Why do you study the language(s) you study?
Making sure everything works out for a curriculum that lasts only four weeks can be quite a challenge. In the Arabic classroom, we have reviewed what would for me be several semesters’ worth of grammar. There have been some pretty advanced topics of discussion, and the vocabulary is not easy to grasp – Homosexuality and sexual deviancy, the Feminist cause, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and thinking with one’s heart vs. with one’s brain. The textbook is customized to fit the instructor’s needs, and it has been strewn together with miscellaneous pages so only what is necessary is available. We also make use of newspaper clippings and online video clips to supplement what we are learning in class. One interesting characteristic of the class is that whenever someone has a question, the instructor takes her time to painstakingly make sure the question is answered thoroughly – and then she moves on to the question. This gives me the opportunity to see if I can learn anything or if I overlooked anything by listening to clarifications brought up by other people. It is also a way to see how thoroughly I understand the material. On the flipside, sometimes the instructor spends so much time answering questions, that we go on with the rest of the lesson at a sluggish pace. In any case, the majority of my class seems satisfied with the teaching, and I am too, so I have few complaints.
The classroom extends to the streets of Amman, where shopkeepers and passers-by are more than happy to greet the Arabic student who wants to practice his or her spoken and listening skills. One can choose to speak Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and the listener will probably understand, though perhaps he or she will take longer to reply since people are used to hearing MSA on the news or at mosque as opposed to on the street or in the house. You can also practice your colloquial Arabic with the locals. Here in Jordan, the Levantine dialect predominates, which thankfully is not too distant from MSA. Some of my classmates have opted to pay for private colloquial Arabic lessons which means that they have a formal advantage when it comes to comprehending street lingo compared to those of us who have to pick it up entirely on the streets. I have had about year’s worth of formal education in Levantine Arabic since I had to study it alongside MSA in my Al-Kitaab studies. I usually like to speak in MSA to people, since that gives me the opportunity to check my understanding of the sequence of vowels in words. It may not be as “down to earth” as the colloquial dialect, but at least I know I’ll be understood universally.
One topic that has come up repeatedly in my conversations about Arabic is the motivation for studying it. My colleagues have all answered in a variety of ways; one wants to be able to read the Qur’an; another is interested in being able to understand the Arab media; another wants to prevent miscommunications that could escalate into a 9/11 style catastrophe. Most are also simply interested in Arabic language and culture out of curiosity. I fall in this camp, but I also understand the benefits of studying Arabic from a pre-professional perspective. When I was getting ready for my trip, my aunt passed by my house and asked about my summer plans. When I replied that I was studying abroad in Jordan, she became surprised and wondered about my safety and intentions. After I assured her of my safety, the question of why I became interested in Arabic came up. It seemed to me that she was focused on pre-professional matters – a legitimate concern in these tough economic times. She asked me how long I have been interested in Arabic, how studying Arabic fit into my future plans, and what I was trying to accomplish by studying Arabic. Because I aligned with the intellectual model of education (after all, I attended a liberal arts college), I was caught off guard by the pre-professional framework in which she approached me. I already knew the career benefits of study abroad more generally – the development of aptitude in intercultural sensitivity, adaptability in unfamiliar environments, and communicativeness across a gap in language and backgrounds. Arabic seemed like a great language of choice in practical terms, since a large number of countries had adopted it as the official state language and a huge proportion of the world was capable of communicating in it. Furthermore, the Arab world continues to play a prominent position in global affairs and international politics, so it seems only reasonable to arm the next generation with the appropriate linguistic toolkit. Last time I checked, Arabic remains a minuscule minority among languages that teenagers in the United States study, hardly matching the future demand for people proficient in the language. Multilingualism is generally considered a valuable trait to employers, and I extrapolate that multilingualism in critical-need languages like Arabic is considered even more valuable. I wish I had presented my conjectures and thoughts to my Aunt at that time, but perhaps I was thrown off too much by the career based nature of her questions. I am too strong of an advocate of learning for the sake of learning; this was the philosophy that drove my learning of Spanish and Mandarin. I believe there is great value in letting philomaths do what they love to do. So perhaps some consideration should be given to the act of bugging off with pre-professional questions – the benefits of learning a language such as Arabic will make themselves apparent eventually.