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All Arabic, all the time - in Vermont

Middlebury College students of the language must pledge to speak, read and write only Arabic for nine weeks.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2003

photo
[Times photo: Susan Taylor Martin]
A Middlebury College calligraphy club member writes Arabic letters.

MIDDLEBURY, Vermont - Despite the wilting heat, a dozen students listen intently as instructor Ghazi Abu Hakmeh fires off a series of questions:

Does George Bush have children?

Does George Bush have sons?

How many girls does George Bush have?

The questions might seem silly, given that this is a class at Middlebury College, one of the nation's top liberal arts schools. But what makes the rapid-fire exchange unusual is that it is being conducted entirely in Arabic. Even more remarkably, it has been just 10 days since the students began learning the language.

"This session was somewhat encouraging," says Warren Larson, a college professor from South Carolina. Though at times he feels like he's "almost sinking," Larson, 58, was pleasantly surprised to discover he not only understood the instructor but could actually answer the questions.

"When you think about it, it's amazing that after just two weeks we're able to have conversations in Arabic."

Few places could be farther removed from the deserts of the Middle East than the verdant hills and rolling farmlands of New England. Yet in this incongruous setting, 97 men and women from government, academia and other fields are spending their summer in what's considered one of the world's best and most rigorous Arabic language programs.

Unique among such courses, Middlebury's Arabic School requires students to take a "language pledge" - vowing to speak, read and write nothing but Arabic from the time they get up until they collapse into bed after hours of homework. They read Al-Hayat, watch Al-Jazeera and dine on kashtaliya, a Syrian dessert prepared by one of several Arabic clubs on campus.

Even the American University in Cairo, where many U.S. citizens head to learn Arabic, is hard pressed to offer such an intensive experience.

"Study abroad is so language-polluted with CNN, the International Herald Tribune and Internet cafes," says Dr. Michael Katz, dean of Middlebury's language schools. "This is total immersion: We learn language by listening, reading, speaking and writing. The idea is that if you deluge a person with input all day and all night, the English sort of retreats."

Although other U.S. schools offer Arabic during the regular academic year, Middlebury has long been renowned for its summer language programs: The first, German, began in 1915 during World War I. In response to changing times, the college has added eight other languages including Russian, Chinese and Japanese.

Created in 1982, the Arabic program has traditionally been among the smallest in enrollment. But interest in Arab language and culture soared after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the number of inquiries has more than doubled in the past two years.

Even the CIA, acutely aware of its shortage of trained Arabists, asked Middlebury to create a program for its agents.

The college said no.

"It's flattering to us that the Navy and FBI and CIA come to us and say, "You guys do it very well and we'd like you to help us,' " Katz says. "But I'm not about to get into the business of tailoring courses for a particular group. We tell them we'd be glad to have their students, if qualified, to come for the regular nine weeks."

(The CIA has agents in this year's language courses, but the college won't say if any are studying Arabic.)

In general, Middlebury strives for a balance: undergraduate and graduate students; language teachers seeking to perfect their skills; and "others" - primarily government employees, military officers and journalists. Among those who have gone through the course are a New York Times reporter and a former deputy chief of staff to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Students are divided into four levels, from beginners who know little more than marhaba - hello - to those who are close to fluency.

But no one thinks the Arabic school is easy.

"I've never worked this hard," says Erin Harris, 23, a graduate student in Arabic at Georgetown University. "You're literally living, sleeping, breathing Arabic all day long - not just in class, but I stay up until 2:30 a.m."

Harris, who is considering a career with the State Department, studied Arabic in Jordan but found it hard to become fluent because so many Jordanians wanted to practice their English with her. At Middlebury, though, adherence to the language pledge is so strict that even when she and friends went to Mr. Up's, a local bar, they talked only in Arabic.

"No teachers were around, and we very easily could have slipped into English," Harris says. "But everybody really does keep the pledge. It's amazing that we were able to spend two hours talking about boyfriends and things like that."

Still, despite her relatively advanced level, Harris struggles to understand conversations in which she is unfamiliar with the subject matter. And "while I can read and write pretty well, it comes to the point where I don't have any more vocabulary to express myself. You start using little words and try to make yourself clear."

That could be one reason there has been little discussion of the Mideast's complicated politics (even though a Palestinian flag hangs from one dorm window).

Besides, "it's a very closed environment here," says Beverly Moran, 48, a Vanderbilt University law professor and second-level Arabic student. "You really wouldn't want to get into much anyway, just to keep the peace."

"Everyone pitching in'

One of the world's most commonly spoken languages, Arabic is the main tongue of 200-million people spread across 23 countries in the Mideast and Africa. But Westerners often find it hard to learn because it has a different alphabet and is written right to left, like Hebrew.

Pronunciation is also tricky. Depending on how it's said, hamam can mean either "bathroom" or "pigeon."

