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Learning Arabic: One Path to a More Globalized World

posted on: Mar 29, 2017

BY: Daniel Gil/Contributing Writer

Summer in Washington D.C. can become unbearably hot and humid, and the inability to pay an $80 dollar bill at an expensive, uptown Yemeni restaurant can really make someone sweat.

This is the situation that Selam Berhea and her friend Lujain Al-Khawi unknowingly found themselves in one night last summer after their college orientation at George Washington University.

“It was so expensive and we had no idea. It was bad,” says Berhea, who is now a freshman at GW studying journalism and mass communication.

“My friend and I wanted to practice our Arabic while we were at the restaurant because Lujain is from Yemen. Then this older guy at the table next to us began talking to us in Arabic because he was so excited to hear us speaking it. It turned out that he had two daughters who went to GW,” Berhea told Arab America.

After finishing their meal the bill was placed in front of the two girls. “We both kinda freaked out a little bit,” says Berhea, laughing. “But then the waiter came back to us and said ‘that man who just walked out of the door just paid for your whole meal.’”

Berhea, who is now taking her second semester of Arabic, wanted to tell this story because she felt it highlighted one of the most important aspects about learning another language: the ability to be able to converse and form relationships with people in a world becoming increasingly more globalized.

“I think I benefit from learning Arabic a lot… I’ve had really nice interactions, where I’ve surprised people by saying hello or how are you. It has started great conversations that would have never taken place if I wasn’t studying Arabic,” the GW student said.

Berhea knew she’d be learning other languages early on in her life. Her father speaks three languages and her mother speaks four, so learning a second language, at the least, was something that she knew she had to do.

“I’ve always thought Arabic sounded and looked beautiful. And the more I experienced Arab culture, the more I wanted to learn it.”

Apart from being able to converse with strangers, the cognitive benefits of learning a second language are enormous. The American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages reported that from a very early age, learning another language increases brain elasticity. In other words, just by learning another language, you can become smarter.

Joy Kayode, another freshman that is in Berhea’s Arabic class echoes what she has to say about learning Arabic.

“I’ve found learning the language has helped me rekindle my connection with my Nigerian roots… I also think it is extremely important to learn languages outside of the one(s) spoken in the household. Learning a different language and about a different culture will help alleviate the ignorance and biases that are still present today, especially in America,” Kayode noted.

The student went on to add that she sees “a lack of knowledge of different cultural backgrounds and a sense of unwillingness to learn.”

Both girls acknowledge, however, that learning an entirely new language, especially one as foreign to them as Arabic, comes with its own sets of challenges.

For Kayode, the most difficult part of learning Arabic is having to separate it from the languages she already knows, which can leave her feeling overwhelmed. For Berhea, its grammatical aspects can be hard for her to grasp, as they are so different from English.

Vruti Venkatesan, a sophomore also studying Arabic at GW, who is planning to travel abroad to Jordan next semester, agrees with both girls. However, the most difficult part for her now is being able to understand native speakers.

“I am certain that being immersed in the culture and dialect there will help me immensely in improving my understanding of the language, culture, and Arab societies, in general,” Venkatesan said confidently.

Although they all agree there are certainly hurtles to jump in learning Arabic, they are also all agreement about the importance of having these skills as students, members of the workforce, and as Americans. As far as grammar and vocabulary goes, “it’s nothing that can’t be overcome with practice,” says Berhea.