Valerie Turner, a communications intern, has studied five languages throughout her academic career. She will continue to study Arabic when she starts the International Peace and Conflict Resolution masters program at American University this fall. Turner spoke about her experience learning Arabic.
Noor: Hi, this is Noor Odeh of Qatar Foundation International. I’m here with Valerie Turner, a new QFI intern and we’re here to discuss her experience studying and speaking Arabic. She’ll be continuing her studies in Arabic in the fall at American University. Welcome!
Valerie: Thanks for having me, Noor.
Noor: What made your first interested in Arabic? What was your first exposure to the language?
Valerie: Well, my first interest in Arabic came from where I was raised. I spent most of my life in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New York. Around the time I was thirteen, I was exposed to Hebrew because all of my friends were being mitzvahed, and I knew that Arabic and Hebrew were very closely related. So I wanted to continue familiarizing myself with that branch of languages. My first exposure to the language didn’t happen actually until university; I went to Loyola University Maryland, in Baltimore, for undergrad and that was the first time that I had the opportunity to take an Arabic class.
Noor: Wow, that’s very interesting! What was your biggest challenge since you started studying Arabic?
Valerie: The biggest challenge for me would have to be the ability to practice the language. I didn’t know many Arabic speakers in my personal life besides my professor. Once I graduated, it was a bit harder for me to speak with her regularly. And so because I didn’t practice, I started losing a lot of my language skills.
Noor: Oh wow! When did you first connect with QFI? How did that happen?
Valerie: Prior to being the new communications intern for QFI, I was the policy intern for the Joint National Committee for Languages. Every year, JNCL hosts a Language Advocacy Day, and QFI is one of our member organizations. So at the last Advocacy Day, in February of this year, I was able to meet with Sumi and Mouna.
Noor: Wow, that’s great! It’s great to have you on board!
Noor: So what was your initial reaction to being in such a new environment after you started?
Valerie: I have to say my first day at QFI was pretty overwhelming, but in the best way possible. I wanted to be challenged in my new internship, and that’s definitely been the case. Being able to meet people like you, Sumi, Connor, Mouna, it’s just been a whirlwind from the beginning and I’m really happy to be here.
Noor: Well, fantastic, I hope you have a great journey here. What did you have to use your Arabic for the most? Could you recount a specific instance?
Valerie: Sure! I was able to practice my Arabic a bit after my graduation. I spent about a week in Dubai, in the UAE. That was kind of the opportunity for me — mostly with reading — not so much with speaking because English was very widely used. But, the ability to read signs on the street or point out where the bathroom was, which is really helpful whenever you’re traveling, I think that was the instance that I got to practice Arabic the most.
Noor: Well that’s good! How was the overall experience when you were reading the signs and you were, you know, getting your way to knowing where the bathrooms are?
Valerie: I would say the experience itself was very uplifting! My entire Arabic experience previous was basically only in a classroom setting. So, being outside in the world, being able to read things on the menu like دجاج, or see signs for the bathroom, or see signs, you know, for different mosques; it was kind of a confidence boost. To be like “hey I don’t only have to use this language in a classroom, I can get around in a different country”, it really boosts the ego and the self esteem.
Noor: So has speaking Arabic opened any opportunities for you that you might not have if you didn’t speak Arabic? Other than that you could read like menus and signs?
Valerie: I would say absolutely. I am currently a prospective student for a Masters program at American University, and the concentration that I chose to — or the program that I chose to apply for was the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program. I definitely think that having only a couple months of work experience under my belt before going to grad school, if I didn’t have the language skills that I have, I wouldn’t have been as competitive in the pool of applicants. Schools really do value people who, not only take language classes, but take them seriously and want to do something with the skills that they learn.
Noor: Alright, great! What has been your greatest reward studying Arabic?
Valerie: I would say that the best reward with learning Arabic, and with learning any language really, is language skills don’t exist by themselves. When you learn a language and if you’re really serious about learning the language, you have to learn about the culture that goes along with that language. So, prior to taking any Arabic classes, I was pursuing a minor in Spanish and that came with learning about Spanish culture and Spanish history. Going to the university that I went to, a lot of the history classes were kind of focused on the European lens. Taking Arabic language courses allowed me to learn about Arab culture which I don’t think I would have been exposed to had I not taken Arabic. So just being able to learn about a culture that’s different from what you may be used to, and learning the perspective of people that live halfway across the world is invaluable to me.
Noor: Thank you for your answer, that was fantastic. So any tips or advice to others who want to study Arabic?
Valerie: Yes, absolutely! Do not stop speaking it! That is what I did, and up to this point I have kind of noticed my skills deteriorating a little bit and it’s not something that you ever want to go through. So even if it means sending emails to your professor after you graduate in Arabic, or participating in a program that connects non-native Arabic speakers with native Arabic speakers. If you can just practice talking to yourself in the mirror for maybe like five minutes a day, or something. Just keep speaking, don’t let those skills go to waste!
Noor: So do you have a favorite word in Arabic?
Valerie: I do, it’s kind of embarrassing. My favorite word, or I guess they’re words, is the phrase for the United Nations, الامم المتحدة. I don’t know why it’s my favorite word, I like the way it rolls off the tongue.
Noor: That’s cute, that’s nice.
Valerie: My name is Valerie and I speak Arabic, اسمي فالري و أتكلم العربية.
Noor: Perfect! Thank you so much for meeting with me. It was very nice and interesting to get to know you and how you discovered the Arabic language. So thank you!
Valerie: Thanks for having me!