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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a Global Health Researcher Learning Arabic

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We’re asking students, recent grads, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet Jack—a Middlebury College and University of Vermont graduate with degrees in comparative literature and public health who's learning Arabic (Jordanian, Moroccan, Modern Standard Arabic), French, Spanish, and Mandarin.

With plans to work as an infectious disease epidemiologist, Jack has completed several overseas fellowships including a Fulbright Student Research Fellowship to Morocco, a Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) Fellowship to Jordan, and a Cancer Epidemiology Education in Special Populations Fellowship to Romania.

1. Could you share with us a little about your earliest experiences with languages—at home or in school? What sparked your interest in languages: How and when did you begin?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in learning languages for two primary reasons.

First, I enjoy learning about other communities and cultures, and forming relationships with individuals from backgrounds distinct from my own. Second, growing up as a closeted queer person, I was acutely aware of every vocalization, word, and intonation I used and the impression that it would leave on those around me. This consciousness continues as a proud queer adult, though rather than fearing language, I credit its capacity for play with helping me through some of my hardest moments and leading me to some of my greatest triumphs.

Studying Spanish through high school and committing myself to the study of Arabic in university expanded this palette of tools, allowing me to play with and between languages and expanding the number of acts I can perform.

2. As an undergraduate student, did you participate in any school or community activities outside of the traditional classroom that contributed to your language learning?

As an undergraduate at Middlebury College, I led Spanish workshops with Language in Motion, a student organization. This group supported students to organize and give presentations on languages and cultures to local elementary, middle, and high schools.

With this group, I particularly remember speaking with the AP Spanish students at a local high school about my experiences studying in Viña del Mar, Chile. This presentation, which allowed both me and the high schoolers to practice our Spanish listening and speaking, focused on Indigenous groups and environmental rights in Chile.

3. You recently received a Fulbright fellowship from the U.S. Department of State to conduct research in Morocco—congratulations! Could you share with us a little about your project and one of your favorite moments from this experience, made possible by your language skills?

I conducted a Fulbright student research grant to conduct research on the environmental determinants of leishmaniasis transmission in Morocco from January to August 2021.

I was preparing my application for the fellowship during my senior year at Middlebury College, at the same time I was in my first public health course. Prior to that semester, I had primarily taken pre-medical science courses, and language courses in Arabic, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. In order to combine my diverse interests into a compelling research project, I decided to analyze the interactions between desertification, migration, and leishmaniasis—a parasitic disease widespread in North Africa, South Asia, and Latin and South America. While not particularly lethal, the varieties of leishmaniasis that exist in Morocco oftentimes lead to large, disfiguring sores on infected individuals’ faces and other exposed body parts that are associated with significant social stigma.

While conducting this project, I also enrolled in Modern Standard Arabic and Moroccan Arabic courses with the support of the Critical Language Enhancement Award, a sub-award of my Fulbright.

One of my favorite moments from my time in Morocco made possible by my language study was a weekend spent visiting my Moroccan Arabic teacher’s relatives in the countryside of southern Morocco.

During that weekend, another Fulbright student and I traveled to the home of our Arabic teacher’s grandmother. The journey to her village involved taking shared taxis to a small town, from where we had to locate one of Fatiha’s family friends who would take us to her village. After arriving to her village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, we spent the next two days cooking tajines, going on hikes to waterfalls, and meeting her distant relatives who spoke a combination of Moroccan Arabic, French, and Tashelheet—an Amazigh language spoken widely across southern Morocco.

4. You took Arabic courses from the Safir Company while abroad. How did this added focus on the local language and culture influence your experience? We’d love to hear an anecdote, or your top takeaways!

Studying with Safir was a great experience to improve both my language skills and understanding of Moroccan culture. My instructors there tailored their lessons to focus specifically on the language skills I would need to answer my research questions. For example, one day, we focused exclusively on vocabulary relevant for discussing migration and its causes, in order to improve the quality of semi-structured interviews I conducted with experts in migration and public health.

The lessons were also extremely dynamic and engaging; every week, we took at least two field trips to local sites of importance around Rabat. While on these trips, we used Arabic to discuss a questions related to the trip’s theme, whether that was mysticism and burial practices, traditional medicine, or the local honey industry.

Overall, the language skills I was able to gain from lessons with Safir enhanced the quality of research I was able to conduct, and gave me a rich foundation from which to conduct my doctoral research in epidemiology.

5. What role do an understanding and awareness of languages and cultures play in your future professional aspirations …and what’s next on your language journey?

I intend to use my language skills to conduct international health research with an international NGO or another global health organization.

So far, I have already been able to use my language skills to facilitate my participation in workplaces and to conduct research, whether that be while presenting my findings at meetings with colleagues at the Jordan Breast Cancer Program, or while collecting and analyzing interview data related to epidemiology of brucellosis at Jordanian slaughterhouses with the Eastern Mediterranean Public Health Network.

I plan to continue conducting work in Arabic-, Spanish-, and French-speaking communities and collaborating with local and international teams of public health researchers and policymakers. I am currently applying for PhD programs in epidemiology at various U.S.-based institutions, and plan to conduct international fieldwork and language study over the course of my doctoral training.


Complete this thought: “Learning another language means…”

Learning another language means caring about others.

It means spending time and effort to learn about others’ experiences and culture. It means being empathetic. It means gaining the skills to serve as an interlocuter between cultures and to listen to others’ stories. It means broadening one’s horizons.

Learning another language means taking steps to build relationships with others, build stronger communities, and value the diversity of those around us.

Check out our Connect with Arabic, French, Spanish, and Mandarin pages to explore language scholarships, university programs, testimonials, and more! And, as always, visit @LangConnectsFdn on social media to share your story with us.