Declining opportunities for Arabic immersion

August 9, 2010 — 6 Comments

I’ve often written about my frustrating with U.S. government bureaucracy that prevents me from fully immersing in Arabic-speaking culture.  The longer I study Arabic and live in the region, the more and more I’m concerned about declining opportunities for Americans to master the language.

In a nutshell, Arabic is so hard that it takes constant immersion to learn it well.  Living in an Arabic-speaking country is not enough; you need to be hearing and using Arabic constantly.  Believe it or not, there aren’t that many places in the Middle East where an American can easily do that, and U.S. government policies compound the problem.

I’m trying to figure out what to advise the Olmsted Foundation about future Arabic-speaking scholars, because there just aren’t that many good options.  The Gulf is way too Westernized.  In Morocco the dialect is vastly different from the rest of the Arab world, and French is used as often as not.  Jordan is probably the best place in the area to study Arabic, but the U.S. Embassy will only host one scholar at a time and has turned off other immersion programs because of security concerns.  That leaves the same standby option that the Olmsted Foundation has relied on for years: the American University of Cairo in Egypt.  The problem is that, from everything I’ve heard, AUC is terrible for immersion.  Egyptians who go study there are from the super-elite and speak fluent English.  Worse, AUC relocated recently to an isolated new campus far from Cairo.  The $400 million campus has all the amenities a student could want, except for one tiny thing… language immersion.

That view of AUC was confirmed by this article, passed along by the Arabist.  Ursula Lindsay writes, “The Center for Arabic Study Abroad–a premier language program financed primarily by the U.S. Department of Education–has just relocated to the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus.”  Why?  Students hated the new campus.  Everyone spoke English, and they were isolated from real Egyptian culture.  95% of them felt that the location adversely impacted their ability to learn Arabic.  I’m glad CASA was able to relocate, but American students at all levels will still be forced to live and study in the new campus.

Americans face declining opportunities to be immersed in Arabic.  I hate to always be harping on this subject, but I see it as a serious national security issue.  I imagine the situation is similar for many other strategic languages.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

6 responses to Declining opportunities for Arabic immersion

  1. Out of experience with American expats in the Kingdom, I believe the most important variables are age and environment.
    The young ones especially the pragmatic & stubborn ones were the most successful in learning the language and even local accents.

    Add to that, those who had the chance to live with a host family, especially outside the Westernised capital, Amman; had better chance in learning the language and maintaining their ability to converse with it.

    One of my friends left the Kingdom two years ago but she still able to converse in Arabic although she isn’t practising it in the States.

    So I think it’s your decision to look for a better environment to learn the language within Jordan.

  2. Mark,

    Do you have any updates on opportunities overseas to learn Arabic? I’m an over-30 post-grad on the hunt for immersive instruction over several months/year. I’ve found a number of undergraduate-based programs, but very few unattached from a university degree. I’d appreciate any updates you can offer.

    • My experience is already getting dated, but there are some schools out there that cater to non-undergraduate learners. I never actually studied there, but the Qasid Institute in Amman has a strong reputation. Both the University of Jordan and American University in Cairo have summer intensive programs, and I don’t think you need to be seeking any kind of degree to apply. Hope that helps!

      • Thanks Mark for the quick reply.

        I’ve just been reviewing the website for the
        Sana’a Institute for Arabic Language in Yemen. It’s admirably affordable compared to Qasid. Do you know of it? I’ve found a few others on-line as well that offer year-round instruction. Can you advise on any programs to avoid?

        What did you finally recommend to the Olmstead Foundation?

        • I honestly don’t know much about schools outside Jordan, so can’t comment on the Yemen option. But honestly, I think the important thing is just being in an Arabic-speaking country somewhere and having a commitment to speak with people as often as possible in Arabic. The school itself is somewhat secondary, and if it’s weak, you could always supplement it with some private tutoring. To answer your questions, the only program in Jordan I consistently heard bad things about was the University of Jordan’s Language Center. For Olmsted, it’s ultimately up to each scholar where they study, and most scholars draw on multiple schools and tutors.

  3. Mark, I am currently submitting my application for Qasid. I’d like to ask you a few more questions about Amman. If you are willing might you send me an email if you can access my address from these posts?

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