Program immerses students into Middle Eastern languages, culture

From the La Crosse Tribune
By Kate Schott

Hala Ghoneim is never off duty this summer.

An instructor for the Summer Arabic and Persian Immersion Program at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, she doesn’t just teach classes, but also lives with her students in Baird residence hall.

“There is no shift,” she said. “I’m never done.”

But there are trade-offs, she said, like being able to shatter misconceptions about the Middle East.

Ghoneim said many see Middle Eastern women as oppressed or less educated. She has been able to change stereotypes by sharing her story: She is an Egyptian woman who also is a graduate student at UW-Madison.

Ghoneim is one of 10 instructors working with 28 students enrolled in the program, an intense eight weeks in which students learn either Arabic or Persian as well as Middle Eastern culture.

Instructors said one of the most demanding aspects is the language contract. Students vow to speak, read and write only in Arabic or Persian during their stay in La Crosse, except in emergencies or situations of common courtesy.

This is the second year for the immersion program but the first year it has been held at UW-L. Instructor Abdesalam Soudi said the La Crosse campus was chosen because it is a community open to diversity.

Program director Dustin Cowell, an associate professor of African Languages and Literature at UW-Madison, said benefits of the program include a high proficiency level in the language in eight weeks.

Students spend about four hours a day in class — roughly the same amount of hours taken during an academic year — but the exposure is greater because students have no other classes and the language is spoken all day.

Instructors said students can get frustrated but said most are committed to not breaking the language contract.

To honor that agreement, the Tribune wrote questions that instructors translated into Arabic and had students write responses. Answers were translated back into English and are published here.

Julie and Allen Depp have had one main frustration in the program. Julie Depp, 31, has taught English in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, so she knows some Arabic. Her husband, Allen, is a beginning student, so the two have not been able to communicate much.

Depp said she enrolled in the course because she is not supposed to speak in Arabic at work but would like to be able to talk with those outside of work, as well as listen to the news and understand culture.

Brad Wilson, a 21-year-old from August, Ga., is an enlisted Arabic linguist in the Army. He wrote that his commander sent him to the program to further improve his language skills in Arabic. Wilson said he is more comfortable using the language after the first few weeks of the program, although he misses listening to English music.

“The opportunity of a language immersion is good in the sense that it is void of regular daily interruptions,” he said.