Language Emersion: Michelle Wright studies Arabic in Jordan

By Michelle Wright

I had the opportunity to study Arabic in Jordan this summer through the Language Immersion  Summer Award. I enrolled in the in-person course at the Sijal Institute in Amman for 10 weeks  of intensive language study. During the school week, which runs from Sunday through  Thursday in Muslim countries, I studied formal Arabic in the mornings while in the afternoons I  studied the local dialect during the first session of the summer and then Arabic Calligraphy  during the second. Besides classes, we also had cultural activities in the afternoon, where I  practiced Dabke dancing, attempted to play the scales on the Oud, and learned how to play  Arabic card games. Who knows when I’ll need it next, but I did learn how to call someone a  cheater in Arabic, which seemed important at the time. 

Much of my afternoons, however, were spent studying Arabic at different local coffee shops.  Sitting for hours at a coffee shop, talking with friends or smoking shisha or playing card games,  is a major part of local Jordanian culture, and one I enjoyed participating in. Without fail,  anytime I sat around with my Arabic textbooks Jordanians would comment on my willingness  to learn Arabic and offer their assistance. I had virtual strangers helping me practice my Arabic  for a presentation or correcting my pronunciation while drilling my new vocabulary words. They  were also an invaluable resource when it came to learning the local dialect. 

Arabic is an interesting language to study because of diglossia, which occurs when a  community speaks two different languages depending on the situation. In the Arabic-speaking  world, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is used for reading, writing, and formal speaking while  local dialects are what people actually speak in their daily lives. As an Arabic student studying  in Jordan, I primarily studied MSA in my classes but spoke the local Levantine dialect during  my daily interactions with people around the city. Learning MSA is necessary both because  that is what most textbooks are geared towards, but also because formal speeches,  newspapers, and the nightly news all utilize MSA.  

While MSA is highly standardized and the same across the region, dialects vary both between  and within countries. Shami, the Levantine dialect, is spoken across the Levant in Jordan,  Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, but the Jordanian dialect sounds different than the Syrian  dialect, and within Jordan the Arabic spoken in Amman is different than the Arabic spoken by  the Bedouins in the south. Because the spoken dialects vary so much, the only way to really  learn the local dialect is to speak with people, so that’s what I did. I learned vocabulary relating  to jewelry from a jeweler when buying a souvenir for my sister. From the maintenance man at  my apartment, I learned how to talk about breaking my door lock and how he was fixing it. The  tour guide at Petra taught me a bunch of terms relating to geological features and the tour  guide at Qasr Amra taught me astrological phrases, as we bonded over both being Pisces. I  learned so much more than I realized just by living my life in Amman and being open to  learning a new language.  

As Katy, the Director of Sijal Institute, told us at the beginning of the summer, learning a new  language is a journey not an end point and it is important to enjoy and appreciate the process.  Studying Arabic while living in Amman was the best way to really understand what Katy meant.  I still feel like I’m at the very beginning of my Arabic journey, but I am so grateful to have had  the opportunity to study in Jordan this summer. I intend to continue my Arabic studies after  graduation with the goal of working in the Middle East soon. Inshallah, I will be able to return to  Jordan and continue my language journey.