Teacher, students would like to see broader Arabic studies at MU

Monday, May 14, 2012 | 3:44 p.m. CDT; updated 4:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 14, 2012
Zaid Mahir's Elementary Arabic II class performed a one-act play and three skits were performed by Zaid Mahir's for the public April 26 at the MU Student Center.

COLUMBIA — A bread salesman is tried for bribing patrons by slipping cash into the bread he sold them. A man picks a toy doll over three real women in a satirical version of "The Bachelor." A date, originating online, fails and their friends get together instead.

These were the plots for a series of skits presented recently at MU — in Arabic.  

"Elementary Arabic Presents: An Evening of Student Composed Performances" was a one-act play and three skits were performed for the public by Zaid Mahir's Elementary Arabic II class at the MU Student Center. 

For Mahir, the performance was not only an accomplishment for the students but also was an example of the merit of Arabic studies. 

"I would like it to be seen as a signal to people that Arabic should be a full program," he told the audience before the performance began. 

The interest in Arabic courses at MU remains high, but there has been no discussion on the administrative level to expand the current program, Mahir said. As MU's only Arabic instructor, he has taught Elementary Arabic I and II since fall 2007 when the classes were first offered by MU faculty exclusively.

The classes were offered the previous year but were taught by an MU graduate teaching assistant three days a week and a live link-up with a professor at another university the other two.

One section of each class is offered. Elementary Arabic I takes about 20 students and is always full, with a waiting list, Mahir said. The classes are part of the German and Russian Studies Department.

"In spite of the interest and the people who need Arabic, they find themselves at the end of Arabic II with no options besides finding private tutors," he said.

Mahir said MU should begin offering intermediate-level classes and eventually evolve into a full-fledged program with classes on culture and advanced language.

The number of students who want to sign up for Elementary Arabic I would justify having two sections, he said, and between 75 percent and 80 percent of students take Elementary Arabic II after finishing the first course.

Sammie Hill, a student in Elementary Arabic II, is majoring in journalism and peace studies. "I'm currently planning two study abroad trips to supplement the education that I can't get on campus," she said.

Estimates on the number of people who speak some version of Arabic range from about 250 million to 340 million.

Students are attracted to studying Arabic for several reasons, Mahir said. One reason is that the Arabic world is so diverse that there are several versions of the language. There also is a strong global context for learning it.

"We are looking at a decade, if not more, of changes in that part of the world that are going to have a huge impact," Mahir said. "You don’t need anyone to tell you how important it is we expand, especially in this historical moment."

This triggers interest among students bound for certain professions, notably anthropology, international studies, linguistics, journalism and literature. 

Mahir said other schools in the Midwest that started an Arabic program in the past few years now have full-fledged programs, including Indiana University and Washington University.

"It's amazing that MU in Columbia has not joined the train," he said.

Hill said there are students who don't start the program at all because they know they can't finish it at MU. "I think it's a shame that we strive to be such a global university and we're missing out on that part of the world," she said. 

Meanwhile, the recent performance was a point of pride for the students. 

"Arabic is a very hard language," said Benjamin Dixon, a political science and philosophy major. "I feel like we have learned a lot to put on a program like this."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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Richard Saunders May 14, 2012 | 4:52 p.m.

"In spite of the interest and the people who need Arabic, they find themselves at the end of Arabic II with no options besides finding private tutors,"

The option is called the Internet. Dinosaurs like MU better step away from the tar pits of continual "expansion" because they can in no way compete with the disruptive technology that is the net. Universities need to figure out what they do well, and specialize in it alone. Trying to be everything for everyone is a recipe for bankruptcy.

(Report Comment)
Karen Piper May 25, 2012 | 11:00 a.m.

I couldn't disagree more with Mr. Saunders. Expecting students to learn Arabic on their own on-line is a pipe dream. I mean, how many speak Arabic now? They could have already learned on their own, after all...

The real question is priorities. If the University truly wants to internationalize, as it claims, it needs to support its language programs. Creating an Arabic Studies program would only require hiring one more Arabic teacher; instead the University throws money into creating more and more "vice chancellor" and "vice provost" positions. The U. need to adapt to a changing world; it is embarrassingly behind.

(Report Comment)

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