Program immersed itself in Arabic language and culture here at home


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When the unrest began in Egypt this past January, Georges Montillet felt the reverberations all the way back in Pittsburgh and Washington, Pa.

"We were watching it carefully," said Mr. Montillet, director of the Pittsburgh Middle East Institute's Arabic language and cultural immersion program.

The concern eventually led to the cancellation of this summer's trip to Cairo.

Neither Mr. Montillet nor anyone else connected with the program then had any idea that that impediment would lead to the creation of an even better program -- one unique to the region.

In a hastily crafted first year, the program took 15 students to Cairo to be immersed in the Arabic language and culture for five weeks in the summer of 2010. By all accounts, the program in Cairo -- which combined intense classroom work in the morning, day-to-day experiences in the city, and cultural outings every evening -- was a success.

It fulfilled two of the 4-year-old institute's three-pronged goals of improving relations between the Middle East and the United States through business, education and cultural ties.

And students universally praised the program created on the run by Mr. Montillet, who is completing his doctorate in Arabic literature at Yale.

"I think it was great," said Mollie Kaufer, 21, who was an undergraduate at Chatham University last year when she went to Cairo with the program. "There is no better way to learn the language."

It was so well received that Mr. Montillet was hoping to double the number of students he took to Cairo this year.

But by Feb. 11, when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned and the stability there looked shaky at best, Mr. Montillet and Simin Curtis, CEO and founder of Pittsburgh Middle East Institute, made the difficult decision to not go abroad this year.

"There was no way we were going to get parents to let their kids go to Cairo like we did last year," said Ms. Curtis.

One of Ms. Curtis' Middle East Institute co-founders, Anahita Firouz Radjy, made the simple -- although challenging -- suggestion that they just create a domestic Arabic language immersion program, something unheard of in the region.

Mr. Montillet would need to find a dorm where all the students could live, but near classroom space that would provide media outlets in Arabic, and transportation that could take them to the various cultural outings he had to create to try to replicate being in Cairo.

He contacted all of the region's major universities -- Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, etc. -- and they were all interested. And his new employer, Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., where he had just begun teaching Arabic, jumped all over the idea.

"I said, 'Well, I know a lot about immersion programs. Why don't we do it here on campus?' " said Michael Shaughnessy, chair of the modern languages department at W&J.

"I think it's so important that Americans know other languages," said W&J president Tori Haring-Smith, who once taught at American University in Cairo. She has tried to focus the college more on international-related majors since she came there in 2005. "And now, what language could be more important than Arabic?"

She gave Mr. Montillet a fraternity house for the students to live in and access to the college's new high-tech language lab, cafeteria and vans. Oh, yes, and it was all free to PMEI.

Even with the late notice -- it didn't start advertising until April -- the program managed to attract 13 participants: 11 college-age students, a retired doctor who wanted to learn the language for his travels overseas and an Arabic language teacher. The cost was roughly $4,500 per person, although almost all the students received either partial or full scholarships from the Pittsburgh Middle East Institute.



It began July 5 and concluded this past Friday with all 13 of them living in the fraternity house and on strict Arabic-only rules throughout the day -- except when they met with a reporter.

The program involved studying in the mornings and classwork during the week from 1 to 4 p.m. -- taught by Mr. Montillet and three native speakers.

Every evening, except Sundays, there were cultural outings to the Islamic Center in Oakland. The attendees also participated in a celebration of the South Sudan's Independence Day, saw an Arabic fashion show and went to Middle East restaurants in the region.

"I went to Jordan to learn Arabic last year, but the teacher spoke in English," said Charisse Varga, 21, of Upper Burrell, a senior at California University who wants to be an Arabic interpreter. "I wish it could have been more immersed, and then I found this program."

Dennis Tihansky, 67, the retired doctor who was taking the course to aid in his travels overseas, said the course's intensity was a revelation to him.

"I'm used to being the valedictorian," said Dr. Tihansky, who knew no Arabic at all when he began. "I didn't know what an F was until this course. Georges was strict and he was tough. But, my dream of speaking and writing Arabic has come to fruition."

The program has been such a success that Mr. Montillet is now thinking that, if all goes well and stability returns to Cairo, that next year's program will be a combination of the first two years -- four weeks here and four weeks there.

"It could be even better next time," he said.

If you're interested in next year's program, contact Mr. Montillet at 1-203-745-6282 or georges.montillet@yale.edu, or Pittsburgh Middle East Institute at 412-995-0076.


Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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