May 4, 2014

Shalem’s Arabic-Studies Program Gives “Immersive” New Meaning

According to British memory champion Ed Cooke, the closer learning feels to a game, the more quickly information is assimilated. No doubt he’d approve of Shalem’s recent Arabic immersion program, which used experiential games to teach basic proficiency in Arabic—in just three days. Alongside intensive language labs, hands-on activities reinforced the recognition and internalization of the Arabic alphabet, granting students basic reading and pronunciation skills, as well as a wealth of vocabulary words and the confidence to tackle one of the most notoriously difficult languages to learn.

The program’s highlights included playing “Sirat al-Mustaqim,” a game in which teams were required to identify Arabic words on wooden slates in order to progress on the “straight path” mandated by the Koran, and a treasure hunt in the old city’s Arab shuk, during which students were encouraged to practice their budding language skills on local residents and shop owners. By the program’s conclusion, students once intimidated by Arabic were strongly considering Shalem’s major in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. “The first morning, we arrived not knowing how to read a word of Arabic. And after just a day, we could. The games and contests forced us to put our skills to immediate use,” said Shalem student Jacob Robinson, “and those of us who viewed Arabic as an unscalable mountain are now encouraged to tackle it.” Student Tamar Gelbart agreed: “Learning a language from scratch, coming away with completely new and very useful knowledge—that’s a great feeling.”

Designed to produce graduates capable of conversing in a language of strategic importance to Israel and the world at large, Shalem’s Arabic Studies program will take the form of hour-long, one-on-one sessions four days a week, conducted entirely in Arabic. Its instructors, both of whom are native speakers, will lead students in discussions of cultural, social, and political issues specific to the region. Shalem’s insistence that native Arabic speakers teach its language course, explains one instructor, “shows that the college is aiming for a real depth of linguistic and cultural knowledge, and not mere ‘competency.’ Moreover, in our one-on-one speaking sessions, we can get a real feel for each student’s strengths and weaknesses, and tailor our instruction to meet his needs.”

Along with its emphasis on linguistic mastery, the Shalem College Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department is unique in its combination of the study of the history, culture, and religion of the region with real-time analysis of political events as they unfold. In their first and second years of the major, for example, students will learn the Koran, the Hadith, and the Islamic mystics, as well as the early history of Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. By their third year, they will be dissecting the Arab world’s headline-making Friday mosque sermons and the ideology of modern Egypt. The major will also focus on the integrated study of Islamic and Jewish texts, revealing the multiple points of intersection and influence between the two religions. “The Shalem MEIS program offers exceptional students the possibility of an intellectually challenging, fulfilling career, while at the same time providing the State of Israel with future leaders in key areas, such as policy making, diplomacy, and research,” maintains Shalem Executive Vice-President and Provost Daniel Polisar. “The program embodies Shalem’s goal of leveraging the study of the liberal arts for the benefit of not only the life of the individual, but also that of her community and country.”

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