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Arabic Language Study

Madeleine Chang
Middlebury College
Grant Year: 
Madeleine Chang

This past summer, the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies helped me attend the Intensive Arabic Summer Program at Middlebury College. I went to Middlebury with two objectives in mind: first, to learn more Arabic; and second, to better understand the way Americans learn a language deemed critical to national security and what that says about the purpose of language study. My interest in the politicization of Arabic language study arose from my experience using the ubiquitous American Arabic textbook that teaches the words “United Nations” and “army” before the colors or food. I was curious if students’ motivations for learning Arabic matched with the textbook’s focus.


On the technical front, I learned a year’s worth of college Arabic in two months and developed confidence and fluidity as a result of the program’s signature language pledge (a promise to speak only Arabic 24/7). In the beginning, the Arabic language pledge felt like a social experiment: we were 150 strangers, half college students, half graduate students and professionals, from a diversity of backgrounds, all reduced to communicating in broken phrases and hand gestures. Friend groups were based on level of fluency—a cohort united by the same degree of frustration with limited expression, in which none of us could be funny, angry, or say anything abstract.


As paired down versions of ourselves, we memorized grammar in Arabic, watched Al Jazeera news clips in Arabic, went out to dinner in Arabic, attended academic lectures on topics like “media consolidation in the Arab world” in Arabic, memorized poetry in Arabic, and eventually started thinking and dreaming in Arabic. At the end of the program, a friend and I MC’ed the final talent show and were able to entertain an audience for two hours. Some of the jokes fell flat (as they also probably would have in English too), but others drew a collective laugh—a marked improvement from the early days when we could only laugh at each other’s hand gestures.


Middlebury was also a charged site for my question of learning Arabic in post-9/11 America. Students came to Middlebury from a variety of fields and political orientations. At a single lunch table there would be a comparative literature PhD student, a military linguist, and a college freshman, all there to improve Arabic but for vastly different applications. Ironically, one of the more “culturally different” aspects of my experience was not the Arabic but rather exposure to Americans living outside progressive college campuses. I interviewed students about their interests in and experiences of learning Arabic, and found a dynamic link between the limitations of curriculum and students’ professional trajectories or aspirations.


I am so grateful for having had this opportunity to intensively study Arabic. It allowed me to take higher-level classes at Stanford like Classic Arabic Poetry, and prompted me to think critically about the role of Arabic education in American foreign policy. I am now equipped to engage with media in Arabic (the news, Facebook, blogs, etc.), which has opened up a wealth of perspectives I could not have previously seen. Access to language in this way has supported my understandings of both current events and Middle Eastern history. I hope to continue broadening this window into culture and history throughout my time at Stanford.