Summer program immerses students in Arabic speaking community

Photo provided by Aylin Coskun Kunduz, graduate assistant for Summer Institute for the Languages of the Muslim World (SILMW)

When summer arrives at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and undergraduates go back to their hometowns, a perfect opportunity arises for other, much younger students to take part in the college experience in a way that reaches beyond a typical campus tour.

While many camps occur every summer on campus, the College of LAS recently visited two that occurred roughly the same time: the Summer Illinois Mathematics Camp (SIM) and Arabic High School Program, which this summer returned to their in-person format after two years of virtual meeting.

At the Foreign Language Building, the 19 high school students who were enrolled in the Arabic High School program chatted with a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, as he told them how to say different greetings and showed them how their names would be written in Arabic.

The program places students in a university dorm for two weeks as they are immersed in an Arabic speaking community of staff and faculty. The students learn not just the Arabic language, but also about Arab culture and cuisine. 

Run by Eman Saadah, teaching associate professor and director of the Less Commonly Taught Languages Program in the Department of Linguistics, instructors are encouraged to engage and challenge the students in this intensive introductory course that offers two college credits.

“The feedback from parents is something that has kept us going,” Saadah said, “They tell us that their kids are better when they come home, and in the past two years we haven’t been able to bring them here.”

She added: “Doing the camp virtually wasn’t the same, so we wanted to bring it back on campus as soon as they would allow us. There is risk but we’re taking all the necessary precautions to avoid spreading COVID. We think it’s worth it for the students to get this full immersive experience like in the past.”

Students sit in a classroom, with a video call projected on a screen in front of them
Students at the Arabic High School program speak virtually with man in Lebanon during their summer camp. (Photo by Christian Jones)

Keeping dozens of high schoolers on campus for two weeks is a daunting task logistically, but support from Qatar Foundation International provided  the students scholarships to attend the camp at reduced rate.

Students’ reasons for attending the camp varied from aspirations of moving to an Arabic country to work as a translator to traveling to Tunisia to visit the set of “Star Wars: A New Hope.” No prior experience with the language or culture is necessary.

“I wasn’t interested in Arabic specifically, but I speak some Hebrew and the connection was enough for me,” said high school junior Isaiah Ring. “Learning a language gives you a better understanding of the people, and Arabic specifically will help me understand Hebrew better so that’s a plus.”

While the students did spend time in class, they took regular breaks to go on field trips, play games, or even watch movies. And in the evening, they were treated to a traditional dish from an Arabic speaking country, such as Bechamel, a traditional Egyptian dish made with pasta, onion, and ground beef, prepared by the program instructors themselves.

“It’s no surprise that the students are thoroughly engaged,” said James Hye Suk Yoon, head of the Department of Linguistics.  “We put the best, most experienced instructors on the high school program, and it’s had consistent success.”

Christian Jones

Editor's note: This story first appeared on the College of LAS homepage