At first, Eric Curran was nervous about the idea of learning the Arabic language.
He had previously graduated from Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska with majors in history and religion. Now he is an undeclared major, non-traditional student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, hoping the Arabic classes he is taking will help focus his interests.
Curran was intimidated by the fact that Arabic isn't a Western language. If so few people choose to learn Arabic over languages such as Spanish and French, it must be much harder, he thought.
However, according to Curran, Arabic hasn't been quite as difficult as he originally thought. One of the reasons for this is the newly implemented Arabic Conversation Tables.
Curran is among a group of UNL students who meet every other Wednesday from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. to practice Arabic language abilities. Curran said the group is made up of students of varying age, major and level of Arabic classes offered at UNL.
"I'm still introductory, so I still have trouble picking up a lot of it, but [Conversation Tables] gives insight as to the context of communication between Arabic speakers," Curran said.
Assistant Professor of Practice of Arabic Language & Culture and Undergraduate Advisor for the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures, Dr. Abla Hasan, supervises Arabic Conversation Tables.
Hasan said the project investigates the Arabic culture and provides a free academic environment where students feel comfortable discussing topics not highlighted in the classroom.
So far, the meetings have begun with the showing of a short film or documentary about the Arabic culture. Most of these movies are in Arabic, with English subtitles, so the students can practice listening to the language. Afterwards, the group discusses what they observed as cultural differences between Western and Middle Eastern cultures as well as words or customs they may have learned while watching.
The group has also welcomed guest speakers as a way of enriching discussion. In a previous meeting, students who have had opportunities to study abroad in the Middle East spoke about their experience in the region.
"I'm hoping we continue to get a few more visits like that to show the types of experiences you can have in that culture while learning that language," Curran said. "I've gained further understanding about the Middle East and North Africa because of the speakers."
Sophomore pre-med biology major, Candy Hermosillo, believes Arabic will aid in her long-term goal of working with Doctors Without Borders as a pediatrician someday.
"The combination of wanting to serve in middle eastern countries and a desire for a new linguistic challenge influenced my decision to take Arabic," Hermosillo said. "The conversation table is part of the course, not mandatory but recommended."
Hasan said that many of the discussions are focused on cultural content. The films shown are carefully chosen to highlight the cultural differences as well as controversial and argumentative issues related to the Arabic and Islamic culture.
Topics of discussion include the role of women in the Middle East and the challenges they face in addition to current political updates from all the rapid changes taking place in the Arab world. Some of the topics are of a more historical nature, including Ancient Egyptian and Islamic history. Hasan said that Middle Eastern and North African history deals a lot with human advancement and is important to address during these discussions.
"The Arabic Table is the right place to hold such discussions in an academic-free way," Hasan said. "[It's] void from the pressure from in-class direct observation and grading."
Students like Hermosillo and Curran can receive extra credit in their Arabic courses if they provide a reflection of the meeting, written in English, as well as a list of Arabic vocabulary they were able to identify while watching the film. However, Curran said some members of Conversation Tables don't attend for academic reasons.
"Some are just trying to learn the language for fun, but one student has neighbors from the Middle East, so they wanted to take Arabic in order to better communicate with them," Curran said.
Hasan said the Arabic program is popular among global studies and political science majors, but that Arabic Conversation Tables brings students from many majors. According to her, this interest in Arabic on the UNL campus is because of the "many interesting scholarly and professional opportunities that studying a language nationally classified as a critical language, like Arabic, can provide for them."