Hannah Miller is currently participating in the year-long Flagship Capstone program. She scored among the top ten students in the nation taking the qualifying exams for it and for the Center for Arabic Study Abroad’s fellowships (the latter also includes graduate students among applicants). This is a significant accomplishment for anyone, but especially for a student who struggled in her second-year Arabic classes.
My Arabic Journey
When I first started my undergraduate career, my goal was to finish school in four years, maybe fit in a study abroad, and to not let school and classes get in the way of my social life. I wasn’t interested in taking difficult classes.
My second semester of Freshman year, I signed up for Arabic. I needed a language credit and originally wanted to study Spanish, but someone in my family mentioned that I could learn Spanish anywhere and I should take the opportunity to learn something unique. So, on whim, I signed up for Arabic 101. It quickly turned out to be the most demanding class I had ever taken, partly because of the teacher I had but also because the content was challenging for me. But it was also the most interesting and rewarding class I had ever taken.
Studying Arabic entails so much more than just linguistic learning and I loved learning about the cultural, historical, religious and social aspects that are inseparable from the language. For that reason, I decided to make Middle East Studies my major.
After the first semester of Arabic, I lost a lot of my passion for learning the language. I started to doubt my language learning abilities and noticed that others in my class memorized and understood things much quicker than I did, even though I consistently did the homework and attended class. I had never seriously studied a language before. I especially struggled to understand grammar and comprehend reading passages which was discouraging. Studying Arabic became more and more challenging for me as time went on and I didn’t enjoy it very much for two semesters. Fortunately, I had some good friends in the class that encouraged me to continue so that we could do the Jordan study abroad together. I decided I would give it a chance and then decide if I wanted to continue Arabic study. I had previously been on a study abroad to Spain and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, that study abroad was mostly play, travel, and very little study or hard work. I heard from many other Arabic students that the Jordan study abroad was very difficult, and stressful. Therefore, I felt very little excitement about going leading up to it.
However, within about a week of arriving in Jordan, my attitude changed completely. Suddenly the language became exciting again because it was functional. I could use it to talk to people, make friends, explore the city, and learn about a culture I knew almost nothing about. In my first week, I met some great people, including my teachers and speaking partners and became obsessed with being able to talk with them. I diligently did my homework every day, attended all of my classes and appointments. I found extra time to study the dialect and exploited all the opportunities I could to talk and interact with locals. All my studying became deliberate and meaningful because I always had a goal and vision of how I could use whatever I was learning. I developed strategies that worked well for me and began to excel linguistically in ways I never had before. I worked very hard, but I also believe I had more fun than anyone else on my program.
When I returned, my goals and visions of returning to the Middle East, resuming old friendships and starting new ones, motivated me to continue to work hard in all of my Arabic classes. I made a lot of progress in some of the upper-level Arabic classes at my university. And the opportunity to return to Jordan came quickly, first as an intern and I then stayed on to work as a TA for the same language program I had just participated in. This time, my much-improved Arabic facilitated even more friendships and interactions with many amazing people and organizations.
My professor once said that a variety of factors contribute to success in second language acquisition. Three of the main elements I remember are talent (20+ cognitive traits), work/effort (“time on task”), and personality. Certainly, just working hard was not my only ingredient for success. I have an out-going and confident personality that also played a huge role in helping me make connections with locals. Lots of elements, including personal traits, strategies, motivations, time management, and much more, contributed to my Arabic achievements. The equation or balance of elements might look different for each Arabic student. Part of the journey is figuring out what works for you.
Today, four and a half years after starting Arabic, I have spent nearly 10 months of my undergraduate career in the Middle East, interned for multiple NGO’s, worked as an Arabic TA and tutor, competed in a national and an international Arabic debate competition, and much more. Right now, I am lucky enough to be participating in some of the best Arabic language programs around. Four and a half years ago, I had no experience in language study. I knew nothing about Arabic and very little about the Middle East. I worked hard to be mediocre for four semesters. I strongly disliked studying Arabic for many months. My pay off came late, but the pay off was huge. If I can do it, anyone can.
When asked if she felt her second-year Arabic experience could have been different, she replied: “I think that the experience didn’t have to be the way it was. I don’t know what could have been different though. I don’t think there was anything anyone could have told me back then that could have helped me see a more hopeful future. I just didn’t have a vision of the future. And I certainly don’t think that suffering or struggle is inevitable or necessary in order to learn Arabic, it’s just the way it happened for me, for a number of reasons.”