February 28, 2006

Students hone in on “security languages”

Though typically known for their purely intellectual pursuits, students at the University seem to be responding to the current geopolitical climate in their choice of courses. Interest in Arabic, Chinese, and Hindi—titled “security languages” by the Bush Administration—has increased significantly in recent years.

According to administrators from the East Asian Languages and Civilizations department, enrollment in Chinese language courses at the U of C has risen over 75 percent since 2001. The number of registered students in the Arabic program has more than tripled during that time, according to administrators from the Near East Languages and Civilizations department. Enrollment in Hindi courses has grown in recent years, and administrators also note retention past the beginning levels.

Last month, President George Bush announced his National Security Language Initiative, an effort to promote the study of certain “critical need languages” including Arabic, Chinese, and Hindi, among others. If approved, about $114 million in funding will go toward expanding the study of these strategic languages across all levels of education.

While the initiative could take effect as soon as 2007, language department administrators said they do not anticipate any significant changes as a result of government prodding.

Faculty members in the Chinese and Arabic programs say they need little help inciting student interest. According to Noha Forster, a lecturer of Arabic in the College, the initiative will have no effect on recruiting efforts for the language program.

“It doesn’t need to recruit because the demand is so great,” she said.

Donald Harper, director of the Center for East Asian Studies, confronts a similar situation. Continual increases in student enrollment in the Chinese program prompted the hiring of an additional lecturer for next fall.

Still, a growing number of students entering these programs has expressed interest based on the same national security concerns outlined in the government initiative.

According to Adam Radwan, a first-year in the College, the political motivations of many students are dominating the classroom.

“On the very first day of my Arabic 101 class, over half of my class said the reason they took Arabic was because of the current political climate,” he said.

Forster cited greater incentives to learning security languages than just a grade.

“The odd student will tell me something honestly political such as ‘I am studying Arabic because I want to work with the CIA,’ and in one case, ‘with the Israeli intelligence,’” Forster said.

The President’s initiative forecasts certain areas to remain at the political forefront in years to come and emphasizes the critical demand for language skills.

For some, this type of political attitude is misplaced. “I find it extraordinarily unlikely that the government initiative has any concern for cultural understanding,” said Adam Kucharski, a third-year in the College who is taking Arabic.

The language departments also note that similar programs have existed since the late 1950s, encouraging all types of study, not simply training future government officials.