Problems

While the purposes of university language programs across the USA vary, two broadly shared reasons for the existence of such programs is for students to develop both language proficiency (Swender, Conrad, & Vicars, 2012) and intercultural competence (Deardorff, 2011). The National Middle East Language Resource Center (NMELRC, 2011) reported that of 1,055 American students studying Arabic, 62.9% of them were “determined to achieve a level of proficiency in [Arabic] that would allow [them] to function in it comfortably in [their] professional activities. However, knowing that many students will not find themselves actively using Arabic in their professional life, Arabic programs and students also find value in developing intercultural competence. In the words of one Arabic professor, “the most important service that we fulfill is that we give students another way of seeing the world, achieved through Arabic or any other number of other languages.” 

Language proficiency and intercultural competence are complicated concepts that are constantly re-evaluated and re-defined in the fields of second language acquisition (SLA) and study abroad. Still, the path that students must take to reach these two goals is generally agreed upon: introductory instruction on a university campus, followed by immersive experiences abroad. Other approaches exist, but this path and its phases remain prevalent. Research has helped improve the instruction in each phase and the transition between them, but more practical issues remain beyond changing instructional strategies.

Obstacles to Introductory Courses

The first problem that keeps students from reaching their goals is that most colleges and universities do not have developed Arabic program. While more programs have been added in the last two decades, increased enrollments have outpaced the programs available. The Modern Language Association (2013) reports the following information related to Arabic programs and enrollment:

 

U.S. Enrollments in Arabic University Courses, with # of Institutions

2006 2009 2012-2013 Change from 2006 – 2013
24,010 (454) 35,228 (565)  33,520 (588) 9,150 (134)


Number of BA Degrees Granted to Arabic Majors, with # of Institutions

2006 2009 2013 Change from 2006 – 2013
26 (10) 85 (16) 167 (25) 642% (250%)

 

In the first table, Arabic enrollments have increased by nearly 10,000 in eight years, while only 133 programs have been added in the same time period. Considering the limited capacity of new programs, they are stretched. The third table shows an even more impressive gap, as the number of Arabic major graduates has far outpaced the number of institutions graduating them. Without a sufficient number of programs with capable instructors, Arabic learners will fall through the gaps and fall short of their goals.

Obstacles to Study Abroad

The second problem students run into on the path to fluency and cultural ability is a lack of opportunity to study abroad. Program quality is a large issue here. According to the NMELRC report, “the single greatest impediment hindering students from achieving their goal of professional-level fluency is the shortage of experienced and well-trained language professionals in position to help students effectively move forward in their quest for fluency” (p. 4). Some established programs continue are not designed to develop modern language speaking proficiency, and new programs often lack the experience needed to help intermediate learners develop advanced skills.

Even if a well-designed program with the necessary staff is available, students may still struggle to travel abroad due to a lack of funding. Students are usually expected to pay for the expenses of the trip abroad in addition to tuition at the home university, making the price of immersion extremely expensive. One side affect of this has been the shortening of study abroad sojourns so as to cut costs, but this creates new problems too.

Obstacles to Language Proficiency and Intercultural Competence

Research repeatedly warns that study abroad is not a magic bullet for achieving one’s language goals. Students can travel abroad and return much the same as when they left some students actually come back scoring worse than they did before. While they certainly learn something while they are abroad, without proper preparation and program design students might not be learning what they need to in order to reach their goals.

 

Why This Matters

The end result of the above obstacles is a much smaller group of students who learn Arabic to a professional level. It could be argued that a large group of non-native Arabic speakers is unnecessary, since hiring in the public sector has slowed a decade after the attacks of September, 2001. Current government spending and other policies are not as conducive to learning Arabic as they once were.

Still, it can also be argued that an informed citizenry, one of the broad goals of education, requires a knowledge of foreign peoples and languages in order to inform policy and action. An insufficient number of citizens who are well-versed, familiar, and empathetic with Arab culture will affect public attitudes and policy. Until a critical mass of educated students has been reached, Arabic programs must continue to try and overcome the obstacles described above.

Focusing Efforts

While all three of the mentioned obstacles deserve attention in the field of Arabic instruction and SLA in general, my efforts are focused particularly on the second obstacle: not enough students get to participate in quality study abroad programs. The most obvious solutions here (i.e., training more instructors, raising money for more participants) are obstructed by a complex array of problems.

Building strong, enduring language programs is a long-term process requiring the combination of university support, talented and committed faculty, and good timing. Unfortunately, many programs cannot afford to offer professorships to enough faculty to make an enduring program– a worrisome trend of late has been programs’ dependence on short-term staff to cover language instruction.

Even if a program grows, stabilizes, and begins to bring more students to advanced proficiency, the dream of an intensive study abroad is vulnerable to variables outside of the program’s control. Especially in Arabic studies, host countries can quite suddenly become unavailable as a study abroad option. Regional unrest makes study abroad in the Middle East a high-risk investment at times. Years spent studying a particular dialect may be slighted by political turmoil, causing programs and students to change course and settle for lesser opportunities.

All this to say that even if solutions are found to the specific problems mentioned here, study abroad is susceptible to new obstacles that can make short work of whatever time and money was spent on finding those solutions.

Reframing the Question

Stepping back from the entrenched ways that programs have helped students develop linguistic proficiency and intercultural competence reveals new avenues with potentially less obstacles. How can university Arabic programs provide immersive experiences to students that foster the development of professional language proficiency and intercultural competence? Putting the question this way re-frames the problem so that options other than study abroad can be considered.  A great deal of research informs the strategies for learning languages abroad, but what might need to change is the medium, the tools, or the time and place of learning. Could it be that certain aspects of studying abroad could be reproduced or simulated without a real sojourn?

Additional constraints can be imposed here. University programs have limited finances, work within a classroom/coursework approach to learning, and lack the time and/or staff necessary to implement large changes. In other words, a solution needs to be inexpensive and easy for language programs to incorporate into already existing curricula.

Accessibility is also an issue— a solution should extend far beyond a handful of already privileged programs and affect as many learners as possible. For example, intensive language camps held outside of regular classes are a common alternative learning opportunity across the the U.S., but for many students they require significant travel and accommodation expenses that limit who can participate.

What can meet these constraints and criteria? Our question has once again morphed.

What accessible, inexpensive, easily-implemented instructional mediums provide university Arabic learners with immersive experiences that foster the development of professional language proficiency and intercultural competence?

Surely, the number of answers to this question is shrinking.

Technological Affordances

Fortunately, the list of tools that are accessible and inexpensive has expanded rapidly with the spread of web-based technologies. What before required specialized software installed on personal hardware has increasingly become accessible via a common web browser.

 

References

Belnap, R. K., & Nassif, M. N. (2011). Middle East language learning in US higher education. National Middle East Language Resource Center. http://nmelrc. org/middle-east-language-learning-us-higher-education-ten-years-after-911-0.

Deardorff, D. K. (2011). Assessing intercultural competence. New directions for institutional research2011(149), 65-79.

Goldberg, D., Looney, D., & Lusin, N. (2015, February). Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013. In Modern Language Association. Modern Language Association.

Redden, E. (2016, December 12). Funding lost for key Arabic program. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/12/12/longstanding-arabic-language-program-loses-federal-funding

Swender, E., Conrad, D., & Vicars, R. (2012). ACTFL proficiency guidelines 2012. Alexandria, VA: American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

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