First-year students "are the bravest," says Christopher Stone, the school's assistant director. "The language pledge is more onerous for them, like a return to the preverbal state of childhood. . . . We ask our faculty and upper-level students to be patient and sit with them in the dining hall - there's a real sense of everyone pitching in."

For the first two weeks, beginners take a modified pledge allowing them to ask questions in English if they are hopelessly stumped. But after one week, most are able to get by in their new language.

In the class discussing President Bush's kids, for example, fewer than a dozen words of English were spoken in the entire 75 minutes. The instructor deftly used familiar names and situations to expand the students' vocabulary and communication skills. The questions were designed to help them learn their numbers (Bush has zero sons and two daughters) and discuss family relationships, considered all-important in the Arab world.

"The Arabic you see in the Berlitz book is "I need a hotel with a double bed.' What we try to create are scenarios that encourage students to use vocabulary" of everyday life, Stone says.

"We role-play a wedding where you go around and introduce yourself to as many people as possible - I'm so-and-so, I'm from such-and-such a place, also asking questions and using a lot of family words."

Classroom work is augmented by lectures, sports and other activities.

On a recent Wednesday evening, beginner and advanced students alike sat through an hourlong lecture and slide show on Arab calligraphy. Some beginners looked blank as the speaker explained in Arabic how handwriting evolved into an art form because so much representational art is banned in Islam.

Still, even the most verbally challenged students could enjoy the slides and grasp 10 or 12 words of the lecture. And at the end of nine weeks, they will know as much Arabic as if they had attended a full year of college-level courses.

"We know it's very difficult and frustrating, but it bangs into your head," says Mahmoud Abdalla, the school's acting director. "We're building their listening ability."

Every student is also required to join a club. The most popular this year are Arabic Dance - composed entirely of women students - and the Cinema Club. The latter often attracts beginners because films like Ali Zaoua, the story of Moroccan street boys, come with English subtitles.

But Larson, the first-year student who teaches at a Christian college in South Carolina, chose a more challenging club devoted to readings from the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

"I'm quite interested in the Koran, but you never will be a scholar of the Koran unless you know Arabic," says Larson, who spent years as a missionary in the Muslim nation of Pakistan. "Even if I don't get as much verbal fluency as I like, I think I will at least have the basis for reading and that kind of understanding."

(Like other students quoted in this story, Larson got permission to briefly break the language pledge and speak English with a reporter.)

Members of the cooking club, meanwhile, jam a tiny kitchen while religion professor Suleiman Mourad stirs up a pot of moughrabiye, chicken and chickpeas. It is later served in the dining hall where Arabic School students take meals, isolated from those in other language programs.

"They speak good of me because of this," Mourad jokes as everyone heartily applauds the meal.

Arabic as the new Russian

Most instructors are of Arab descent and are working on advanced degrees from top schools in the United States and Mideast, including Dartmouth, Harvard and the American University in Cairo. Many serve double duty: Abu Hakmeh, who hails from the West Bank, teaches Modern Standard Arabic to beginners but also conducts a class in the Palestinian dialect for advanced students.

But one of Middlebury's goals is to expand the pool of American language teachers. The post-Sept. 11 interest in Arabic revealed the dearth of well-trained instructors. (Concern that last year's class, a record 127 students, did not get top-flight teaching prompted Middlebury to scale back the current class to 97 even though there were more than 200 applicants.)

"There was a time when all directors of the Arabic program were native speakers. That's nice, but what sort of model is that presenting for Americans?" asks Katz, dean of the language schools. "We want to have American-trained linguists who have learned the language well enough to teach. It's the non-native speakers who better understand the difficulties of beginners."

While the acting director of the Arabic program is Egyptian, the assistant director, Stone, is a blond, blue-eyed American. This fall, he will teach the first Arabic language and literature courses to be offered during the regular academic year instead of just the summer.

If demand continues, Middlebury could add advanced degree programs in Arabic. But as the staff knows, interest in foreign languages can be fickle.

"Typical American higher education is a reactive process," Katz says. "Something happens like the Cold War and gosh, we better start studying Russian. Then there's 9/11 and everybody starts studying Arabic. Arabic is going gang-busters, but how long is it going to last? I hope it's long lasting, but if it follows the same pattern, in a couple of years we'll all be studying Korean because we're scared of the North Koreans."

Some common Arabic words and phrases:

Peace be with you - Salam alaykum

Hello - Marhaba

Goodbye - Ma salaama

How are you? - Kayf halak?

My name is - Ismi

What is your name? - Shu-ismak?

I am American - Ana amriki.

Do you speak English? - Tatakalam inglesi?

Yes - Na'amm

Please - Mindfadlak

Thank you - Shukran

You are welcome - Afwan

Market - Souq

How much money? - Kam fulus?

God willing - Inshallah

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