Arabic as "A Critical-Need" Foreign Language in Post-9/11 Era: A Study of Students' Attitudes and Motivation

Article excerpt

Taking into consideration President Bush's recent initiative that encourages Americans/students to learn "critical-need languages," this study explores the attitudes, perceptions, and motivation of American and international students regarding the teaching/learning of Arabic, one of the languages identified in the President's plan. The primarily quantitative study relies on the responses of 142 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in an HBCU. Results of the study indicate that, although most of the respondents agree that learning Arabic is important for utilitarian purposes, they seem divided on its specific usefulness in their future careers. The two groups, however, differ in their general perceptions of the Arabic language/culture.

Background:

In January 2006, President Bush introduced the "National Security Language Initiative" aimed at increasing the number of Americans/students learning foreign languages, particularly what the initiative refers to as "critical-need" languages such as Arabic, Russian, Farsi, Hindi, and Chinese (1). The initiative, albeit a bit overdue, is an important one since it comes at a critical time when the entire world is faced with new challenges in developing/consolidating global understanding, intercultural communication, peace and economic prosperity. However, it came later than expected because over twenty-five years ago, the President's Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies (Strength through wisdom): A Critique of U.S. Capability, (2) which focused on the deterioration in foreign language skills in the United States, highlighted the necessity of consolidating the teaching/learning of foreign languages across all levels (1980, pp.9-57). The Commission indicated that, "our vital interests are impaired by the fatuous notion that our competence in other languages is irrelevant" (p. 12). At the time, a national survey regarding familiarity with foreign languages showed that "the total number of Americans familiar with Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, or Russian [three of which are included in President Bush's initiative] is less than 1.5 percent" (Eddy, 1980, p. 58). In the early 1990s, the number of college-level students enrolled in foreign languages study was still not very impressive. According to Mantle-Bromley (1995), "in 1991, a mere 8% of the nation's college students were enrolled in a FL [foreign language] class" (p.372). However, as Graham (2004) has recently indicated although the United States has "experienced some success in increasing the number of students learning a foreign language at the secondary school level, overall up-take is pyramidal in shape (...) in relation to foreign language enrollments in schools and universities" (p. 171).

Why the "critical- need" languages are critical:

Although all language varieties are vital to their native speakers and to those who interact with them in one way or the other, the "critical-need" languages identified in the President's initiative are of particular importance for a variety of reasons. First, the United States, the most developed country, should not wait for major tragic events, such as 9/11, to take place in its border in order to realize the extent of deficiencies in foreign language skill s (i.e. well-trained translators/interpreters in different languages). Indeed, the shortage in qualified and competent bilinguals in a variety of languages, particularly Arabic, became clear immediately after 9/11/2001. The number of advertisements for translators and interpreters by different US agencies and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially in national security services, sky rocketed. Second, as Grosse and Voght (1990) have rightly observed, "global economic events such as increased competition from Japan and the development of a unified European market by 1992, have connected America's trade position to the interests of national security" (p. 45). Third, in terms of status in the international arena, three of the five languages identified in the initiative (Arabic, Chinese, and Russian) are among the six official/working languages of the United Nations; and, in regard to number of native speakers, four of the five languages (Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, and Russian) are among the top five languages of the world (Comoire, Matthews, & Polinsky, 1997). …