Monday, May 05, 2008

The Lifestyle of a Long-Term Arabic Student

I really shouldn't bitch. I'm essentially getting paid to go to class for seven months, i.e. getting paid to do what I sort of did at Wash. U. for four years to the tune of $40K a year. Here's some of the highlights of what I'm doing now.
  • This week, I and some of the other advanced students are being paired up at lunch with a group of visiting Iraqi diplomats. I'm assuming that they know little to no English, so it'll be fun. I just hope I can understand them - Iraqi Arabic is a beast unto itself.
  • Two weeks ago I and my class were interviewed by al-Hurra, the satellite channel we fund in the Arab world. It was a fluffy piece about how Uncle Sam is teaching its diplomats Arabic - skipping over the fact that everyone in my class had actually learned the language outside the department. Nonetheless, it was a pretty sweet deal to be interviewed in Arabic. I got my ten to fifteen seconds of "fame" (al-Hurra doesn't exactly have much of a viewership anywhere), and I didn't flub up my grammar!
  • This afternoon I sat out at a coffeeshop and read a Saudi magazine, al-Majalla, which is associated with The Economist. It was a slow read, but I managed to get all of the meaning of the editorials without help from a dictionary. This is a major, major success for me: it means that I've finally learned the useful political and economic terms that the standard Arabic textbook series completely ignores. I'm functional! Yay!
Of course, no list like that is complete without some downsides.
  • The problem of being in the most or second-most advanced Arabic class is that there is absolutely no curriculum designed for us. FSI is very good at taking people from zero to basic proficiency in Arabic, but it's not designed to take people much higher than the basic level required at post. There's a field school in Tunisia to take care of that, but you can't go into that program until you have been in the service for five years or more. Which, of course, is bad news for me: I and a handful of others fall between the curricular cracks, and it's really obvious. Unfortunately, the curriculum won't be developed to even a draft phase until long after I'm gone to Saudi.
  • The Arabic program has grown from eight teachers in 2001 to fifty now. This necessarily means that there have been some growing pains, and it shows in the uneven quality of teachers. I've had some wonderful ones here, among the best teachers I've ever had in any subject, and I've had others that spent all day talking about their cats (not making this up). It's really frustrating.
  • We have a morning a week devoted to area studies, also known as a reprise of four years of college, or alternately as Arabic Films 101, which I evidently failed the first three times and must now repeat. If I have to watch Control Room one more time, I am going to scream.
  • Have I ever mentioned that Arabic is really, really hard? Seriously. What was I thinking when I signed up in August 2003?
All things considered, I'm still getting a sweet deal - 30 hours of Arabic a week, in a class with four students, and more conversation practice than I've ever had. I just wish it were a bit better than what it is. So if you talk to me and I seem particularly bitter about Arabic, that's why.

1 comment:

  1. I understand your frustration...you join the State Department to see the world, then spend several months cooling your jets in suburban Virginia! Still, it'll end soon enough and you'll be in lovely Riyadh! Take the opportunity to catch up on some reading see the sights in the DC area!

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