In Arabic Class, Competition Fuels Learning

by Erika Solberg

Lhouie Guerwane goes over the finer points of telling time.

On the third afternoon of this year’s VAMPY Arabic class, several countries were embroiled in a major competition. The board listed the bracket and the scores, and one team was still trying to make it into the finals. Sadibou Ceesay of Berea and his teammate, Chase Whitman of Leitchfield, representing the United Arab Emirates, stared at a word written by their classmates in the Arabic alphabet. Their task was to translate the word into English. The only clue they had was that the category was “animals,” and their only tool was whatever knowledge of the alphabet they had acquired since the course began.

Teacher Lhouie Guerwane counted down in Arabic, and the round began. Sadibou and Chase picked out letters they recognized and sounded out the word the way they might have when first learning to read English. Suddenly, after 78 seconds, Sadibou had it: “Crocodile!” The class cheered.

Their efforts were not good enough for the finals, however, because the next team, Kay Boyd of Uniontown and Genevieve Jones of Knoxville, TN, representing Syria, needed only 11 seconds to guess “gazelle.”

Competition bracket.

The classroom in which this competition occurred had white boards with Arabic letters written on them and a lively drawing of a dog — the class mascot, named Archer. Signs with pictures and letters, much like in a kindergarten classroom, lined the tops of the boards. While they set up for the last round of the contest, casually dressed students talked about what music they liked. Leading the group was Lhouie, an Arabic instructor at WKU now in his sixth year teaching at VAMPY, supported by teaching assistant Brooke Riley, a WKU student majoring in international business and Arabic.

The course introduces students to Arabic language and culture, often at a much faster pace than a typical college class “Some years, I cover two semesters’ worth of material in three weeks,” Lhouie says. “It’s crazy!”

This year is the second that the class is supported by a generous grant from Qatar Foundation International (QFI), a member of the Qatar Foundation which is funded by the Qatari government. QFI sponsors programs that promote Arabic education and culture in the United States, and its funding has enabled 10 students to study Arabic at VAMPY this year through scholarships that cover most of their costs.

Throughout the course, Lhouie will create ways for students to feel connected to the material. On the first day, says Genevieve, one of the QFI scholarship recipients, “I learned how to greet people, which is exciting because then we could introduce ourselves to any Arabic person we might meet.”

One student this year, Omar Jaafar of Mapleton, GA, also a scholarship recipient, arrived with a little knowledge of the language. He had learned it from his father, who is from Morocco — in fact, Omar travelled in Morocco earlier this summer. “I know some of the expressions and the alphabet,” he explains, “but I can understand what someone is saying in Arabic better than I can speak it.”

Abby Camp practices Arabic with Kay Boyde.

Later in the semester, when they have developed more of their language skills, Lhouie will have the students create brochures about Arabic countries and present their work to the class. This project will allow them to learn extensively about their chosen country and work on their reading and writing. In addition, class debates will combine language skills and cultural knowledge as students discuss issues important to the Arab world. A highlight toward the end of the course will be the opportunity to Skype with teenagers in Tunisia to learn about each other’s lives.

On the third day of class, however, it was all about the alphabet. In the final round of the tournament, Lhouie had the competing teams take turns waiting outside while the rest of the class came up with words in the category of instruments, an effective choice since many of the students play music. They suggested “sousaphone” and “kazoo” before settling on slightly less obscure terms.

One student asked Lhouie about the best strategy to read Arabic, and he cautioned against writing out a translation letter by letter: “It’s harder if you do it that way. You get further away from the word.”

When the teams were ready to go, Lhouie taught the class how to cheer: “How do you encourage in Arabic? You say ‘hi-yah!’” He led them in a chant of “Hiya, Syria,” repeating the phrase while lifting one arm, bent at a 90 degree angle, up and down to the rhythm. The chant grew loud, but then the class quieted so the team, Genevieve and Kay Boyd of Uniontown, could work. After 28 seconds, Genevieve said it: “piccolo.” The class congratulated them.

Then was time for the final team. As Mikah Burdette of Lexington and Olivia Harwood of Scottsville prepared, the class began a low chant of “Hiyah, Qatar” that grew louder and louder as they also banged the table. Then they dropped into dead silence as the girls looked at the word.

It was over fast: Mikah arrived at “harmonica” in only nine seconds, giving Qatar the overall victory. Once again, everyone cheered

As this contest revealed, at VAMPY the competitive spirits run high, but individual victories are celebrated by the whole group. What these young people usually like most is to push themselves — and having others push them — to excel and learn. This atmosphere will help them in the next weeks to master everything Lhouie throws at them.