27 March 2012

Omani Blog Makeover

I'm going to Oman!  Some of you who are regular followers of this blog may have noticed a few changes here and there.  That's because, as of Sunday night, I found out that I am officially going to Oman this summer to study Arabic.  Huzzah!

I'm very excited to start blogging again, posting information here about Oman - as I learn it - before I depart at the end of May, and posting thoughts and summaries of my experiences while I am there.  I hope also to learn more about the sociolinguistic situation in Oman, compare my experiences in Morocco with those in Oman, and, if there's time, interview some of my fellow students and include their thoughts on this blog, if they are willing.

For now, I will leave you with an introductory CNN video that gives you (and me!) a glimpse of the town where I will be living for 8 weeks this summer.  Enjoy!

23 March 2012

Why Immersion in Language Learning

My language learning has always been inspired by Nelson Mandela’s quote:  “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  My dream is to be able to use Arabic – both dialects and MSA – to connect Americans and other Westerners with the people of the MENA region.  I hope to encourage high-school and college-age students to “meet the other” and engage in cross-cultural dialogue.

I specifically want to participate in a group-based intensive language program overseas because of my experience as a volunteer.  There, I came to appreciate the value of learning languages in both group and immersion settings.  During my training in the mountains of Morocco, I would wake up at 7:30am, put on two extra pairs of pants and a jacket, and trudge out to the communal sink in the hallway to wash my face with almost-frozen water.  I would then go to the kitchen to find my host sister Loubna setting the breakfast table.  I would sleepily answer questions:  “Yes, I slept well” or “No, I don’t like toast, thank you,” in my limited Arabic.  I had no choice but to speak to her in Arabic because the only English words she knew were “eat more.”

After breakfast, she would explain to me the way to school at least twice, because my Arabic still was not good enough to convince her that I knew the way.  At the school, I would meet up with the five other PC volunteers training in the town, and we would spend the next five hours shivering and learning Moroccan Arabic together.  We relied on each other for support when life in Morocco became overwhelming.  At the end of 11 weeks, I was finally able to express to Loubna how much she meant to me, and was also able to tell her, "Don't worry, I know how to get to school."

This huge leap I made in language acquisition is why I continue to seek opportunities to live and study Arabic abroad.  My academic goal is to participate in the Boren Language Flagship Program, a very selective program through which I will be able to achieve near-fluency in MSA. My professional goal is to work in education: study-abroad programs for undergrads or supporting foreign students coming to the U.S.  I want to be able to give students a version of my experience.  I want them to know that speaking a language is not about tests or grades, but about seeing the surprised grin on a stranger’s face when you speak to them in their language.

With the recent revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, and the continued misunderstanding between the US and the MENA regions after September 11, I want to help Americans gain a much-needed comprehensive understanding of the region.  The advanced proficiency in MSA I gain from this scholarship will help me towards these goals.

15 March 2012

A Challenging Boss

I have faced many challenges living and working in diverse groups, in both the United States and abroad.  The greatest challenges I faced were during my three years in Morocco.  One of my hardest days as a volunteer was in April 2008.  It began as usual, with an Arabic lesson from my tutor.  After the lesson, we went into my supervisor’s office to discuss my English classes.  My tutor, trying to improve my language, did not translate.  My supervisor, a grizzled 50-year-old with yellow teeth, blew smoke in my face and acted like he did not understand my Arabic.  Used to his personality, I stayed calm until my tutor’s best friend came into the room.

The three men began to speak in the fastest Moroccan Arabic I had ever heard, and then started asking me, “What good do you really think you can do in our town?”  “Why did Americans vote for Bush twice?”  “Do you all hate Muslims?” and others.  Overwhelmed and surprised, I realized I my language was not yet advanced enough to properly answer their questions.  I decided to leave before I started to yell or cry, which would risk my fragile reputation in the community.  I quietly stood up with dignity, said a polite goodbye and - ignoring my tutor’s surprised look and the growling shouts of my supervisor - walked out of the office.

Fortunately, the next day, I was able to meet with my tutor and explain that I had felt outnumbered and overwhelmed.  He explained that they had simply been excited to ask a “real” American questions, after hearing so much about us in the media.  We went back to my supervisor and, this time through the mediation and translation of my tutor, we succeeded in planning the English language classes for the next month.