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Learning Arabic is a long-term investment

Jerry Lampe is encouraged by the newly heightened interest in Arabic languages. But he knows that expanding the offerings at universities won't be an easy task.

Mr. Lampe, a senior associate at the National Foreign Language Center in Washington, says that for years, "we have been crying in the wilderness about the need for more Arabic speakers." The FBI and other agencies, he notes, recently put out a call for Arabic speakers who can sift through the growing mounds of evidence and electronic intercepts.

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A 1998 survey showed that among students in the United States, only about 5,500 were studying Arabic languages. That represented a 20 percent increase since 1995. Yet about 100,000 students study Russian each year, he says.

Several factors have limited the field's growth, Lampe says. Arabic is notoriously difficult, and, like Chinese and Japanese, it can require considerably more effort and time to master than a European language. Eight of its sounds don't exist in Western language. Stresses follow a different pattern. Many words in English do not have an Arabic counterpart.

For these reasons, it's important to have immersion in an Arabic-speaking environment, Lampe says. But many would-be students are intimidated by the lack of security in some areas where they might study abroad. In addition, women often fear being treated badly if they go to the Middle East to study.

Mohammed Jiyad, a professor of Arabic, has about 75 students in classes spread across five campuses in western Massachusetts. He worries that the Sept. 11 attacks could cut the number taking Arabic - just as fewer took up Chinese after the Tiananmen Square attack. "I would love to have more students," he says. "Arabic is a wonderful window to the Middle East. I'm just not sure what will happen."