The demand for Arabic speakers in the United States has continued to soar in the past decade, while knowledge of Arabic language and culture presents unparalleled opportunities to make a difference in the world.
As high school graduates across the US begin to piece together their freshman-year college schedules, very few will pencil in Arabic 101. Meanwhile, the need for Arabic-speaking professionals only continues to grow.
I’m not seeking to dissuade you from pursuing your top major of choice, but rather to convince you to add Arabic training to your course of study. For those interested in fields as diverse as international affairs to business, or from public health to science and engineering, learning Arabic will enable you to improve your career, your community, and your world. The time to get started is now.
If you’re an educator, now is the time to push for more young Americans learning Arabic.
1.) Distinguish yourself in the professional world with a high demand language
Given that less than 1 percent of US college students study Arabic just 32,000 out of 21 million total students Arabic language skills will separate you from the crowd, no matter your professional field.
In the last 15 years, US government agencies have expressed a much greater need for Arabic speakers to address the complex political, military, and economic questions surrounding US engagement in the Middle East and North Africa.
The government is not the only employer seeking Arabic skills, however. The same trend can be seen in the private and nonprofit sectors as businesses seek to better understand developing markets and organizations work across borders to develop institutions, improve economies, and educate young people. Yet the demand for Arabic-speaking professionals in the US exceeds the supply.
Whether conducting research, negotiating an international agreement, or coordinating with an overseas partner, speaking the language of your counterpart gives you an invaluable advantage.
2.) Gain critical language skills useful in over 20 countries
Languages like Spanish and French allow you to work and travel in dozens of countries around the world, but they are also widely spoken among your peers. Other languages, like Chinese, are in high demand but require spending your entire career focused on one or two countries.
Arabic offers a blend of critical language skills and applicability in over 20 countries with roughly 300 million native speakers. You will develop the skills to live, work, and interact with a more diverse set of countries, allowing you room to shift focus as you progress in your career.
3.) Develop on-the-ground expertise in critically important countries
Few of your peers will gain international experience during their education. Even fewer will experience countries like Jordan, Lebanon, or Morocco countries where many US organizations have critical interests but lack an understanding of the local context, whether that be infrastructure challenges, different business practices, or complex political relationships.
Knowledge of Arabic paired with an understanding of cultural nuances is more important than ever to successfully navigate the challenges and opportunities of the Middle East and North Africa. Relationship-building is a key skill in the Arab world. Speaking the language without speaking the culture will put you at a disadvantage.
4.) Gain insights into the second-largest religion in the world
Islam is the most widespread religion in the Arab world, and it serves as a framework through which many Arabs see the world. Through your study of Arabic, you will pick up knowledge of Islamic traditions and beliefs that will allow you to become a more effective intercultural communicator and develop stronger relationships.
5.) Encourage a greater understanding of Arab culture in the US
In a 2010 Gallup poll, 52 percent of Arab Americans reported that they “personally experienced racial or religious discrimination in the past year,” the highest percentage of any religious or ethnic category surveyed. According to a 2014 poll, only 32 percent of Americans hold favorable views of Arabs.
By studying Arabic and learning about the culture, you will gain a deeper and more nuanced perspective of the Arabic-speaking world than the typical themes found in US mass media. As you share a more balanced perspective with your family, friends, and peers, you will encourage a greater understanding of Arab culture in US society and more trusting attitudes towards Arab Americans and Arabs living in the US
6.) Act as an ambassador for your country abroad
Although the opinions that Arab countries have of the US are slightly more favorable than in recent years, their opinions often still lean towards the negative.
If you study Arabic abroad or work in the region, you will have daily opportunities to dispel negative misconceptions and promote a positive view of the US and American people.
7.) Study abroad through scholarship opportunities
Students benefit from scholarship opportunities to study Arabic abroad at little or no cost.
The Critical Language Scholarship Program, Arabic Overseas Language Flagship Program, and the National Security Education Program’s Boren Awards each provide focused, immersive experiences that enable you to reach much higher levels of linguistic and cultural proficiency than is achievable through US-based study alone.
About the Author
Cameron Bean is an Arabic speaker with extensive experience studying the language in Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan. He was a recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) and a Boren Scholarship and is currently studying the Iraqi dialect of Arabic. Cameron facilitates higher education opportunities in the US for foreign students and scholars from the Middle East and North Africa at American Councils.