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The Politics of Language Learning

News & Features | February 21, 2017

Between the years 1995 and 2013, the number of students at Tufts learning the Arabic language increased eightfold. In 1995, 25 students at Tufts were enrolled in Arabic language courses. In 2002, there were 50 and by 2013, there were 199 students. This reflects a nationwide trend charted by the Modern Language Association’s language enrollment database. In 1995, 4,444 students in the United States were studying Arabic, which more than doubled to 10,584 in 2002. By 2013, there were 32,286 students of Arabic nationwide.

The first Arabic class at Tufts was taught in the spring of 1986 through the Experimental College. Until 2001, the Arabic program had remained small, with only one professor teaching. There was no department. Rather, the program was housed through Modern Languages, a precursor to the current language departments. Classes were small, consisting of two to four students each, and a significant portion of the program was conducted through independent study.

“The Ex-College has always been an incubator,” said Ex-College Director Howard Woolf. “We have always tried to be responsive to student interest.” Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Swahili, Portuguese, and Arabic all started as Ex-College courses, and later migrated into their respective language departments as interest increased and the University began to stress the necessity of language study in an increasingly globalized world.

After 9/11, interest in Arabic surged at Tufts, as did funding for Arabic language opportunities. The University quickly hired its first assistant professor of Arabic in 2002. Professor Amira El-Zein then expanded the program, and the Arabic major was established in 2009 after the current Director of the Arabic Program, Kamran Rastegar, was hired.

“9/11 was unquestionably the major catalyst to the expansion of the [Tufts] Arabic Program,” Arabic language Professor Rana Abdul-Aziz recalled. “And a similar dynamic played out around the country.”

Abdul-Aziz believes that Arabic has remained in the spotlight since 9/11 because of the continued post-Arab Spring regional turmoil and the fight against ISIS. In her opinion, “Arabic is no longer just relevant because of the political and economic significance of the Middle East, but is also relevant here in the US.”

According to a Pew Research Center study, Arabic is the fastest growing language spoken at home in the US, with the number of people ages five and older who speak Arabic at home growing by 29 percent between 2010 and 2014 to 1.1 million. This is largely due to the increased number of Arab immigrants in the US, as well as its growing Muslim population.

Abdul-Aziz has seen the reasons that students have chosen to study Arabic at Tufts change as the program grew. “Initially, student motivation was very pragmatic—we had a lot of students who were interested in working in the US government in fields such as translation, security, and media analysis,” she remarked. However, these reasons have broadened over the years, as students have come to use Arabic in a wide range of fields, including education, law, the NGO and non-profit sector, refugee resettlement, and public health. The majority of students enrolled in the program at Tufts are International Relations majors fulfilling their language requirement.

For sophomore Eva Kahan, her curiosity about Arabic started with her interest in Hebrew and the history of Semitic languages. However, her reasons for studying Arabic have changed throughout her enrollment in the Tufts program.

“Through my study, I started getting more interested in international relations, international security, and conflict resolution,” she said. Kahan realized that her continued study of Arabic and ability to speak the language would allow her to learn more about her developing interests in a deeper and more nuanced way.

Senior Neha Bhatia was initially drawn to Arabic because she knew little about the region and culture. “I found that the Middle East is a region that we as Americans are tied to in very violent and complicated ways throughout history, and this violence has tried to undermine the beauty of the Arabic-speaking world that is lost on a lot of the Western world. Being in Jordan only reinforced my love of speaking Arabic and growing to understand the intricacies of Jordanian dialect which are so reflective of such a vibrant and beautiful culture,” she said.

While the Arabic program has expanded significantly, other language programs, such as Japanese, have seen stable enrollment. Charles Inouye, Director of the International Literary and Visual Studies program, believes that this is because, generally, Japanese is not a language that most people study for purely political reasons. In his opinion, “Japanese is not tied to economics or politics, but rather, tied to culture,” he said.

For senior Chelsea Hayashi, her reasons for studying Japanese are personal. “I spoke [Japanese] fluently as a child and went to Japanese school every Saturday, but as I grew up I started distancing from it, and started to lose it. By the time I reached high school, I realized how badly I wanted to relearn and reclaim Japanese,” she said.

In an interview with the Observer, Gabriella Safran, the Director of the Slavic Department at Stanford University, said there are three or four main motivations for studying Russian that she has seen. These motivations are foreign relations, high culture, linguistic interests, and for heritage speakers. Oftentimes, it can be a combination of factors.

In the United States, interest in the study of non-European languages such as Russian and Arabic can be traced back to political themes in United States foreign policy. US security concerns have often resulted in government funding for language learning in order to bolster cultural and regional understanding. Government funded programs such as Boren and the Critical Language Scholarship reward students for studying languages that the US deems critical for its foreign policy.

According to Professor Safran, enrollment in Russian studies at Stanford has risen in the last year. She has mixed feelings on the reasons for this uptick of interest, admitting that “we’re feeling strange that [Putin] is good for our enrollments.”

Professor Abdul-Aziz expressed concern about the decreased interest in the study of humanities subjects overall within higher education. “This will impact foreign language learning and we have already begun seeing the impact on language study here at Tufts,” she said.

Professor Safran expressed a similar sentiment. “Until 2008, we felt like everything in the humanities was suffering except for languages and that foreign languages were immune because they were useful…With 2008, we started to see a downturn, even with the foreign languages,” she said.

Indeed, statistics from the Modern Language Association show that language enrollment in the United States dropped 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2013. According to classics Professor Susan Setnik, this is often tied to monetary circumstances. “Unfortunately, funding for the humanities (including languages) has been declining since the recession in the 1990s. When funding is reduced, schools are forced to make choices,” she said.

Abdul-Aziz agreed.  “With federal funding opportunities such as Fulbright and Critical Language Scholarships already pared over the last year, if this trend continues or accelerates under the Trump administration, this could negatively impact how many students choose to tackle a challenging language like Arabic,” Abdul-Aziz explained.

Inouye also worries about the potential effects of Donald Trump’s presidency on languages and international diplomacy. “Trump has stirred up a lot of discussion about the world and Americans’ relationships with other places,” he said.

Inouye sees the US as a nation torn between the poles of an isolationist tendency on one hand, compared with a strong desire to maintain and improve its foreign relations on the other. He expects that the harder the Trump administration pushes towards isolationism, the more there will be a pushback from those citizens committed to fostering a diverse, global community.

“With Trump, it’s hard to tell what the overall effect will be,” he noted. “Will it be less interest in the world, or the contrary? Will [his presidency] make us more aware of the world and the need to understand it?”

Regardless of the effects of the presidency and current political climate, students at Tufts remain committed to the value of language learning and the subsequent cultural understanding with which it provides them. For this reason, Inouye noted, language learning opportunities remain important to many as a defining feature of the Tufts liberal arts education.

“You come to Tufts because Tufts is the place in the US where international education is a priority. Students realize the value of language learning,” he said.