Brigham Young University has been selected by the U.S. Department of Education as the headquarters of the newly created National Middle East Language Resource Center, a consortium of Middle Eastern languages experts.
Kirk Belnap, BYU associate professor of Arabic, will serve as director of the new center, which has been charged with developing new teaching materials, creating proficiency tests, revamping techniques for training instructors and improving advanced-level summer language and study abroad programs.
"Until now, there was no organization charged with overseeing the research and development efforts associated with Middle Eastern languages in this country," Belnap said. "Our goal is to strengthen opportunities for students to learn these languages."
Ed McDermott, program officer in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education, said he is pleased that BYU won his office's first grant of its kind.
"This is the first time we have funded a Title VI Language Resource Center that focuses solely on the languages of the Middle East," says McDermott. "We are confident the center can serve as a cultural umbrella under which Middle Eastern scholars collaborate to successfully carry out its objectives to improve language teaching and learning in the United States."
The center, created with an initial grant of more than $350,000, will coordinate the efforts of the country's best Middle Eastern languages professionals at more than 20 universities, including Brandeis, Brown, Georgetown, Harvard, New York University, Princeton, UCLA and the University of Texas at Austin.
Karin Ryding, chair of the Arabic Department and Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Professor of Arabic at Georgetown, said that Belnap is a good fit as the consortium's first director.
"Kirk is a distinguished scholar and is very competent as an administrator - it's rare to find a person with both of those strengths," Ryding said. "He's the kind of person who will take a project like this consortium and quickly get it headed in the right direction."
The center will concentrate its initial efforts on providing practical information and tools to students, instructors, and language program administrators. Building on BYU's extensive Arabic courseware and the pioneering projects at other institutions, the center will create templates for delivering language-learning materials over the Internet.
Belnap said that many students at colleges where Middle Eastern languages are rarely taught cannot currently benefit from the experience of the best teachers and the latest teaching methods and materials.
"But with the creation of the center, those same students can get the right start," Belnap said.
The center will seek to accomplish this by helping partners get distance-learning programs up and running, which will enable many more students to study these challenging languages.
Another goal of the center is to develop programs that will help kindergarten to 12th-grade students become interested in Middle Eastern languages. This fall one of Belnap's graduate students will teach a class on the Arab-Israeli conflict at Provo High School. By teaching a social studies class that integrates history and language from the Middle East, Belnap said he hopes to pique the interest of pre-college students in the languages of the Middle East.
"This course has great potential for impact and for wide distribution to schools across the nation," Belnap said.
BYU International Vice President Sandra Rogers sees Belnap's appointment and the creation of the center as recognition of BYU's strong language programs.
"We are excited to be part of an initiative that enhances our national capacity to communicate with an important segment of the global community," said Rogers. "The establishment and the support of this language consortium is reflective of the leadership demonstrated by Brigham Young University's Arabic-language faculty."
Nearly three-fourths of BYU's 30,000 students speak a language other than English - more than 60 languages in all. Regular classes are offered in 43 languages, with an additional 33 available with sufficient student interest.
"BYU has one of the best undergraduate language programs in the U.S.," Georgetown's Ryding said. "And as far as Arabic goes, it's produced some of the best scholars in our field."