Arabic Language Teaching in the United States

In 2000, languages of the Middle East made up only 2% of all foreign language classes offered in the United States: 1.3% Hebrew and .5% Arabic (Cumming, 2001). Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the FBI’s urgent call for Arabic, Pashto, and Farsi translators, interest in the teaching and learning of these languages has increased dramatically. This article looks at the state of Arabic language teaching in the United States today and describes some of the challenges specific to Arabic teaching and learning faced by teachers and students.

State of Arabic Language Teaching in the United States Today

One of the best ways to gauge the growing interest in Middle Eastern languages is to look at recent federal funding increases. Education appropriations for fiscal year 2002 included a 26% increase for Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays International Studies Program. This added $20.5 million in new funding to the nation’s Middle East studies centers (Kramer, 2002). In August 2002, the U.S. Department of Education announced the creation of the National Middle East Language Resource Center at Brigham Young University, the first Title VI Language Resource Center to focus solely on the languages of the Middle East. The center focuses specifically on Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, and Turkish (National Middle East Language Resource Center, n.d.). This new funding reflects the federal government’s growing awareness of the need to enhance our understanding of Middle Eastern affairs and languages.

There has also been an increase in enrollment in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at universities across the nation. The department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures has become one of the fastest growing departments at Columbia University in New York. Enrollment in courses such as Contemporary Islamic Civilization and America and the Muslim World have increased dramatically in recent years (Beam, 2003). At Brown University, in Providence, RI, a number of classes focusing on Middle Eastern languages and cultures had to be cancelled—not because students were not interested, but rather because Brown was unable to find enough teachers to meet the demand for such classes (Attending to Arabic, 2003). In Fall 2002, the department of Arabic Language, Literature, and Linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., increased its beginning Arabic language offerings from two classes to five (Dillon, 2003).

The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, the institution that provides language training to the U.S. armed forces and agents of the CIA, FBI, and NSA, reported a “substantial jump in enrollment [in Arabic] as the Department of Defense sent out requests for more Arabic linguists” (Howe, 2002). The U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School has seen a rise in the demand for Arabic classes and is now offering five Arabic programs, a significant increase from the one program that was offered before 9/11 (Powers, 2002).

Arabic Language Education in Grades K–12

While the teaching of Arabic in elementary and secondary schools is not nearly as common as the teaching of Western European languages such as Spanish, French, and German, there has been an increase, particularly in private schools. A recent survey conducted by the National Capital Language Resource Center found that there are more Arabic programs in private schools than in public or charter schools. Of the 37 Arabic programs located throughout the 12 states surveyed, 22 were at private schools; of those, 21 were Muslim private schools. The average number of Arabic language teachers in the private schools was 5.5, while the average for public or charter schools was 1.83. The private schools averaged less time of Arabic instruction per week (3.9 hours compared to 5.28 hours at the public schools) but the private school students receive Arabic instruction for more consecutive years (8.9 compared to 4.5 for the public schools). Most of the schools surveyed teach Modern Standard Arabic (Johnson & Greenstreet, 2003).

Challenges in Arabic Language Programs


Qur’anic Arabic is only one manifestation of the language. You can be preacher, poet, raconteur, and fishwife in a single sentence. You can, with the Arabic of official reports, say next to nothing in a great many words and with enormous elegance. You can compose a work of literature on the two lateral extremities of the wrist-bone. … They taught us all this, but they didn’t teach us how to speak it. After two years of Arabic, I couldn’t even have asked the way to the lavatory (Macintosh-Smith, 2001).

By far the most common challenge encountered by teachers and learners of Arabic is diglossia. Diglossia refers to a language situation in which two varieties of the same language exist side by side (Asher, 1994). In the case of Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic is the variety learned largely through formal education and used primarily for written and formal spoken situations. Colloquial varieties of Arabic are used for informal conversation.

As Mary Catherine Bateson described, “The Classical language, which was the vehicle of Islam and of the literature and is the primary written form today, is relatively uniform throughout the Arab world and across the Islamic centuries but has never been the ordinary spoken language of the Arabs. Colloquial Arabic is the language of normal conversation, but it varies in ways which reflect all the geographical, social, and religious heterogeneity of the population” (Bateson, 2003, p. xiii). Classical Arabic is used for religious purposes and is formally taught in schools but it has not been a spoken variety since 750 A.D. Modern Standard Arabic, a simplified derivative of Classical Arabic, has become the lingua franca of writing, broadcasting, and formal speaking (Asher, 1994). This situation presents problems for both learners and teachers of Arabic. To be fully functional in the language, students must learn two types of Arabic—Classical or Modern Standard Arabic to read and write and speak formally, and one of the many colloquial forms of the language for informal speaking situations (National Foreign Language Center, n.d.).

Part of the difficulty with diglossia stems from attitudes toward the different dialects of Arabic.

“To many Arabs, Modern Standard Arabic … is the only form of the language which has any worth. The dialects, although they are the universal means of everyday conversation, are regarded by many as degraded forms of the language. This feeling is often reflected in attitudes to foreigners’ attempts to learn Arabic: many Arabs, especially if they are educated, feel that only the Standard form of the language should be taught, regardless of the fact that Arabs themselves would never use this kind of Arabic for some of the purposes (e.g. chatting, shopping) for which they insist foreigners should use it” (Holes, Auty, & Harris, 1995, p. 60-61).

