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Ohio State graduates 7% of US Arabic majors


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“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.


  1. Former OSU Arabic Major

    Ohio State’s Arabic department is terrible. It’s disorganized from the top down, and its senior employees are so awful that even when they can recruit great talent out of Arabic Undergrad programs around the country to serve as Graduate Assistants, they all leave as soon as they realize how dysfunctional the system is at OSU. As an Arabic major at Ohio State I had 5 different TAs for my first 5 Arabic classes, and all of them had gone to other programs within a year of when I took their classes, which makes it nearly impossible to get letters of recommendation. The class system is also set up so that you can only take 1 Arabic class during the crucial start-up period in the language learning process – when you build the foundational grammatical knowledge and vocabulary so crucial to later language-learning, especially in Arabic. With only 1 Arabic language class available at a time, students have to spend at least 75% of their time in English speaking classes to have a full course-load. That’s no way to learn a language. Most students that graduate with a degree in Arabic at OSU, even those that do study abroad programs, aren’t fluent by the time they get out of college, whether because the senior employees are incompetent or because of the system’s structure, but when students pay so much money for college OSU’s Arabic program is hardly more than a scam.

  2. What are you talking about? For the past 5 years the same graduate instructors have been teaching elementary Arabic, and once you get into the intermediate level, you satisfy the prerequisites to take additional classes for the major, which are mostly taught in Arabic (depending upon the quality of the students and the work they put into keeping it that way — a problem not encountered in the advanced grammar and literature courses). Anyone who graduates with a BA in Arabic would be foolish to claim fluency without having dedicated several years to living in an Arabic speaking country.

  3. Kudos to the reliably feckless Latrine staff for fudging the Arabic script. Illustrator is hard, guyz!

  4. In the article, 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.'”

    Atanassova, OSU’s Arabic department, and others, please know that there is a large population of Coptic Christians from Egypt(and some from Ethiopia although historically “Coptic” means “Egyptian”) who speak Arabic in Columbus, in Dayton, and other cities in Ohio and throughout the U.S., Canada, and other countries. Also, please know that because they are Christian, they are not called Arabs. Egypt was originally a Christian nation before being taken over by Arabia. They are referred to as Egyptians and Ethiopians. Not everyone from North Africa, the Middle East, or parts of Asia are Arabs and Muslim. This response is not meant to be in any way a political statement, it is just meant to be educatational to Antanassova, OSU’s Arabic department, and others. I hope all of you take the time to research and read about Coptic Christians. Thank you.

  5. Oops. My typo: The next to last line should read “educational.”

  6. Current OSU Arabic Student

    To TLMG

    A religion does not define one’s ethnicity. I have two Egyptian Copts in my class that speak Masri Arabic and identify as Arab. Gergana is probably referring to the large amount of Arabic speakers at OSU (Copts included) and the large amount of other diaspora groups in Columbus that are Muslim (largest Somali diaspora in the country). And you do not need to educate Gergana Atanassova, she has a PhD in Arabic pedagogy from Georgetown, I doubt there is any new information you could impart to her.

  7. Current OSU Arabic Student

    Ethnography is hard, guyz!

  8. Student of Several Language Majors & Minors

    I guess it’s a good representation of America’s general ignorance regarding Arabic and foreign languages in general when the first thing on this article is an image using Arabic script…with the letters written from left to right. Would it have taken more than 10 seconds to fact check and find out that Arabic is written right to left, and that if you had written it correctly, the letters would have connected and looked like this:
    ولاية أوهايو. I’m not criticizing the creator of that image directly, but rather the larger problem of knowledge of foreign languages in America. I wish that knowledge was valued and more widespread than it currently is. It’s disheartening how many people don’t value foreign language education. As a Russian and Arabic double-major (with minors in Mandarin, French, and German), I hope to see an improvement in this in the next few years!

    (P.S. If the designer reads this, no hard feelings. I know it’s not necessarily common knowledge since so few people actually study Arabic in the US; however, for future reference, if you write the letters left to right like that, it’s almost completely unrecognizable. You had me stumped for a solid minute.)

  9. Hello, I was reading this article and something occurred to me. I work for a large non-profit organization and we often need interpreters. Would any of you know someone I could contact to see if any students would be interested in volunteering for our organization? We use a lot of interns and many use these hours to count for credit and it’s great practice! International students are welcome. Please contact me at judyc@makeawishohio if interested or if you have any information. Thank you so much for your help.

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