When Liza Hester '09 first started studying Arabic the summer after her first year at the College, she immediately fell in love with the language and realized that it would become a significant aspect of her life and her career.
At the time, the College did not have the infrastructure to support her interest, and, steadfast in her love for the language, Hester decided to establish an Arabic language program on the Hill. She took on the role of professor herself and taught interested students the Arabic alphabet and rules of grammar. Emma Mayville '13, a government and religious studies double major, studied Arabic on campus at that time and remembers the class having the structure of an "independent study class."
Since then, the program has grown and there are now approximately a dozen students learning Arabic with the help of a native speaker. This year, Fulbright Scholar Saleh al-Hanini traveled to the College from Oman to teach Arabic while taking two classes in other departments. In Al-Hanini's beginner class in modern standard Arabic, students learn about the alphabet and word formation. The second class caters to students who have studied the language before and would like to improve their grammar and reading skills. "My students are very enthusiastic to learn the language," he said.
Mayville, currently enrolled in the advanced class, decided to study abroad in the Middle East after taking Middle Eastern politics and religion classes. "There is a lot of misunderstanding about the Middle East," Mayville said. "This can be reduced by giving learning the language and culture a chance. It is a beautiful language."
She remembers wanting to travel to the places she learned about in class and, after taking an intensive Arabic language course off-campus, spent the past spring in Jordan.
Lisa Kaplan '13 started studying Arabic during the spring semester of her sophomore year and spent a semester in Jordan as well. Her interest in Arabic stemmed from a very personal experience during a previous visit to Israel.
"We came to a checkpoint in Tel Aviv," she recalled. "We went through O.K., but an Arab family [who came after us] had to step out and have their car searched." She was puzzled by the situation and found out that this was common practice with Palestinians. "Therefore, there was a whole other side to this story. I got more and more interested. [I realized that] you need to understand the language to understand the culture."
Although she no longer takes formal Arabic language classes, Kaplan is still very involved in the program. She frequently hosts Arabic dinners for interested students and tunes into Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic to keep herself exposed to the language.
For Gabriela Wyatt '13, it was the Middle Eastern history classes taught by Associate Professor John Turner that sparked her interest in learning the language. Turner, whose research focuses on the interaction of political and religious authority in Arabic societies, was crucial to the program's inception and pushed for requesting fluent Arabic-speaking Fulbright fellows to teach at the College.
Wyatt started studying the language last academic year, when the first Fulbright scholar came to teach, and plans to use her knowledge of the language to aid her senior honors thesis research on Islamic law in regards to divorce.
To get a head start over the summer, Wyatt participated in the Arabic Persian Turkish Language Immersion Institute (APTLII) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She took classes with instructors from different countries in the Arab world, such as Egypt and Morocco, and she was restricted to communicating solely in Arabic for the entirety of the eight-week program.
Back on the Hill for her senior year, Wyatt wants to help expand the Arabic program. "I want to make it comparable to Spanish, French and German here at Colby," she said. "It is definitely pertinent today, especially with all the U.S. involvement in the Middle East."
"The Middle East is a critical region right now," Kaplan agreed. "If people know the language, they will be better able to make policies to promote something good for the region."
In the end, the program's goal is to increase knowledge and awareness about Middle Eastern culture. "Studying Arabic opened my eyes," Wyatt said. "We should know other languages and cultures. The world is not just America and English-land."