12 April 2012

Amman Critical Language Scholarship (Originally posted in Jadaliyya)

Mar 24 2012
by Ghassan Husseinali 

[Students at ancient Roman ruins in Northern Jordan. Image from author.] 

Following the September 11 attacks, the US government designated a number of languages as “critical need languages”; Arabic was and still is, of course, on top of the list. In order to ensure enough Americans are learning these “critical need languages” and to ensure higher proficiency levels and deeper understandings of target cultures, the US government established the Critical Languages Scholarship (CLS) program. Administered by the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs with partner institutions, CLS students spend seven to ten weeks in the summer speaking and learning the target language. What follows is a reflection on one CLS Arabic immersion program: CLS Amman, Jordan 2011. 

CLS Amman began in 2006. Traditionally, and before the start of the Arab Spring, the Amman program accepted around thirty students. However, due to the revolution in Egypt, the Alexandria CLS program was diverted to Jordan, and the Amman program ended up with a total of fifty-six students. After contemplation, CLS Amman administrators decided to run one single program instead of two parallel ones, each with its own administration. However, for pedagogical and management reasons, we divided the 2011 group into two distinct subgroups: advanced learners (those originally destined to Alexandria) and beginner learners (those selected for Amman).

Students arrived in Jordan two days prior to the start of the program, during which they were kept busy attending a number of orientations and a ten-hour Jordanian dialect foundation course. They were also introduced to key sites and locations in the city of Amman that they later visited on their own. The program lasted eight weeks and integrated three key aspects of learning Arabic in Jordan: modern standard Arabic (MSA), the Jordanian dialect, and Jordanian culture. The program’s focus was intended to enable students to learn and use as much Arabic (MSA and dialect) as possible and to gain a deeper understanding of Jordanian cultural perspectives. From my perspective as Academic Director, I wanted to provide as much opportunity as possible to maximize learning of the Arabic language (standard and dialect) and to provide activities to ensure student interaction with local communities to gain insight into local perspectives.

Every day, students had four-and-a-half hours of instruction in Arabic: three hours of MSA, one hour of Jordanian dialect, and half an hour of one-on-one conversation with a native speaking partner. All MSA and dialect classes were conducted at the Qasid Institute in Amman, a fifteen-minute drive from the students’ residence at the American Council on Oriental Research (ACOR), in west Amman. 

[Academic Director Ghassan Husseinali in conversation with a student.]

In addition to classroom instruction, key educational components took place outside of classrooms. One such component was Language Socialization. Once a week, students visited local sites such as museums, art galleries, shopping areas or the downtowns of different Jordanian cities. These mandatory weekly field trips were meant to give students everyday opportunities to interact with Jordanians in Arabic. In order to ensure completion of associated tasks in a timely manner, they were linked to in-class presentations and CLS blog postings.

Initially, students “hated Language Socialization” because the sites they were asked to visit—museums and art galleries— were not places they had expected or wanted to see. Sensing their frustration, I met with both student groups and listened to their comments on this matter. Based on their feedback, I directed advanced learners to choose, themselves, the sites or organizations they wished to visit. Subsequently, advanced students started visiting charities, football games, and families. They also took trips with their Jordanian friends. This change made Language Socialization more fun and more productive for advanced students. 

For beginner Arabic students, I changed locales for weekly outings from places of high art and culture to more popular places such as markets and downtowns without, however, giving students the option to choose and make arrangements by themselves. Keeping a structure was necessary for this group because their Arabic language skills initially were not high enough to allow them to conduct visits, without assistance from our staff. However, toward the end of the program, beginner students were gradually given the option to choose their own site visits. This worked perfectly for everyone in the program. Students’ blogs and presentations became more lively, using more Arabic on a variety of topics. This video shows beginner students shopping for traditional Jordanian women’s clothes. 

[A student makes pottery at the Taybeh women's cooperative.]

Another structured cultural learning component involved weekly culture club events. Students in each group (advanced and beginners) were asked to enroll in one of four cultural clubs set up by the CLS Amman program: Dabke (traditional folk dancing), Cooking, Calligraphy, and Drama. Each club was supervised and led taught by an expert instructor hired from the local community, for that purpose only. The Dabke and Drama Clubs were the most successful, while the Calligraphy Club was the least successful. The calligraphy instructor—though an expert calligrapher—had no pedagogical training and did not know how to teach calligraphy to foreign students. This newsletter update illustrates the kinds of activities each club embarked upon. 

At the end of CLS Amman 2011, students participated in a talent show combined with an Iftar party attended by local guests, teachers, and US embassy personnel. Despite initial skepticism when I first suggested it, the talent show was a hit—especially the Dabke and Drama Club shows. The talent show gave students a unique platform to show how hard they had worked towards gaining Arabic mastery and allowed them to see themselves and us not merely as administrators, teachers or speaking partners but as fellow human beings. I think it would make perfect sense not only to have a final talent show but also to have a mid-program mini-talent show as a socialization event in the future. 

Despite all of the program’s successes, I feel that it would have been even more effective if the language pledge was mandatory and enforced more strictly. Two weeks into the program, it became apparent that students were not always speaking in Arabic between themselves, even when they were supposed to. English was spoken during recess times between classes, in the bus on the way to class, and at lunch and dinner. 

There were also some complaints about the dialect classes being less organized than MSA classes. I agree that this was the case, for pragmatic reasons. First, we did not have a good Jordanian dialect textbook to follow, so all the dialect materials had to be developed quickly by our staff. Another reason was the proficiency variation within each class, resulting from the merger of two programs into one. 

Another area of possible improvement would be to reduce the stress on students by not requiring over-the-phone Oral Proficiency Interviews during the program’s final week. We ran into endless problems of scheduling, phone line breaks, and very poor voice quality. It would have been better to have held these interviews one week after students had returned to the United States. 

Finally, I cannot conclude without praising Jordan as an exceptionally welcoming and safe country for CLS Arabic language learning. As our student Reedy Swanson told The Jordan Times, ”The unbelievable hospitality of the people here makes me want to return.” To the surprise of students, “strangers” were always very helpful. As Swanson puts it, “The best advice you can get here is to rely on the kindness of strangers.” Jordanians are a warm and friendly people who are always fascinated by foreigners learning their language and culture. One time, I took a taxi that had just dropped off some of our students, and the driver told me how impressed he was with “these foreigners who speak Arabic better than we do.” Of course, he did not know that I was associated with “these foreigners.” It was the greatest compliment an Arabic teacher can ever get. 

Throughout the eight week period, I heard many stories about students making friends with Jordanians, visiting their homes, playing chess with them or how they had become friends with hookah store staff. By the program’s end, CLS students could travel and do anything they wanted to do in Amman and elsewhere in Jordan, using Arabic only. To me, speaking the Arabic language and connecting with its people and culture are the true measures of a successful language immersion experience. And CLS Amman, Jordan 2011 was a success indeed.

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