‘Why not Arabic?’: MENA Languages program to launch Arabic minor in Fall Quarter


Daily file illustration by Olivia Abeyta

The Middle East and North African Languages program will offer an Arabic minor starting in Fall Quarter 2023.

Kaavya Butaney, Diversity & Inclusion Chair

The Middle East and North African Languages program will launch an Arabic minor this upcoming Fall Quarter, the result of years of effort from students and the Arabic language faculty. The program currently does not offer majors or minors for any MENA languages, including Arabic and Persian.

In Winter Quarter 2022, the Middle East and North Africa Student Association and Arabic language students sent a letter to Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Dean Adrian Randolph requesting the school create an Arabic language minor. In total, 48 students who signed the letter said they would enroll in the minor.

According to Arabic language Prof. Ragy Ibrahim Mikhaeel, student support for the movement made the difference in creating the minor. Arabic language classes from Spring Quarter 2022 and onward can be counted toward the minor, Mikhaeel said.

MENA languages program chair and German language Prof. Franziska Lys said when she assumed the chair position in Fall 2018, she wanted to gather feedback to understand whether students were satisfied with the program.

In Spring 2019, Lys conducted an informal survey that asked 31 students whether they would enroll in an Arabic minor. About 83% of student respondents said they would be interested.

“I really wanted to recognize students’ accomplishments because Arabic is not an easy language to learn,” Lys said. “For students who really go through a minor, I think they need some type of recognition of the special efforts they made in learning this language.”

Earning a minor allows students to develop language proficiency and have a degree to show for it, Lys said. Arabic is spoken worldwide, she added, and plays an important role in the business world, because of the increase in business with Arab countries. 

Weinberg junior Sara Ibrahim, co-President of MENA Student Association, described the new minor as a “testament” to the efforts of students and faculty. She said the minor will increase enrollment in Arabic and incentivize students to take Arabic language classes.

Mikhaeel said students have historically been frustrated with not earning any degree in Arabic, even after spending three or four years learning the language. He said he was happy the administration listened to students and created the minor.

“It’s good to get those who have the energy and those who own the future to say their say,” he said. “As long as it is toward construction, toward building, towards improving.”

In recent years, the Arabic language program at NU has shifted its curriculum to incorporate Ammiyah Arabic, the spoken language, Mikhaeel said. Previously, the program has only offered written Arabic.

Spoken Arabic is more often used in everyday life, he said. Mikhaeel compared speaking the written language to “speaking Latin in Rome.”

Before the curriculum incorporated Ammiyah Arabic, students struggled to communicate with others when studying abroad in the MENA region, Mikhaeel said. 

“Students come from all walks of life. Some of them are into politics of the Middle East or doing field research in anthropology research,” Mikhaeel said. “These kinds of students will be dealing with people in the streets, in the villages. People in everyday life … don’t speak the written language.”

With the new minor, Mikhaeel said he is looking forward to being able to teach Islamic manuscripts. Students would analyze different aspects of the manuscript, such as translating the writing and the document’s artistic elements.

Arabic language Prof. Rana Raddawi is also interested in teaching new classes for the minor, including a course about intercultural communication between “the East and West.”

Raddawi and Mikhaeel both hope NU will also create an Arabic major in the future.

“Other languages at Northwestern — as important as Arabic — French, German, Portuguese, Spanish have minors and majors in their respective languages,” Raddawi said. “So why not Arabic?”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @kaavya_butaney

Related Stories:

Students and faculty petition for an Arabic minor to increase cultural representation, reward learners

New petition calls on NU to add study abroad programs in MENA region 

Scholars discuss archival justice and preservation in MENA region