Huddled at the corner of a desk in the MEALAC reading room in Kent Hall, Erin Pineda, BC '06, and Anna Phillips, BC '06, squinted at the passage in front of them.
"It doesn't flow. It doesn't make any sense," Phillips said, while flipping through the pages of her green Arabic-English dictionary.
Farrah Sarafa, a first-year MEALAC graduate student sitting at the same table, agreed. "I'm on the prowl for Arabs," she said, while attempting to complete an assignment. "It's so frustrating when you can't find words in the dictionary."
The popularity of Arabic, a notoriously difficult language to learn, has steadily increased over the past four years, with the number of sections of Elementary Arabic I doubling from three to six. One hundred and twenty-nine students are currently taking elementary and intermediate Arabic classes.
As enrollment has increased, a small network of students has come together to offer supplemental learning opportunities, including a weekly conversation hour and student-led tutoring sessions.
Hannah Temple, CC '07, organized a group of intermediate students to meet once a week starting in September, to talk about anything from movies and philosophy to their personal lives.
"Everyone I've talked to about it has been extremely excited, but it's a little hard to get people to actually show up," she said, adding that some weeks, no one comes. "We don't have a budget like the German House does, so we can't make it into a big party."
Temple started the conversation hour after attending the Arabic School at Middlebury College last summer, where full immersion in Arabic was required.
The peer-led tutoring sessions, which meet twice a week for three hours, give students the chance to go over homework or get extra clarification about grammar lessons from class.
Eric Posner, GS '06, spearheaded the program last fall, after talks with George El-Hage, the Arabic language coordinator for the Department.
"I was blessed with a strong foundation in grammar from Professor George El-Hage's elementary classes ... However, speeding through so much so quickly, my brain was aflutter with too much information, and I was eager to reinforce my grammar basics as I entered third-year Arabic," Posner said.
He went on to recruit other intermediate students to help tutor and is pleased to see new intermediate students taking charge, as he has taken academic leave this semester.
Kristin Hickman, BC '07, attended tutoring last year during her first year in the language, and now tutors others.
"It's so good for first-years," she said in between verb conjugations. "We had many, many, many questions, and it was very helpful.
"The best way to learn something is to teach it. Pedagogically speaking, students are equally inclined to learn from each other as much as they learn from an instructor," El-Hage said.
Pineda, who is co-coordinating the tutoring program this semester with Saira Hamidi, a GSAC student, agreed.
"It's a constant review of first-year grammar. It's good for my language skills. It's nice to be able to meet students with the same language and scholastic interests," she said.
Though students agreed unanimously that professors in the Department have been supportive and are willing to help at both the conversation hour and the tutoring sessions, El-Hage said their role will be limited.
"I don't want students to feel that the teacher is dominating the room. They need to feel at ease. Students should leave and come as they need," he said.
Turnout varies at the sessions, with an average of six students in attendance, according to Pineda.
"Most of those who attended the sessions last year were excellent students. Not that this is bad—it helped them excel even further ... Those involved are all big nerds who are excited by Semitic grammar," Posner said.
But this year, more struggling students are starting to attend, Pineda said. The conversation hour usually brings fewer, more advanced students, according to Temple.
"When you start, you basically can't say anything," she explained.
Phillips, a regular at the tutoring session who said she had regressed in her Arabic ability after spending last semester at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, continued to pore over the reading passage about the effects of war on a community.
"The readings got really intense this year," Phillips lamented. "It used to be Sami loves Wardah. Wardah loves Sami. They live in Mecca together."