
Arabic is one of the languages that suffers in this climate, both because of its difficulty and the resistance of many language programs to embrace its spoken colloquial forms. Although it has been the fastest-growing language of study since 2001, enrollments fell 7.5 percent between 2009 and 2013. Given the enormous military and political focus on the Middle East, it is urgent that Americans learn Arabic. If the United States is going to try to understand, rather than bomb, invade, and occupy part of the world that has been our government’s central obsession for almost a decade and a half, then more colleges need to teach Arabic and do so in a vibrant way. Higher education has never had a more crucial role to play in achieving peace.
Arabic is the fifth most common native language in the world, with at least 295 million native speakers. And it is spoken in 60 countries, a number second only to English. That means there are jobs out there for those fluent in Arabic, a multitude of opportunities in both the private and public sector, including prospects we have not imagined. But this is not the only reason — or even the primary one — to support the study of Arabic.
Studying Arabic is a moral good and a matter of our national interest. Training a new generation to understand and converse in Arabic may help to reverse the previous generation’s misapprehension of the Arab world, especially as hate crimes against Muslims continue and anxieties about the Arab world fuel misunderstanding.
I support the teaching and learning of all world languages, and I direct a program that requires our majors to study at least three years of any of four languages of the Middle East: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish. But I focus on the importance of Arabic here because it is the most spoken in the region — the official or co-official language of 24 nations — and U.S. college enrollments are vastly out of sync with its popularity and importance in the world.
It is also one of most difficult languages, with many national dialects as well as a formal level that is complex and grammatically rich. Part of what’s holding back Arabic study in the United States is a resistance to embracing the relationship between these various forms.
Arabic is classified as a Category IV language by the State Department (up there with Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean), the highest level of difficulty. This refers mostly to the complexity of the grammar of modern standard Arabic. So Arabic is a four-year language, in college terms, in the sense that it takes years longer to get somewhere with modern standard Arabic than it does with French or Spanish. It takes persistence and dedication for American students to make progress.
What’s more, learning the formal modern standard Arabic does little to help American college students speak the national dialects, each of them relatively distinct colloquial forms. Think of the difference between Portuguese and Italian, or Spanish and French, and you have an approximation of the difference between Moroccan and Lebanese Arabic or Egyptian and Iraqi. No one in the Arab world goes around speaking modern standard Arabic, even though that formal level is used in print, literature, scholarship, and, in modified form, on broadcast media.
One way to overcome the challenge is to give more classroom time to the dialects, which are notably easier to learn than modern standard Arabic, and to put them at the heart of college training. At colleges where Arabic is offered, dialects are generally taught as ancillary courses, or as incidental to the formal language. Few programs in the United States do more than offer an occasional class, or more than a single dialect (usually Egyptian, sometimes Levantine).
This should change, and there are signs that it can.
The flagship Arabic program at the University of Texas at Austin recently rethought the separation of formal and colloquial Arabic, and now mingles the two more integrally. And the new third edition of Georgetown University Press’s widely used textbook Al-Kitaab puts a variety of dialects at the center.
When American educators embrace fully the understanding that Arabic is a living language and one we need to learn to converse in, we may start to move beyond the American-century logic of one-way conversation embedded in Henry Luce’s essay. After the American century, the next generation of college students — and the citizens they will become — can help us listen to and engage a major portion of the world crucial to the future.
Brian T. Edwards is an associate professor of English and comparative literary studies and founding director of the program in Middle East and North African studies at Northwestern University. His newest book, After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in the fall.