I’ve often written about my frustrating with U.S. government bureaucracy that prevents me from fully immersing in Arabic-speaking culture. The longer I study Arabic and live in the region, the more and more I’m concerned about declining opportunities for Americans to master the language.
In a nutshell, Arabic is so hard that it takes constant immersion to learn it well. Living in an Arabic-speaking country is not enough; you need to be hearing and using Arabic constantly. Believe it or not, there aren’t that many places in the Middle East where an American can easily do that, and U.S. government policies compound the problem.
I’m trying to figure out what to advise the Olmsted Foundation about future Arabic-speaking scholars, because there just aren’t that many good options. The Gulf is way too Westernized. In Morocco the dialect is vastly different from the rest of the Arab world, and French is used as often as not. Jordan is probably the best place in the area to study Arabic, but the U.S. Embassy will only host one scholar at a time and has turned off other immersion programs because of security concerns. That leaves the same standby option that the Olmsted Foundation has relied on for years: the American University of Cairo in Egypt. The problem is that, from everything I’ve heard, AUC is terrible for immersion. Egyptians who go study there are from the super-elite and speak fluent English. Worse, AUC relocated recently to an isolated new campus far from Cairo. The $400 million campus has all the amenities a student could want, except for one tiny thing… language immersion.
That view of AUC was confirmed by this article, passed along by the Arabist. Ursula Lindsay writes, “The Center for Arabic Study Abroad–a premier language program financed primarily by the U.S. Department of Education–has just relocated to the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus.” Why? Students hated the new campus. Everyone spoke English, and they were isolated from real Egyptian culture. 95% of them felt that the location adversely impacted their ability to learn Arabic. I’m glad CASA was able to relocate, but American students at all levels will still be forced to live and study in the new campus.
Americans face declining opportunities to be immersed in Arabic. I hate to always be harping on this subject, but I see it as a serious national security issue. I imagine the situation is similar for many other strategic languages.