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Learning Arabic: Respect the tradition

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

In first semester Arabic this year, there are 15 students. They’re a pretty close, tight-knit group because it takes a special kind of student to take--and do well in--Arabic. Meeting five days a week, the language requires a little more effort than the average class at UW-Madison.

They are all very smart, very driven and very in tune with what they want to do next. Everyone has a specific story of why they decided to dedicate themselves to Arabic language study.

Allie Gliner loves languages, with a smidge of knowledge of just about everything and strong Spanish skills already. For her, Arabic just seemed to be the perfect challenge to take on next.

“I know I love language and I wanted to do something on an international level and Arabic, especially in our world right now, is such an important language that I really wanted to be fluent in it,” said Allie. 

Min Hwang was taken by Arabic for a variety of reasons. At first, he was quick to tell that he was there to get an internship. He was looking for a critical language to be more marketable. He knew he wanted to do something international, especially related to the Middle East, so Arabic became the natural choice for him. He talked about how his dad was a consultant in the Middle East. With knowledge of that profession, he realized that was the type of career he wanted to pursue.

Like Min’s familial tie to the Middle East, another student, Izzy Marshall, articulated how she ended up in Arabic class. Her parents actually met in Egypt and in some way or another the Middle East had just become an interesting region to study that has now developed into a deeper passion. She is driven by a desire to visit the Middle East and her desire to travel keeps her working.

Noor Hammad is learning to speak to communicate with her family. Both her parents are Palestinian, but her eyes lit up as she discussed the multitude of dialects that Arabic has. From the colloquial words that separated Jordanian Arabic from Syrian Arabic, she was curious to learn about new cultures through the various dialects. She talked about the future courses she wanted to take and all of the options and opportunities studying Arabic could create for her.

“Honestly, I think how many different dialects in Arabic there are--and yet these people came together and created this formal Arabic so everybody can understand each other,” said Noor.

Lindsey Borleske, a junior international studies major, was giddy with excitement as she showed off pictures of Amman, Jordan. Lindsey decided on Arabic to complete the language component of her major, but it also nicely complemented her Middle East Studies Certificate. Her upcoming study abroad to Jordan will involve her participation in the Refugees, Health and Humanitarian Action Program at the School of International Training in spring 2017. Her passion for international immigration policy motivated her commitment to the language.

Versyn Wang had a bit of a different story with a unique passion for Islamic tradition as it explained astrology and cosmology. With a double major in history and astrophysics, Arabic language study was the key to continuing her research on the relationship between astronomic events and Arab traditions.

“I had a very strong desire to learn Arabic when I was in China. There are not very strong Arabic institutions there.”

Each student had a powerful reason for being in Arabic. The fact that they continue to devote time and energy to the language is a testament to how much they want to learn, and master, this language, but their reasons also gave way to something often overlooked: respect.

Min, Noor, Izzy, Lindsey, Versyn, Allie; they all respected one another. They respected each other’s stories and reasons for having their seat at the table, but they also respected the language and culture they were learning.

With all of them, between translation attempts, comments on the class or other memories, came a deep-rooted respect for the language and each other in the stories they learn and tell. 

Story by Jen Wagman, Language Institute

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