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Sunday, July 8, 2012

An Article

Before James, Kelly, and I left BYU in June, a student from the media department interviewed us regarding the scholarships we were awarded to study out here in Morocco.   Following is the article they concocted from our interviews, which I thought some of you might enjoy reading.  Just to be clear, I've attached the picture from the BYU homepage to prove that I really am famous now.


Students traverse the globe to learn languages that most Americans don’t

Flying from Moscow to Moscow isn’t your typical itinerary – but senior Elizabeth Nielsen did just that, traveling from her Idaho hometown to Russia’s illustrious capital, a city Nielsen has been itching to see ever since watching spy movies as a young girl.
She’s not going just to sightsee, though. She’ll be dunked head-first into the Russian culture for two months, and her main objective is to become fluent in the Russian language.
“My ultimate career goal is to use Russian in linguistics field work,” said Nielsen, who’s studying linguistics and a minor in Russian. “It’s not just a party trick, but an extremely useful skill. Plus I love learning about languages even more than I love speaking them.”
The best part? The trip is completely paid for. Nielsen and four other BYU students were selected for the U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program to study across the globe this summer. Senior Alex Williams took his soccer cleats and harmonica to Tajikistan to study Persian, while Kelly Danforth, Robert Bonn and James Juchau are enjoying the Moroccan coastline while learning Arabic.
The CLS program is a U.S. government effort to expand the number of Americans studying and mastering critical foreign languages. The program accepted only 11 percent of its 5,200 student applicants this year. Nielsen doesn’t think she earned the attention of the CLS program on merit alone.
“I’m an investment,” she said. “I have a story and a goal and every intention of making them come true. I think my determination may have sealed the deal for my application.”
It’s perhaps not that surprising that several BYU students would snag such scholarships. BYU teaches more students at the intermediate and advanced levels in more languages than any other university in the country. Sixty-one languages are taught on a regular basis with a course enrollment rate of 32 percent (significantly higher than the national average of 9 percent). Overall, BYU students speak 111 languages.
Additionally, BYU offers a university-wide, competency-based language certificate program – the only one in the nation. Last year, 200 students in more than 60 majors earned the certificate to document their proficiency in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
Other students go straight for the language degree. For instance, Kelly Danforth recently graduated with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. Her studies became her passion, and from her ventures to the Middle East, she has learned most how language and culture go hand-in-hand.
“Arabs especially love their language,” she said. “It’s sacred to them. You can’t truly understand their culture until you understand their language.”
After this summer’s adventures, Danforth hopes to utilize her passion for language and culture by joining the Foreign Service, working to keep the peace between countries and governments.
Robert Bonn from Henderson, Nevada is excited to trek to Morocco this summer, but it’s not the first time he’s made such a voyage, having already traveled twice to the Middle East with his friend and fellow CLS recipient James Juchau. Bonn is double majoring in Middle East studies and Arabic, while Juchau is double majoring in economics and Arabic.
“Whenever you come in contact with different cultures, your eyes open to all there is to see in the world,” said Juchau, who is most interested in the economic development of the Middle East. “It broadens your perspective on life and ways of thinking. Every time I go, I learn a lot about myself.”
Bonn agrees, adding that he gained a love of culture and sense of adventure through a childhood game he used to play with his dad.
“We had a map on the wall, he’d point to a country, and I had to say what it was,” Bonn said. “The mysteries of the world really built my interest in geography, culture and just everything about those different places.”
The CLS program offers an opportunity to explore such mysteries. The seven- to 10-week, fully-funded, group-based intensive language and culture immersion program takes students to countries all over the world. Students participate in classroom study for five hours a day but are then free to enjoy in-country excursions, community service, or walks downtown.
From this kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience, Bonn hopes to advance his Arabic and acquire a “good sense of the Moroccan culture,” including developing friendships with the native people.
“The best part about traveling is the people you meet,” Bonn said. “I’ve made some really great friendships abroad.”
He’s not all business though. Bonn will “definitely bring home some Aladdin shoes,” and on his down time, he has plans for a camel caravan through the Erg Chebbi with native Moroccan Berbers.
During the same summer months, senior Alex Williams will perfect his Persian language skill by staying in Tajikistan, a country bordering northern Afghanistan. Williams began learning Persian (also known as Farsi) while serving an LDS mission in India for two years. He has also taught himself Hindi and Urdu, languages spoken in India and Pakistan, respectively.
Williams loves the Persian language to the point of writing his own poetry and calligraphy in Persian.
“I love the language most for the people who speak it,” he said. “They’re so welcoming and loving that I love being able to communicate with them. It’s almost as if they accept me as one of them because I’m showing effort to connect with them.”
Williams’ passion for making such connections led him to study international relations in hopes of landing a job overseas in government, translation, or international business. The preparation, however, has not been easy. Middle Eastern languages such as Persian are often considered the hardest to learn.
“The difficulties are more than worth it,” Williams says. “Through learning languages, I’ve had many opportunities to learn about who people really are and to tell the rest of the world. It’s impossible to learn the same things through English alone.”
Williams’ fondness for travel doesn’t overpower his other passions. A music lover, Williams will bring his harmonica to Tajikistan, where he also plans to purchase a Persian drum set and a three-stringed guitar-like instrument called a tar. In addition, his soccer cleats are likely to tag along so he can join in on local games—though the competition is likely to be rough.
“They really love their soccer,” Williams admits. “The main thing, though, is I’m just excited to see that part of the world again and make new friends. It’s remarkable that I get to do something most people never have the chance to do.”
The five scholarship recipients are participating in the CLS program from June 19 to August 22, with all CLS students from across the United States first meeting for orientation in Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Welcome!  I’m once again sending a transmission to any person interested in my experiences and impressions abroad.  This summer, my studies have taken me to Tangier, Morocco where I’m engaged in a two-month Arabic/cultural immersion program operated and funded by the U.S. Department of State.  The Critical Language Scholarship, as it’s called, aims to increase the number of Americans who have mastered languages deemed critical to American interests.  As someone striving to become an expert in international relations, politics, and development, with particular emphasis on the Middle East, studying here will continue the eternal process of honing my formal Arabic language skills, expose me to a new dialect, and acquaint me with North African culture and issues.   I hope to eventually do some good in the world with this kind of knowledge.  Besides all of that, I get to see some beautiful country and make new friends both Moroccan and American.

