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.

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