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Interview with a fourth-year student of Arabic

Did you speak Arabic before you came here?
I spoke no Arabic whatsoever, but during a holiday in Morocco I picked up a few words and tried to decipher Arabic script. It is interesting that it was especially the things I thought I had learned about the script were completely wrong.

Is it possible to master Arabic within four years?
One can learn a lot in four years' time, but there still remains a lot to be learnt after you graduate. This is certainly true if you consider the various dialects.

Yes, every Arab country has its own dialect. At school we learn – apart from Standard Modern Arabic – the Egyptian dialect. Almost all Arabs will understand it because of the many Egyptian films, soaps and other television programmes they watch.

What is your favourite part of the curriculum?
I think it was the third-year study period in Cairo – this was the best part. You arer really thrown into the deep and you need everything that you learnt at school. It is also the cultural interaction – it's all fantastic. Life is so totally different in Egypt – I really like it that way.

How hard is it to learn Arabic?
The script looks very demanding, but actually this is the easy part! After just a few weeks you can read and write. The pronunciation of Arabic is harder. There are some unfamiliar sounds that we don't have in Dutch. Arabic grammar can ber complicated, but then again some things are much simpler than in Dutch. The bottom line is: it is feasible, if you really go for it. Anyway, it helps if one is a speaker of Dutch.

Why is that?
Well, the French find it hard to master the pronunciation, and when you hear a Frenchman speak Arabic, it still sounds very French. The 'h', for instance, is not easy for them, and so is the 'g'. In Dutch these sounds are part of the language.

Do you learn a lot about Arab culture at school?
There is a course called Culture and Institutions which deals with subjects like Arab culture and, of course, religion. This sometimes happens through excursions or guest lectures, so that it not just theory. When I was in the first year, we visited a mosque in Maastricht. But, of course, you pick up most during your third-year stay in Egypt .

What is the size of the school?
In the first year, there will be around 40 students of Arabic, but some will drop out in the course of the academic year, so that class sizes will decrease. Since groups are small, students know each other well, and contact with the lecturers is very personal.

What about job prospects?
There are a lot of possibilities – this is because the curriculum is fairly general. Some graduates find a position with embassies or consulates, but there is also tourism, journalism, or cultural affairs. Some students prefer a career in the business world, for instance in a multinational, and some like to start their own business. There are OTC graduates working for the Dutch government's Immigration and Naturalization Service.

How do people react when you start speaking Egyptian or Arabic to them?
They're quite stunned. They usually tell you that you speak excellent Arabic if you say 'Hello' to them. You can imagine what they say if you can actually start a conversation! They really appreciate it if you can show you are interested in their language.

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