Differences between Arabic and other languages

Another difficulty that teachers and learners of Arabic face is the dissimilarity between Arabic and most Western European languages, such as English, French, German, and Spanish. Arabic is a Semitic language and very different in structure from the Indo-European languages that English speakers commonly study. Arabic has some phonemes that European languages do not along with a very complex morphological system. Sentence structure is often Verb-Subject-Object instead of Subject-Verb-Object as in English. Also, there are few cognates between Arabic and English or other Western European languages (Ryding & Johnson, 2003).

Anne Shroeder, a nonnative student of Arabic, said, “Phonetically it is difficult to learn to produce the sounds correctly. My first year of colloquial I went out of class with a sore throat. Other physical difficulties involve learning to read from right to left, which resulted for me in a need to upgrade my eyeglasses prescription” (personal communication, June 3, 2003). Arabic’s non-Roman script may present more of a perceived than an actual difficulty to students. According to Karin Ryding, Professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, Arabic orthography is more systematic than that of English, and there is a better correspondence between spelling and pronunciation in Arabic. Also, mastering of the script is usually a significant motivating factor for students and provides a sense of achievement that heightens the student’s interest (Ryding & Johnson, 2003).

The mental challenge of learning Arabic may be much more fundamental. “The single most difficult aspect of learning Arabic is the mindset,” noted Anne Shroeder. “The mode of expressing oneself is so very different, I find, that it requires a restructuring of one’s brain to be able to adequately communicate. Every language involves a cultural and mental adjustment to some extent, but the adjustment for Arabic is so much greater than for European languages that even with immersion it takes enormous energy to work with” (personal communication, June 3, 2003).

Dearth of appropriate materials

While there are numerous postsecondary textbooks available, materials specifically for K–12 teaching are practically non-existent. Nidal Abuasi, Principal of the Al Noor School in Brooklyn, New York, finds it difficult to locate age-appropriate literature to use in Arabic teaching. “We don’t have many textbooks in Arabic that are suitable and that appeal to children—textbooks, storybooks, storytelling books, or fairytales. We don’t have many resources available to anybody who wants to approach the Arabic language seriously” (Scalera, 2002). Badiaa Wardany, principal of the Al-Arqam Islamic school in Sacramento, California, notes that it is very difficult to find culturally appropriate teaching materials and that many teachers resort to creating their own curricula and materials to suit the particular needs of American students of Arabic. “Everyone is suffering from the lack of standardized materials for teaching Arabic to American children. The texts from Arab countries are not suitable for the American environment. We are trying to develop our own texts” (Johnson & Greenstreet, 2003).


Since September, 11, 2001, Arabic language teaching and learning has become the focus of much more attention from the educational community. This has also brought to the forefront the myriad problems associated with Arabic language instruction. Some of the difficulties Arabic educators must face include inadequate and inappropriate materials as well as difficulties inherent in the Arabic language itself. With the establishment of the National Middle East Language Resource Center last year, the expertise from many different Middle Eastern language professionals in the United States has been brought together to build the resources and capacity of the Arabic language teaching community.


National Middle East Language Resource Center

The American Association of Teachers of Arabic

Resource Guide Online: Less Commonly Taught Languages


Asher, R. E. (Ed.). (1994). The encyclopedia of language and linguistics. New York: Pergamon Press.

Attending to Arabic. (2003, January 27). The Brown Daily Herald.

Bateson, M. C. (2003). Arabic language handbook. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Beam, C. (2003, March 5). Middle East studies sees rise in student interest. Columbia Daily Spectator.

Cumming, W. K. (2001). Current challenges to international education. (ERIC Digest). Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. Retrieved May 28, 2003, from

Dillon, S. (2003, March 19). Suddenly, a seller’s market for Arabic studies. New York Times.

Holes, C., Auty, N., & Harris, R. (1995). Just listen ‘n learn Arabic. Lincolnwood: Passport Books.

Howe, K. (2002, September 10). Learning to combat global terror. Monterey County Herald.

Johnson, D., & Greenstreet, S. (2003). Arabic language K–12: A survey. Unpublished manuscript.

Kramer, M. (2002, Summer). Arabic panic. The Middle East Quarterly.

Macintosh-Smith, T. (2001, September). Learning Arabic. The Middle East Quarterly.

National Foreign Language Center. (n.d.). About Arabic. Retrieved May 29, 2003, from

National Middle East Language Resource Center. (n.d.). About NMELRC. Retrieved May 29, 2003, from

Powers, E. (2002, August). Lessons from tragedy. Washingtonian.

Ryding, K., & Johnson, D. (2003). Key issues in the teaching of Arabic as a foreign language: A two part presentation. Retrieved June 3, 2003 from

Scalera, D. (Producer). (2002). I speak Arabic. [Documentary videotape]. (Available from Diana Scalera, 285 Avenue C, 1E, New York, New York, 10009)

Journal Review

In each issue of ERIC/CLL Language Link, we feature one or more of the journals that have been abstracted and indexed for Current Index to Journals in Education (CIJE), the ERIC database’s index to education-related journals. In this issue, we profile Applied Linguistics .

Applied Linguistics

The aim of Applied Linguistics is to “promote a principled approach to language education and other language-related concerns by encouraging inquiry into the relationship between theoretical and practical studies.” The journal focuses on first and second language learning and teaching, multilingualism and multilingual education, language in education, critical linguistics, discourse analysis, translation, language testing, language teaching methodology, language planning, the study of interlanguages, stylistics, and lexicography.

Note: Articles listed under “Middle East studies in the News” provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch’s critique.

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