Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Food, Film, and Language-Summer Institute Immerses Students in Languages and Cultures of the Muslim World

This article was written by Doug Petersen, and it originally appeared on the "News" web page for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in September 2015. This summer program is co-sponsored by the European Union Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign through a US Department of Education Title VI Grant.

Photo Courtesy of Eman Sadaah

Giving up all liquids and food from dawn to dusk every day for a month sounds difficult enough. But how about trying to fast from food and drink all day when you are a high school football player running wind sprints in full equipment?

 The complicated pairing of faith and football was the topic of just one of the movies that students viewed while attending the 2015 University of Illinois Summer Institute for Languages of the Muslim World. To bring awareness to Muslim cultures and teach language at the same time, instructors used films such as the award-winning documentary, “Fordson,” which describes the life of football players at a predominantly Arab-American high school in Detroit. Muslim players struggled to combine fasting with football during the month of Ramadan.

Daily classes at the Summer Institute for Languages of the Muslim World, or SILMW, formed the foundation for learning Arabic, Persian, Swahili, Uzbek, Wolof, and Turkish. U of I students also immersed themselves in these languages and the cultures of Middle Eastern and African countries through an array of co-curricular activities, with movies being one of them. 

“This program is not 100-percent immersion, but it’s close,” says Eman Saadah, LAS linguistics senior lecturer and director of SILMW. “The students speak in their target language for a significant amount of time.”

 The summer of 2015 was the eighth year for the program, which packs an entire year of learning into eight weeks. According to Saadah, students receive two semesters of instruction and can earn up to 10 credits during the two four-week semesters.

 Some of the Middle Eastern and African languages taught at SILMW this past summer have been designated as “critical languages” by the United States government—important for national security reasons. Arabic, for example, is one of the official languages of the United Nations and is spoken by 350 million people in Africa and Asia, from Morocco to southern Iran.

Arabic and Swahili are the most popular of the languages offered, so Swahili was taught at both the elementary and intermediate levels, while Arabic was taught at the elementary, intermediate, and advanced levels. The other four languages were taught only at the elementary level.

The summer institute is open to both Illinois and out-of-state students (who pay in-state tuition rates), and it is even open to high school students. The program gives continuity to language instruction, Saadah says, by offering students the option of continuing or beginning their language instruction during the summer.

“Our goal is to provide students with the opportunity to learn the diverse languages of the Muslim world to set them apart in the international work force,” she says. “We recognize the strategic and ethical importance of learning less commonly taught languages in an increasingly globalized world.”

While some students see the program as a way to take care of their language requirements during the summer, others see it as an important step before studying overseas or doing research abroad. The program attracts students from across campus—history, political science, music, engineering and more.

After each day’s lectures were over, students attended a variety of co-curricular activities. On Monday, students listened to special presentations about their respective languages and cultures, such as programs on the political system in Pakistan, as well as on Sufi Muslim resistance to the French colonial system in Senegal. On Tuesdays, students attended “conversation tables,” where they met at coffee shops with their instructors and talked in the language they were learning.

Wednesday was movie day when they watched a film representing each language group. And on Thursdays, they cooked and ate together in the Asian American Cultural Center. As they ate, they learned about dining customs in Muslim countries.

The 2015 group also took a field trip to Chicago, where they walked through the Bridgeview area with its many Middle Eastern shops. In addition, they went to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, a museum that features artifacts and information about ancient cultures and the development of language over time.

The summer session culminated with a language showcase, in which each group put on a skit—often musical or humorous. For instance, Turkish language students danced and sang well-known Turkish pop songs, as if they were participating in a popular singing contest. An Arabic language group spoofed Celebrity Jeopardy with students playing the roles of Alex Trabek, Sean Connery, and several Middle Eastern leaders.

As Saadah explains, it all adds up to an intensive and immersive language and cultural experience. “I strongly believe that SILMW has been one of the best immersive language-learning summer institutes in the Midwest,” she says.

By Doug Petersen

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