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Study of Arabic jumps in U.S. universities

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NEW YORK (Reuters) -- The number of U.S. university students learning Arabic rose sharply after the September 11, 2001, attacks and more Americans than ever study foreign languages, says a researcher who led a survey released on Thursday.

Enrollment in Arabic courses rose 92.5 percent at U.S. universities and colleges from 1998 to 2002, the New York-based Modern Language Association study found.

The survey did not provide a comparison between 2001 and 2002 figures, but the association's executive director, Rosemary Feal, said the numbers reflected greater interest in Arab and Muslim countries after the September 11 attacks by Islamic extremists and Washington's declared war on terrorism.

"I think you can infer that encompasses the post-9/11 period," Feal said in an interview. "There is no doubt increases in Arabic have been significant since 9/11, but they have been significant in other languages too. Arabic stands out more but it stands out among many peaks."

Those include a 59 percent rise in Biblical Hebrew since the previous study was published in 1998. Hebrew is the language of Jewish religious literature but it was revived as a vernacular in Israel, the Jewish state founded in 1948 and at the heart of the Middle East conflict with Palestinians.

"Professors tell us students are not only interested in the recent past but in the distant past," Feal said. "Scholars of religion are turning to Biblical Hebrew just as scholars of some other religions should know Latin."

Overall, the number of students enrolled in foreign language courses increased by 17.9 percent to 1,407,440 in 2002 from 1,193,830 in 1998, the association said. The total was the highest recorded since the group's first survey in 1958.

The survey of more than 2,700 institutions revealed a 432 percent increase in American Sign Language. Feal said it was seen as having a practical use to communicate with the deaf, and like all language learning, met students' desire to expand their cultural and linguistic experience.

Spanish has been the most widely taught language in the United States since 1970. In 2002, Spanish accounted for more than half, 53 percent, of total foreign language enrollments. French and German were the next most popular.

The research found that in 2002, U.S. students were studying 148 less commonly taught languages, including Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog and Vietnamese, compared with 137 in 1998.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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