Intensive Arabic Semester 2016: Report
By Natasha Pein
Natsha Pein received a grant from Hashomer Hatzair UK Centenary Award towards Givat Haviva’s Intensive Arabic Semester this year. Below is her report about what she described as a fantastic experience. Congratulations Anna and thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories. What you write will definitely help guide future course participants!
Before I started the Intensive Arabic Semester at Givat Haviva, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew I’d be studying Arabic, that I’d have a host family, and that I’d go on trips around Israel. But six months ago I could never have imagined the wonderful experience that awaited me, both inside and outside the gates of Givat Haviva. That’s why, in this report, I would like to share with you my thoughts on classes, enrichment activities outside the classroom, life at Givat Haviva, and some suggestions for possible improvement.
The Arabic instruction on the course focused primarily on Amiya (the spoken dialect), with around 20% of Arabic classes devoted to the study of Fus’ha (formal written Arabic). It is important to note the distinction between Amiya and Fus’ha and appreciate that they can almost be treated as two distinct languages. Amiya dialects vary from country to country, and even between different areas within the same country. Fus’ha is common to the whole of the Arabic-speaking world but is rarely spoken between ordinary people, used just as a medium for formal written and oral communication, literature, and media. There is a lot of debate surrounding how best to study the Arabic language: whether to begin with Fus’ha and then move onto a dialect, vice versa, or to study the two simultaneously. I found Meirav’s approach of learning the two together to be an excellent one. Amiya is the relatively easy-to-learn of the two and having some knowledge of it makes the complexities of Fus’ha far less daunting, while much of the vocabulary learned from Fus’ha can be used to facilitate higher level conversations in Amiya.
The two strands of Arabic complement each other well and, while instruction time for Fus’ha only amounted to around 100 hours, I feel I was able to make far greater progress than I would have had I studied Fus’ha in isolation. We had six different teachers for Amiya which allowed us to benefit from different teaching styles and gain exposure to more than just one way of speaking. Some classes focused more on grammar and others purely on speaking so that we received a solid basis in all important aspects of the language.
The teaching resources that Meirav has put together for Amiya are excellent, including a course book with vocabulary, stories, and grammar exercises; a comprehensive verb conjugation booklet with an accompanying list of several hundred of the most important verbs; and an interactive website which brought topics to life with video and audio. Our Fus’ha studies focused a great deal on media comprehension and each class we practiced strategies for how to tackle news articles in Arabic. We also studied key grammatical topics, but always applied these rules to real-life texts, something I found particularly helpful.
Two months into the programme we also began taking Hebrew classes twice a week. The group was lucky enough to divide easily into two levels of ability: beginners and advanced. Having completed a five month Hebrew ulpan before coming to Givat Haviva, I benefitted very much from the advanced classes. Our teacher, Dafna, was really excellent, helping us improve our language while giving us a broad knowledge of relevant cultural and political issues within Israel.
Another addition to the programme was a course in the politics and history of the Middle East given by Yisrael Neeman of Haifa University. He is truly a fountain of knowledge and I know that the whole group benefitted greatly from his classes. When learning a language it is important to also have an understanding of the history and politics surrounding it and Yisrael’s classes gave us just that.
Outside the classroom
The trips we went on were definitely one of the highlights of the semester. We went to local Arab villages as well as down south to the Negev and up north to the Galilee and Golan. These trips had two key benefits. Firstly, they were conducted either partially or wholly in Arabic. This allowed us to practice our listening skills in real-life contexts outside of the classroom and access new and varied vocabulary. Many of the people we spoke to on trips did not know our Arabic level and so they spoke to us as they would have to any native speaker and this helped us acclimatise to how Arabic is spoken in the real world.
Secondly, the trips gave us a really full perspective on the multi-faceted nature of Israeli society. We met so many minorities in Israel, including the Circassians and Druze. The trips also gave us access to people and areas that the average tourist would never encounter, for instance, the inspirational head teacher of a Bedouin school who had managed to achieve huge progress for his local area.
Another part of the programme which I founded helpful was the hosting system. Each of us from Givat Haviva was partnered with an Arab high school student from Baqa al Gharbiya. We spent one afternoon with them each week, using half the time to help the student with their English and the other half to work on our Arabic. The hosting also provided a great insight into Arab culture and hospitality. On one particularly memorable visit, I was taken to the bakery of my host’s uncle and then to the house of an aunt where I was able to meet the whole extended family.
For most of the five months, the seven of us lived together in a small house on campus. The total lack of space could have been a recipe for disaster but ended up bringing us all closer together as a group. We were lucky to all get on incredibly well and to be able to create a smooth-running cooking and cleaning rota throughout the five months.
Suggestions for improvement
The Hebrew aspect of the course was advertised as more of an Arabic- Hebrew comparison class where we would be able to learn/improve our Hebrew through Arabic. However, this turned out not to be the case as there was a last-minute change of teachers. Our teacher was absolutely fantastic, but I really would have liked the opportunity to be able to study the two languages comparatively.
Host families: although the idea of having native speakers to practice with each week in a non-classroom environment was a great feature of the programme, there were definite issues with it. The main problem was that the IAS participants IAS ranged between 19 and 27 years of age and we were partnered with 16-year-old students. It would have been nice to spend time with native speakers our own age or to have been linked with an entire family.
Overall, the programme was absolutely outstanding. I learned more than I ever thought was possible in the space of five months: about Arabic, Arab culture, and Israel as a whole. I’ve made life-long friends and had experiences I will never forget. Coming to Givat Haviva was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I’m incredibly grateful to Hashomer Hatzair for helping me to take advantage of the opportunity!