When Michele Dunne decided to take Arabic as a student at Georgetown University, she had never met anyone who spoke the language. "I figured if I studied Arabic, I'd have an interesting life," says Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It worked."
That was long before 9/11 pushed the main language of the Middle East to the forefront of American diplomacy and policy. Now government agencies are ravenous for Arabic speakers for duties ranging from spying to surveying. And knowing the language can fast-track a career in business or human rights.
It does take longer to learn Arabic than, say, Spanish. Unlike most western languages, written Arabic is quite different from the spoken form-and each country has its own dialect. Still, while you may not be ready to negotiate peace deals, you can become reasonably fluent within 16 months of intense study, says Kirk Belnap, professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University.
Quality Arabic programs are limited. But if you live far from a major metropolitan area, you may benefit from Arabic Without Walls, a distance learning program to be piloted in the fall of 2007.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.