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​PC Adds Arabic, Chinese to Language Options

Providence College students now have two additional language choices: Arabic and Chinese.

A class of 21 enrolled in Arabic in the fall, and 13 students signed up for Chinese. New 102-level courses also have been approved for the spring semester.

Part of the Department of Foreign Language Studies’ strategic plan was to expand the types of languages offered, said Dr. Nuria Alonso García, associate professor of Spanish and department chair.

Until this fall, PC offered instruction in European languages: Spanish, French, Italian, and German. Arabic, in the Semitic family, had been offered in previous years through the School of Continuing Education. It, and Chinese, were natural additions considering the influence of those languages around the world, she said.

“The world certainly speaks other languages,” Alonso García said. “In order to really live by the mission of the department, which is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding, I felt we had a responsibility to provide students with opportunities for further language study.”

Speakers of Arabic and Chinese see the world from a different perspective, and their identity is constructed through their languages, she said. Learning about the non-Western world allows students to be more connected globally and to suspend possible preconceptions or judgments about what happens elsewhere, she added.

“When we learn a language, we learn the cultures represented by it,” Alonso García said. “We speak a language, and we see the world through a particular lens, partially mediated by the language.”

With the retirement of a French professor, the College was able to hire Dr. Louissa Taha Abdelghany, adjunct assistant professor of French and Arabic (left), to teach both languages. The department also brought on Jing Xu (right) as a special lecturer in Chinese. Both are native speakers. 

Alonso García is working with them to develop minors in both languages.

“The students are already inquiring about the possibility of minoring in Arabic and Chinese. They are very excited to be learning these languages … and they are asking already, can they go beyond the elementary levels?”

Abdelghany, who is originally from Lebanon, a former French colony, studied comparative literature in French and Arabic in her home country. She earned both a master’s degree and doctorate in French literature from Boston College. Her Arabic language instruction began in 1996, when she started teaching in Sunday school. In 2008 she started the Arabic program at Simmons College, where she taught Arabic and French for five years.

The professor teaches standard Arabic, but since every country has its own dialect, she tries to include other regional dialects in addition to her native Lebanese.

“In the classroom, I emphasize the Lebanese and Egyptian dialects because they are very popular across the Arab world, and it’s important for students to be exposed to them,” said Abdelghany. 

Enthusiastic for Arabic

For Michael Cavanaugh ’13 (Belmar, N.J.), the Arabic class couldn’t have come sooner. The political science major said he’s been fascinated with finding out more about the Arabic-speaking world since the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He had tried to study the language on his own, using popular language software, but soon discovered “I really needed the personal interaction through a class.”

Cavanaugh plans to work or study abroad after graduation, and he is applying for fellowships and internships based in the Middle East. He hopes to work for the U.S. government in the future — either in foreign service or as an intelligence analyst — and believes studying Arabic will help him reach that goal.

“In this day and age, you need to know another language,” he said. “It’s such a valuable skill in the global marketplace.”

Cavanaugh said he appreciated not only the language instruction but the cultural background that Abdelghany has been able to provide as a native speaker and resident of the region.

“She’s so enthusiastic about it, you can’t help but be drawn to it,” he said. “Once you submerge yourself in that, it makes it fun.”

Cavanaugh said he especially appreciated that Abdelghany held a weekly “Arabic Hour” to give students an opportunity to ask questions about the culture of the region, the role of women, and life there. “If we can learn about the culture, I think we’ll be able to interact with [Arab speakers] in a better way,” he said.

Despite a busy course schedule, he finds himself doing independent work outside of the classroom. He is able to read short Arabic news articles and even listens to the BBC in Arabic.

This semester, his course schedule includes Global Politics and Religion, History of the Modern Middle East and International Security. “I’m constantly learning about the Arabic world, and they all sort of piece together,” he said.

Language skills for career advantage

Xu, who grew up in China, spent a decade as a housing policy advisor in Canada before moving to Providence. She started her teaching career more than five years ago, training and teaching through StarTalk, a federally funded language program. She taught middle and high school students at Providence’s Wheeler School and in addition to her PC course, teaches younger children at the Montessori Children’s House in Providence.

“If you know Chinese, you have an edge,” Xu said. “You don’t even have to go to China — Chinese companies are coming to the United States, and they will want to offer you a job.”

Though more than 30 dialects are spoken in China, Xu teaches Mandarin, which is spoken by the majority of the population in China, Taiwan, and many Chinese in southeast Asia.

Xu said she emphasizes speaking and listening in her course.

One of her students, Sierra Wilbar ’16 (Foxboro, Mass), had studied French and Spanish and said she has a passion for languages.

“When people were playing video games, I was in my room, studying Spanish vocabulary,” said Wilbar, a global studies major. “It’s like a key unlocking a puzzle — I feel like every word I obtain paints a bigger picture for me.”

Wilbar chose to pursue Chinese because of the number of people who speak the language worldwide. She hopes to use her combined language skills to work in other countries, perhaps as a diplomat. “I’m really excited because I know if I become very confident in Spanish, French, English, and Chinese, a lot of opportunities will be open to me,” she said.

The new language presented a challenge, particularly when it came to learning the written form, Wilbar said. But she stuck with it and plans to take the 102 course next semester as well as study abroad in China.

— Liz F. Kay

 

 
 
 
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