And let me tell you, Tangier is beautiful.  Perched nine miles away from southern Spain on the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangier is a Mediterranean paradise.  Tangier is complete with swaying palm trees and a mild climate that has attracted explorers and conquerors for millennia.  Its inner medina (Arabic for “city” connoting a traditional Middle Eastern layout) is bemazed with twisting alleys, colorful souqs, and those smells that spark immediate recall of the Arab world and its cuisine.  The romantic/mystical atmosphere of the city is probably what attracted a load of beatnik writers and artists in the 1950s, several of which stayed until their deaths.

The culture of Morocco is equally as nuanced and fascinating as its urban and natural landscape.  Morocco is termed an Arab country (even though its population is a mix of Berber and Arab ethnic components), yet the culture in Tangier differs markedly from that of Jordan.  The atmosphere here is much more European.  The legacy of both the French and Spanish colonists in Morocco has left a more potent legacy here than the legacy left by colonists in other parts of the region.  Most people in the cities speak French or even Spanish in addition to the local dialect of Arabic.  Although a larger portion of the population is Muslim (99%), fewer people are as conservative as those from the traditional Middle East.   When compared with Jordan, fewer women where the hijab (hair covering) in Morocco, and the weekend is N*Sync with the Western Saturday/Sunday weekend.  The most noticeable cultural difference is the nearly Western level of interaction that exists between the sexes.  Generally speaking, Moroccan youth interact openly one with another, a phenomenon usually restricted to wealthy, cosmopolitan Jordanian families.  Arranged and consanguineous marriages appear to be much less common in Morocco, and dating before marriage is more acceptable.

I really enjoy getting deep into the atmosphere of the places I visit.  Befriending locals is the most rewarding and enjoyable way of viewing the reality of a new environment.  As I’ve noted in the past, friendship possesses its own eternal significance, but it also gives a foreigner a glimpse of social problems, traditions, virtues, and stereotypes.  My first night in Tangier (June 23), I had the opportunity to chat with Hudeifa, one of the twenty Moroccan speaking-partners that live on the campus of our school with us.  I discovered that his father was the conductor of a traditional Arab music ensemble and told him that, as an amateur musician, I’d be interested in listening to the group.  Three days later, he arranged for my roommates and I to watch the group practice for an upcoming annual music festival.  We made friends with the family who then invited us over for a tradition-style dinner that lasted until midnight.  Later last week, we attended two nights of the festival to support their group.  I already feel as if we’ve established a fantastic relationship with this welcoming family.  This kind of interaction and friendship is what I relish.