A call for critical languages

Khuloud Labanieh teaches one of three sections of beginning Arabic at Marquette.
Khuloud Labanieh teaches one of three sections of beginning Arabic at Marquette.

For many Marquette students, branching out in a language means deciding to switch to French or German after four years of high school Spanish.

But over the past two years, dozens of Marquette students have decided to take a radical shift in their language education, taking advantage of Mandarin Chinese and Arabic classes that have recently entered the curriculum.

Marquette began offering Arabic language classes for the first time this year and restarted its Chinese language program last fall.

Chinese and Arabic are often referred to as “critical languages” because of how valuable they are when working internationally.

Arabic is the dominant language in the Middle East and North Africa, with an estimated 221 million speakers worldwide, according language database Ethnologue. The Ethnologue is created by SIL International, a faith-based service organization that studies world languages. Since the Middle East and North Africa are full of complex politics, Arabic is particularly useful for students of international politics.

Chinese has more than 1 billion speakers worldwide, according to the Ethnologue. Additionally, the Chinese economy has the third-highest gross domestic product in the world, according to the World Bank, so knowing Chinese is especially advantageous for business majors.

And both languages are desirable for individuals in the military, since the United States has strategic interests in both China and the Middle East.

As such, many students take these classes to gain an edge in their respective fields.

Jessica Sund, a sophomore in the College of Business Administration, decided to start Chinese partly because it was something new and partly because she thought it would help her as an international business major.

“I thought it’d be a good move,” Sund said.

Michael Dunn, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences taking Arabic, has yet to decide on a major but said Arabic is useful for a multitude of fields.

“I believe that Arabic is somehow going to be beneficial and applicable to any career path that anyone could choose,” he said.

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Interest on the rise

The number of students interested in taking Chinese and Arabic classes at Marquette has repeatedly exceeded expectations.

Originally, the university had a Chinese language program in the 1990s, but it was discontinued when the grant money funding it ran out, said John Pustejovsky, chair of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Marquette.

The program was restarted last year when the department had a budget surplus, he said.

When the Chinese program restarted last fall, administrators had initially only planned for one beginning Chinese section but had to add another section because of demand, said Jing Zhai, Marquette’s Chinese professor.

A similar situation arose this fall, as the university had only planned on offering one section of Elementary Chinese 1 but was forced to add a second section, she said.

Zhai has 40 beginning Chinese students this year, compared to 30 last year.

Administrators were also surprised by the demand for the introduction to Arabic classes, Pustejovsky said.

Initially, only one section was offered, but so many students signed up that a second section would not suffice. The university had to hire a second Arabic instructor over the summer so three sections could be offered, Pustejovsky said.

About 50 students are currently enrolled in Arabic classes, he said.

The student interest surprised Khuloud Labanieh, an Arabic professor at Marquette.

When the course first opened, administrators were “wondering if we would have enough students to even start one class,” Labanieh said.

Once it became clear there was a need for more than one section, Labanieh said she was worried about adding another to her schedule because she still teaches a class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“But I didn’t want to say no since we have students who want to learn,” she said.

The second section was full within about two weeks, she said.

Student interest was greater than both professors anticipated, but the demand makes sense, Pustejovsky said.

“Arabic is the language of contemporary politics — it’s that simple,” he said.

A disciplined study

Because of the challenging nature of the languages and the fact that many take Chinese and Arabic to increase career options, students and professors both notice people in these classes tend to take them seriously.

“Because of their special interest in learning the language, (many students) do study hard,” said Enaya Othman, the Marquette’s other Arabic professor. “They do their homework. They come and ask me questions in my office hours.”

Because Arabic uses sounds not found in the English language and has it’s own alphabet, it is difficult for English speakers to learn, she said.

Chinese also features different tones than English and has a complex writing system, Zhai said. But most of her students are undeterred.

“For Chinese 1, I feel most of them genuinely want to learn,” Zhai said.

Sund also felt like the majority of her class was committed to learning Chinese.

“I’m sure there’s a few (students) that maybe are testing the waters … but most of them have plans on continuing in Chinese,” Sund said of her class.

ROTC incentives

Both languages are particularly appealing to students in ROTC programs.

The incentive program pays Army ROTC cadets a set rate for every month they are enrolled in a critical language class, said Rob Kaderavek, commanding officer for Marquette’s Army ROTC program.

