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Arabic 101

Marketplace Staff Feb 29, 2008

Arabic 101

Marketplace Staff Feb 29, 2008


Tess Vigeland: This weekend on the shores of the Dead Sea, the kingdom of Jordan is hosting an economic forum to drum up new business opportunities. With a nearly six percent growth rate last year, Jordan is just one of the Middle East economies attracting hedge funds and corporations.

If you want to do business in the region? Get a job there, maybe? It might help to learn Arabic.

Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins dropped in on a language class here in Los Angeles.

Jennifer Collins: If you want to take Arabic, you’re in for a challenge. These students at the Levantine Cultural Center are learning exactly that.

Welcome to Conversational Arabic 101, where things rarely get easier — even with practice.

Americans students sink millions of dollars into Arabic classes each year. Many say they’re taking the language as a way of dabbling in Middle Eastern history and culture. Others, like Herzl Tobey, study with purpose.

Tobey is an actor. This summer, he’ll appear as an Israeli military commander in an Adam Sandler comedy. He’s got dark hair and eyes — perfect to play Middle Eastern characters. For many of his roles, Arabic is essential.

Herzl Tobey: That’s my casting. That’s my type cast: Arabic. So, if they need an arabic speaker who also knows how to ride a horse, then you know…

Giddy up! Tobey first learned about his lucrative looks from a rather un-politically correct drama teacher.

Tobey: He just suddenly said to me: Get ready for it, you’re going to play terrorists for the rest of your life.

And Tobey’s not alone. Roles for Middle Easterners have increased at least five fold in the past seven years. And they pay, too. Even low-level speaking parts bring in about $500 a day.

Tobey’s had a steady stream of them. So much so that he quit his day job a year ago. His latest gig is a horror movie. He plays — wait for it — a terrorist. This is just one of his lines:

Tobey: Excuse me, but where are we going to get such nuclear material?

Actors aren’t the only ones on a quest to learn Arabic. Kirk Belnap of the National Middle East Language Resource Center says about 24,000 U.S. college students took Arabic classes last year. That’s five times more students than a decade ago.

Kirk Belnap: One of the major problems with this growth has been we have had a very, very significant challenge in placing trained people in class rooms. Well-trained Arabic teachers are really a hot item right now.

He says Arabic teachers can command higher salaries than professors of other languages — yet very few people speak the language well enough to teach. Despite the thousands who enroll in beginning Arabic, U.S. academia ekes out only about 40 to 50 fluent speakers a year.

And when it comes to business professionals, forget about it:

Belnap: MBA programs are notorious for being impatient about what their students are doing with their time so you’re not going to sink a bunch of time into language study when you’re doing your MBA programs.

So some students discover Arabic later in their careers, like media consultant Josh Elbaum.

He’s been traveling to the Middle East for 12 years and he says every one of his clients speaks English; he didn’t need to learn Arabic.

That is until one night. After work, Elbaum went out to a restaurant in Jeddah or Beirut — he can’t remember which town. He was seated at a table of 10 Arabic speakers and, out of hospitality, every one of them switched to English:

Josh Elbaum: …and some of them speak it fluently and some of them struggle with it, but it was that moment when I realized that it was not necessarily selfish, but it wasn’t very practical to expect a whole table full of people to converse in a language that’s not their native language in their own country for my benefit.

After six months in classes, he’s already noticed business in the Middle East has gotten that much easier.

Elbaum: There is a look, a smile, a gleam in that person’s eye when as a non-Arab, you start speaking a language which they know is not very well spoken by non-Arabs.

Elbaum only wishes he started studying Arabic sooner. He says, if someone applies for a position like his and they speak Arabic, they almost automatically become a finalist for the job.

I’m Jennifer Collins, for Marketplace Money.

Vigeland: And be sure to tune in next week for an exploration of how our personal finances are connected to the Middle East. It’s part of a Marketplace-wide two-week special series called the “Middle East at Work”.

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