The students’ eyes track across the Arabic letterforms from right to left, reading, deciphering, understanding. Some of the undergraduates are in the class to submerse themselves in a new language, to augment other studies, or to learn about their heritage. But aside from their differences, together they discover culture and community through the new Arabic major at Virginia Tech.

“Joining the Arabic program is one of the best decisions I made upon entering Virginia Tech,” said Tahreem Alam, a senior who recently added Arabic to her multimedia journalism major. “Every semester, I fall in love with the language and Arab culture through the classes and experiential-learning projects the program immerses us in. The academics are intensive and highly rewarding, and the instructors are truly supportive. The program has undoubtedly made me a more skilled, culturally competent, and competitive candidate for my future career path.”

The reasons for choosing a major are diverse, and Arabic is no exception. Maybe the choice reflects a chosen career path, such as consultancy, U.S. Foreign Service, translation, education, diplomacy, cultural programming and outreach, or international business, development, or nonprofits.

For others, Arabic is a secondary interest. Some of these may be undergraduates with double majors in art, engineering, or science. They know that being fluent in more than one language will augment their other studies.

“Adding a major in Arabic shows discipline,” said Nadine Sinno, an associate professor in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, which houses the new major. “These people are showing a commitment, even though they may be getting a degree in neuroscience or architecture. We love it when they come from the least expected majors because it means they are here because they really want to study the language.”

And then there are the heritage learners. These students enroll in the major for the same reasons as other students, but they have a connection to Arabic. They may have an interest in learning to read the Quran or they are of Arab descent and want to learn more about their culture or even connect with family members, who may speak in one of the many dialects the language offers.

Arabic graffiti
“To Beirut” is written in Arabic in this graffiti that also features a portrait of the Lebanese singer Fairouz. The words reference her song lyrics, “a greeting from my heart to Beirut.” Photo by Nadine Sinno from her research on post-war Beirut graffiti.

“For the faculty of the Arabic program, culture is inseparable from language,” Sinno said. “You cannot teach language without culture, and you cannot teach culture without language. There is a link between the two, because it isn’t possible to teach people to communicate for practical reasons without exposing them to the language’s soul. This is very important, especially with populations who are less represented or misrepresented, in the case of Arabs and Muslims. We’re dealing with living human beings. It’s very important that students understand the complexity and the diversity of Arab culture.”

Before being offered as a major, the Arabic program began as a minor. The many students who have gone through that program show a sound track record with job placement. Some work at the U.S. State Department or in immigration law, psychology, or academia, while others use the language as a component in their early-childhood curricula or while serving as an officer in the U.S. Army.

“I tell my students, even if you end up doing something that has nothing to do with Arabic,” Sinno said, “when an employer looks at your transcript or CV and sees it during your interview, that’s going to be an icebreaker. They’ll say, ‘Whoa! I see you’ve studied Arabic; tell me more.’ It means you are adventurous; you are rigorous — it’s not a language for the fainthearted.”

Sabrina Bachert
Sabrina Bachert, who studied Arabic at Virginia Tech before graduating in 2018, is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Her experiences in studying the language and taking part in the program’s extracurricular activities helped shape the way she learns and communicates today, she said, and opened doors for her professionally. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Bachert.

Janell Watson, a French professor who chairs the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, recommends that students start the major early in their academic career. She said Arabic is a category-four language for English speakers because it is vastly different in sound and structure from Indo-European languages such as Spanish and French, which are category one. Students will primarily learn Modern Standard Arabic, though they will also experience Levantine and Gulf dialects, among others.

The students come together during their first semester to become proficient with the Arabic writing system and to learn to draw the letters. Sinno said although it is challenging, it is also rewarding, like learning to write in code. 

For their major concentration, students will take courses in Arabic for oral proficiency, media Arabic, Arab culture and civilization, topics in Arab cinema, modern Arabic literature in translation, and research in Arab culture.

Wadi Shab
Virginia Tech students explore Wadi Shab, located in the Ash Sharqiyah region of Oman, during a study abroad experience in 2019. Photo by Ragheda Nassereddine.

Sinno, who began developing the Arabic program when she joined Virginia Tech in 2013, knew that, for it to be successful, it had to be demanding, but also interesting and exciting. This meant extracurricular activities — events, music, and community building. The program offers an Arabic Coffee Hour, Arabic Film Night, and an Arabic open-mic poetry night. Students work with conversation partners and peer tutors and engage with various Middle East–related student organizations.

The department also offers study abroad, internship, and research opportunities. Although many of these activities are on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some are available online or in modified ways to meet Virginia Tech’s safety guidelines.

“Adding a new major in a non-European language helps us expand and become more of a global languages department,” Watson said. “I think that’s significant. Arabic, in particular, is a critical language, very much in demand for government jobs, as well as those in nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. Even more significant is that Virginia Tech is one of the few land-grant universities to offer a major in Arabic, and many universities don’t have a full major in the language.”

Written by Leslie King