Foreseeing a career in journalism, Forgues, 20, hopes expertise in what he calls an "obscure" language will boost his marketability in a competitive industry.
To get there, he's mastering a new alphabet and lots of unfamiliar sounds alongside similarly ambitious students, from South Asian Muslims to Indiana natives in ROTC who often come to class in fatigues. To meet the demand, Purdue's program has ballooned from just two courses to 12 since fall 2003.
"As long as Purdue keeps adding Arabic classes, I'll keep taking them," Forgues says. "Everybody who's in this (Arabic 102) class now has an exact purpose in why they're taking it and how it will apply to their careers."
Across the USA, a surge of student curiosity about Arabic after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is maturing into a demand for more courses, especially upper-level classes as novices resolve to master the language. A full 73% of 640 Arabic-language students surveyed at 37 institutions in 2004 said they were "determined to achieve a level of proficiency in Arabic that would allow me to function in it comfortably in my professional activities," according to the National Middle East Language Resource Center at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Only a minority of students reach proficiency. One in four first-year students in the best programs eventually reach the third-year level, says center director R. Kirk Belnap. In weaker programs, he says, the dropout rate is even higher.
To meet the demand, schools that already offer Arabic are expanding old programs, creating new ones and scrambling, sometimes in vain, to find qualified teachers. Purdue relies on six grad students to teach its courses. Vermont's Middlebury College recruits from Syria and Egypt to staff its summer language program. Yet even with extra efforts, various constraints are making it a challenge for schools to keep up.
"More students have begun to realize they have to study it for a number of years to be really proficient," says William Mayers, coordinator of the Arabic Language School at Middlebury College's Sunderland Language Center.
"We get enough good applicants from the really high-caliber schools — and these are straight-A students — and a lot of them we're turning down because of limited space."
The numbers help show how interest in Arabic keeps growing. Enrollment in Arabic courses nationwide jumped from 5,500 to 10,600, a 92% increase, from 1998 to 2002, according to the most recent data from the Modern Language Association. Only American Sign Language boosted enrollments by a larger percentage in that time period. Since 2002, enrollments have climbed again by an estimated 15% to 25%, the Middle East language center says.
To keep pace, some institutions are beefing up what they offer on an advanced level. The Center for Advanced Proficiency in Arabic, the nation's first intensive program offered for a full academic year, opens this fall at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Middlebury College is expanding its summer program by about 10% this year and is planning to start offering third-year Arabic during the academic year as soon as this fall.
Yet with fewer than 10% of U.S. colleges offering any Arabic courses, some fear that higher-learning institutions on the whole aren't doing enough to adjust.
"Demand is there, but they're not offering (courses) because of budgetary constraints or whatever," Belnap says. "These are very curious things in a time when your country is clamoring for more foreign-language expertise."
Though many people study Arabic to enhance careers in business or government, a good 20% are "heritage speakers" with a purely cultural or personal interest, says Mahmoud al-Batal, director of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad and an Arabic professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
As Muslim-Americans who pray and read their holy scriptures in Arabic, Batal says, they sometimes bring a sense of purpose that goes beyond any economic quest.
"They see themselves as a bridge to connect people and cultures of the Arab world with the American public," Batal says. "And they see the language piece as critical to achieve this goal."