Arabic program stands out in state

WKU Arabic Professor Guerwane instructs his intermediate Arabic class on Friday afternoon, February 28 in the Mahurin Honors College and International Center. Guerwane, originally from Morocco, is fluent in Arabic, French, Spanish, and English.

Matthew Williams

WKU is emphasizing the value of Arabic language and culture through the only “proficiency-oriented” Arabic major and minor program in the state, which has connected graduates to a career in the military and politics.

While other Kentucky universities offer majors or minors in Arabic or Islamic Studies, David DiMeo, Arabic assistant professor and program coordinator explained WKU’s Arabic program emphasizes language proficiency which makes graduates more marketable to government agencies or employers.

The Arabic program in the Department of Modern Languages offers numerous Arabic courses about how to become well-versed in a culture and language that is becoming more relevant in the United States.

The Arabic language program began in early 2014 through the Arabic for International Careers program

as a collaborative endeavor between the U.S. Department of Education Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Languages and WKU. WKU’s Arabic program was the first in the state, according to the program website.

DiMeo started teaching at WKU during the college’s transition into offering students a more international education.

“This was part of President Ransdell’s vision to make this [WKU] a leading American university within international reach,” DiMeo said.

Former WKU President Gary Ransdell’s efforts led to the creation of
the Arabic and Chinese program and other study abroad opportunities for students in Kentucky that put WKU on the map.

DiMeo said unlike some universities that only teach Arabic of the Quran, the Arabic program at WKU is career focused and offers paths in international service, journalism and international business.

DiMeo said the large demand of translators and communicators needed around the world make language communication skills essential.

The Arab American Institute lists the Arab ancestry population as more than one million in the U.S. and more than 9,514 out of the 4 million residents in Kentucky. Specifically, the Arab population is listed as 1.16% of Bowling Green’s 84,961 residents.

DiMeo first studied Arabic while he served 26 years in the U.S. Army. He said he never learned Arabic in school because it wasn’t offered in his area but quickly learned the importance of the language.

“As we used to say in the Army, when people stop talking, people start dying,” DiMeo said. “I realized there was and still is a tremendous need and shortage for Arabic speakers.”

He knows Arabic has been at the top of the list of demand for government agencies, branches of services and intelligence agencies because of the shortage of communicators.

The need for Arabic speakers provides Arabic majors at WKU with exclusive opportunities to pursue international work in esteemed positions.

“Majoring in Arabic is a great opportunity for our students here in Kentucky who want to get out and pursue careers in the government or in non-government organizations,” DiMeo said.

DiMeo knows graduates of the program who currently work in Congress and were hired specifically for their expertise in Arabic. He’s seen graduates go on to work for different military branches, intelligence agencies or complete charitable work with refugees.

In addition to the courses offered at WKU, students in the Arabic program are encouraged to study abroad in Jordan or Morocco to immerse themselves in the language and culture.

Some students who partake in the Arabic Debate Team at WKU or Gatton Academy have traveled to the Qatar-Debate Centre, a member of Qatar Foundation for Education.

Lhousseine Guerwane, instructor of Arabic, started the Arabic Debate Team, which competes nationally and internationally against teams from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and more.

Lindy Sipes, a WKU student, said she gained a first-hand account of the Arabic culture in Qatar as a Gatton Academy student on the high school Arabic Debate Team.

Sipes already spoke Spanish after learning the language at her former high school before Gatton. She then chose to take Arabic when Gatton Academy offered students the opportunity to take a critical language in addition to their required classes.

Sipes said she likes the Arabic program because it presents a challenge for her to push past the constructs English speakers adhere to.

“It is hard because it’s a whole new alphabet and also reads from right to left,” Sipes said. “But it’s been a really fun experience for me.”

Her love for the Arabic culture and language eventually led to her being able to travel to Qatar for the debate tournament.

Sipes said the competition challenged her team because they were one of the only teams without non-native speakers on it, but they experienced a great time in the country.

“We hung out and were able to make friends with high schoolers from all over the world and the Arab world,” Sipes said. “It was really a great experience and very different from any experience I’d had before that.”

Sipes said the Arabic language and culture is beautiful but could tell some people allow politics or stereotypes to keep them from wanting to learn Arabic.

“I think there’s a stigma around the Middle East, Middle Eastern cultures and subsequently around Arabic,” Sipes said. “It’s important for us to meet people who are actually from those places and break down those stereotypes that we may have.”

Sipes studied abroad in Morocco for a few days in Spring 2019 and had an interesting experience while practicing Arabic in the country.

“In the markets, they were really excited to hear my Arabic even though it wasn’t great or anything,” Sipes said. “They were excited that I made the effort and care to learn Arabic.”

Her time in Qatar put into perspective how much people from other cultures appreciate when others put in the effort to learn their native language.

Margaret Lewis, another WKU senior and 2018 graduate of Gatton Academy, also gained lasting experiences and life-long friendships during her time in Qatar on the Arabic Debate Team.

“It was a great networking system,” Lewis said. “Everybody became really good friends and basically spoke Arabic the entire time.”

Lewis competed in the debate championship in Qatar as a Gatton Academy student but returned last year when the QatarDebate Elite Academy chose her to return and strengthen her Arabic training skills with other selected debaters.

She said during the trip that she learned even more from residing in a place where Arabic is the only spoken language and never thought as a 15-year-old going into Gatton Academy that some of her best friends would live in Qatar.

Lewis said she hopes other universities in Kentucky start offering Arabic as a major to students because they’re missing out on the benefits of being able to communicate with people from other cultures.

“In order to improve our country, I think it’s important that we take it upon ourselves to learn other languages and especially Arabic at this point in American history,” Lewis said.

She said giving students the opportunity to learn Arabic will open up the job market, international trade and allow Americans to possess the skills to communicate with some of our best allies and sometimes most common enemies.

“We should explore other languages and cultures so that we can better understand the diversity that is happening in America right now,” Lewis said.

News reporter Matthew Williams can be reached at [email protected] topper.wku.edu.