“One day, I was in a grocery store owned by a Lebanese-Algerian couple, and I loved the lady’s accent.”
Rebecca Byrne, a third-year in Arabic and linguistics, said she asked the woman what she spoke and when the woman told her Arabic, Byrne asked her to speak some more.
“What I heard next was the prettiest thing I’d heard in my life. I thought it sounded powerful and smooth,” Byrne said.
The interaction inspired Byrne, who already had an interest in language and culture after taking high school French classes, to want to learn more about Arabic and ultimately led to her to majoring in it at Ohio State — a university that graduates 7 percent of the United States’ Arabic majors.
“Arabic is not an easy major and takes special determination to complete,” said Gergana Atanassova, a lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, in an email.
Atanassova said she isn’t surprised OSU graduates 7 percent of the country’s Arabic majors “given the size of the university, the considerable Arab diaspora and Muslim population in Ohio and the high caliber of the students that OSU attracts.”
Byrne also said she was not surprised because “most colleges don’t offer Arabic as a major itself.”
There are currently 39 colleges that offer an Arabic major, according to the College Board website, which allows users to search for colleges that match one’s interests or needs.
Other Big Ten schools that offer Arabic majors, according to the website, include Michigan, Minnesota and Michigan State.
Approximately 223 million people speak Arabic in the world, according to Ethnologue: Languages of the world. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, about 952,000 people in the U.S. were speaking Arabic at home as of 2011.
Natalie Davis, a second-year in Arabic and public affairs, is from the Cleveland area and first took Arabic in high school. She said she narrowed her college search based on which schools offered an Arabic major.
“Arabic is the main reason I chose to come to Ohio State,” she said.
Davis said she loves studying Arabic, but it has its challenges, including there only being a small number of professors.
“While it seems significant on a national scale, the program here is still very small,” Davis said.
Atanassova, who teaches first and second-year Arabic language courses, said her classes usually have about 25 students.
Justin Acome, academic program coordinator for the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, said there are currently three full-time, either with or pursuing tenure, faculty members that teach Arabic, but the program hopes to have five next year.
“The majority of our language and lower-level undergraduate classes are taught either by graduate teaching associates or lecturers,” he said.
Davis said her goal is to teach in the future.
“I had the (opportunity to study) Arabic in high school, and I want to ensure that more American students have that opportunity,” she said.
Byrne, on the other hand, is unsure of what she wants to do, but plans on pursuing a master’s degree in the language.
“After that, I don’t know. There are lots of things I could do. I could teach high school Arabic, go into data analysis for diplomacy or intelligence, work with refugees, become a translator — I really have no idea,” she said.
However, she said these careers differ from what people first expect.
“Most people immediately assume that I am going to be a spy when I tell them (my major),” Byrne said.
Atanassova said studying Arabic could help students pursue careers in various areas from government to social work.
“Knowledge of Arabic today opens doors to many exciting and often lucrative careers,” Atanassova said. “The Arabic major at OSU equips the students not only with the language proficiency they need for such jobs, but also with the necessary information about the history, culture and politics of the region.”
Davis said while her chosen field has its challenges, “it’s entirely worth it.”
“Twenty years from now, the U.S. will be much better off in regards to teaching critical language, and I guess more than anything, I love being part of the movement to get to that point,” Davis said.