The rates start at $100 a month for a first-year course, and go up to $250 a month for a fourth-year course.

“The army understands that language and culture are important as we’re more present around the world,” Kaderavek said, “and because of that we’re trying to incentivize people to go after those skill sets.”

Cadets Michael Gillcrist and Peter Vakos were both drawn to critical language classes at Marquette in part because of the monetary incentive.

Gillcrist, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, said he will earn $400 for the semester if he passes with a grade of C or better.

“I was leaning toward it already and (the incentive) was kind of the deciding factor,” he said.

Vakos, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, came to Marquette uncertain whether he would take Arabic or Greek but decided on Arabic in part because of the monetary incentive.

The Navy branch of Marquette’s ROTC programs has also been involved in encouraging the study of critical languages at Marquette.

Though they don’t have an incentive program like the Army, commanding officer William Radomski did try to secure Department of Defense funding for Marquette’s Chinese and Arabic programs two years ago.

Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the education of cadets in non-Western languages and cultures a priority and designated funding for programs that would encourage this education, Radomski said.

Marquette was not successful is securing the money because its Chinese program was still very new and the Arabic program was nonexistent, he said. But he would consider trying again.

“We’ll see what the new program looks like this year,” Radomski said. “If the program looks like there’s feasibility to it, I think we’ll give it another shot.”

Broadening programs

Though Marquette’s Chinese and Arabic program are very new, neighboring institutions have been teaching these languages for years.

Arabic and Chinese language classes have been offered at Loyola University Chicago since 1999 and 1998, respectively, according to Wiley Feinstein, chairman of Loyola’s Modern Languages and Literatures Department.

Both programs have seen significant increases in enrollment over the past three years, he said.

There were 112 students in Arabic 101 and 102 classes during the 2007-’08 school year, compared to 57 students in those two classes in the 2006-’07 school year, he said.

Enrollment could be even greater if more sections of the language were opened up, Feinstein said.

Similarly, Chinese 101 enrollment in 2007 increased to 44 from 27 in 2006, he said.

This semester Loyola has 60 students in Chinese 101.

But, like Marquette, Loyola does not offer minors in either Arabic or Chinese, though the demand exists, Feinstein said.

“The department and the dean of Arts and Sciences would certainly want to expand it,” he said, “but we have to work it out within the institutional priorities and decision making process in which you have lots of things you want to expand and work in.”

There are no concrete plans to add a minor in Arabic or Chinese, but Feinstein said he hoped something concrete could be in place by fall 2011.

Closer to campus, UW-Milwaukee offers a minor in Chinese but not a major, said Yea-Fen Chen, a professor of Chinese.

UWM currently offers an eight-semester Chinese program, she said, and the number of students interested in the language has steadily increased.

The university is currently discussing the possibility of adding a major, Chen said.

“I think we will definitely do it,” she said.

The university has had a Chinese language program for more than twenty years, she said.

Adding a minor, ‘inshallah’

Zhai said many of her students have expressed an interest in a Chinese minor and hopes the university could change that in the future.

She previously worked for Beloit College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both of which offer Chinese majors and minors.

If it were available, Sund said she would definitely like to minor in Chinese.

Othman also said some of her students have asked her about the possibility of an Arabic minor.

“Some of them they do indicate that they like the language and would like to have a minor, especially because they know Arabic language is very important right now,” she said. “They think that it will open more doors for them for jobs after graduation.”

Labanieh said some of her students had inquired about taking summer classes at UWM or the possibility of studying Arabic abroad.

But the university does not currently have plans to offer either language beyond the fourth semester level, Pustejovsky said.

To expand, the programs need sufficient student demand, enough resources and a set of faculty to teach the classes, he said.

Language minors require seven courses beyond the second intermediate level, meaning the university would need to expand their offerings to 11 different Arabic or Chinese language classes to enable students to minor in Chinese or Arabic.

This is difficult for the university, because permanent faculty with Ph.D.s would have to be hired, he said.

“If you hire faculty on a tenure track, it means that the institution is making a long-term commitment,” he said.

Marquette can’t make that commitment right now, Pustejovsky said.

Still, the professors are hopeful that eventually minors could become a reality.

“At UWM, we are working right now to have Arabic as a minor,” Labanieh said. “Hopefully, inshallah (God willing), Marquette will have it here.”