Montijo, Ian

Name: Ian Montijo
Location of Study: Amman, Jordan
Program of Study: CIEE Amman, Jordan – University of Jordan
Sponsor(s): Susan Scribner Mirza


A brief personal bio:

Marhaba!  I’m a native of Tucson, Arizona and a rising junior majoring in Arabic and Political Science.  This summer I will be studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan.  For the past three years I’ve studied Arabic and learned about the culture of the Arab World.  I had the chance last year as part of the Arabic Club to meet students in Cairo via video chat.  The experience impressed upon me the importance of immersing myself directly Arabic language and the Arab culture.  The string of uprisings put a hitch in my plans to spend a semester in Cairo, however I’m happy to be making up for in Amman this summer.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

As an Arabic major studying abroad and immersing myself in the language and culture of the region I study is an essential part of my education.  The SLA Grant makes this possible through summer study abroad and intensive language study.  The benefits of living and studying abroad cannot be found elsewhere.  Learning to speak colloquial Arabic and understanding cultural nuances are skills that need to be built outside of the classroom.  Additionally my studies in Amman will allow me to contextualize what I have learned, and the skills I acquire by participating in the program will also prepare me for a future career in the Foreign Service.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

My hope is that through this summer’s study abroad experience I can gain greater language proficiency and insight into the Arab World.  Practicing and honing my speaking and listening skills especially by interacting with native speakers will aid in both of these goals.  Learning colloquial Arabic will not only be a useful skill in my future career, through speaking with Jordanians during my time in Amman I will be able to understand how they view certain issues.  Having this knowledge will give me an insider’s view of how the Arab Spring and events of the past year have affected the region.  As the importance of the Arab World and Middle East increases, the knowledge I acquire in this area, as a result of my language study, may be the most important part of my summer in Jordan.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1.  By the end of the summer I will possess the necessary skills to communicate in Levantine colloquial Arabic with native speakers, and have the confidence to interact in activities beyond the basic requirements of daily life.
  2. By the end of the summer I will have increased my reading comprehension skills enough to access research materials in Arabic from a variety of sources.
  3. By the end of summer I will be able to compose written essays in Modern Standard Arabic on a variety of topics, including the current political climate in the Arab World and local sentiments toward the region’s new leaders and the influence of Islamic political parties and groups.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

Studying in Amman will be a great opportunity, however if I am to capitalize on the experience and improve my language skills I will need to work towards this goal outside the classroom as well.  Participating in cultural and extracurricular activities will be essential to applying what I learn and grasping the language on a deeper level.  Beyond the everyday interactions in which I will be speaking Arabic, I will need to take advantage of the many student clubs offered through the University of Jordan to practice speaking in different environments.  Volunteering and working with the International Red Crescent also provide great ways to use the Arabic I will be learning in a unique setting while also engaging the culture and political landscape of my summer home.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: Week One

Even jetlagged and tired arriving in Muscat was pretty exciting. Though the group immediately went to the hotel after leaving the airport, we were able to see a few of the sites around the capital city. One of the first things I noticed was how similar the roads, signs and buildings were. Except for the distinct architectural themes which could be seen in almost every building, much of the surroundings hardly seemed foreign.
This initial reaction of course changed greatly once we had settled into the hotel and started looking for a place to eat dinner. It was quickly apparent to most of us that all the Arabic we’d learned in the classroom was useful, but wasn’t enough by itself to communicate effectively. Nevertheless, we found a good place for dinner and managed to order without too many problems. The next day we had a short orientation and then made our way to our final destination, Nizwa.

Nizwa is about two hours into the interior of Oman and was the former capital of the country when Oman was ruled by the Ibaydhi Imam. Now Nizwa is known for its “souq” or market where you can purchase the finest Omani pottery as well as its Friday goat market which draws Omanis from all over the interior. In Nizwa, we would live in apartments near the main highway that runs through the town, and take buses to the University of Nizwa, where our classes were held.

As a general rule Omanis are very friendly and willing to help or answer questions if asked. We were very thankful for this, since finding our way around in even a smaller town like Nizwa was difficult at first. However the first few days passed without incident and the material we began to cover in class was useful for getting settled. Every morning we have a pair of two hour classes. The first is grammar based and has covered a lot of material we’ve all been introduced to before. Even though this can make things boring at times it’s nice to have a review of some of the tougher subjects and get a solid footing for the things we will learn in the coming weeks. The second class is more media based, and involves a lot of reading, listening and speaking. I struggled more in this class since holding a conversation in just Arabic for two hours is not only really hard, it’s exhausting. On the bright side we did discuss a lot of current events that are taking place in the Arab world. Using material that everyone had knowledge of previously made the discussions and debates flow more smoothly. Hopefully this continues.

After a short break for lunch, which the men and women eat separate from each other, there is a two hour afternoon session that is completely conversation based. Each of us is paired with a language tutor who is also a student at the University of Nizwa. During this time we learn the really useful things like how to direct a cab, how to barter for a better deal at the market and how to greet our fellow Nizwans properly. We’ve all tried to put this knowledge to good use, but for the most part our accent, or lack thereof, and inexperience has made things a little difficult. I’m looking forward to these sessions everyday as a way to really see how the culture works and pick up more of the colloquial dialect.

Thinking back on how this week has gone, the experience of eating dinner that first night is indicative of how the week as a whole went. Everything was new and exciting, and despite the hardships we were able to interact a little bit with native Omanis and sort through any problems we encountered.

Reflective Journal Entry 2: Week Two

To be honest, week two has been a much bumpier ride than the first week. By now I think most of the excitement has worn off and many of the things which we thought were quirky or just a little different have started to get annoying. Number one on this list is paying way more than Omanis for cab rides. Really we shouldn’t complain since the rides we are getting are still cheaper than catching a cab in the US. Nonetheless, it is frustrating trying to stretch the stipends we receive to last the two weeks they are supposed to when cab fares are twice or more what we expect them to be. At times we have success getting the rate we’d like but more often than not we decide to just pay a little more instead of walking the distance from place to place, which can be as long as two miles.

Classes have started to become more structured and I am seeing the benefits. The grammar class is not moving as quickly as I anticipated and many of the concepts are still review. Although it would be nice to start covering new material, polishing a few of the older subjects has its benefits. I’ve noticed that the grammatical mistakes which I normally make when speaking have decreased, and when I do make these mistakes I often catch myself doing so and can try to correct it immediately. In the other class I feel more and more comfortable. Understanding the videos we watch or hearing all of the answers to the listening activities is still very difficult, but speaking extemporaneously is getting easier. With only six of us and the professor in the class there are also plenty of opportunities to as for clarification. Especially with some of the current event debates we’ve had, it has been interesting to get the Arab or Omani perspective from our instructors.

Much of our time this week has been spent discussing the elections in Egypt, both amongst ourselves and with our Omani friends. On one of our trips out of town to a nearby falaj (an ancient irrigation system that at over a thousand years old is the oldest in the world) we spent the entire drive talking about American perspectives on the Arab Spring. The upcoming elections in Egypt also featured prominently in our discussion. Although at times it was difficult to express what we were thinking for the most part we understood each other. I think our Omani friends were surprised by how much we follow news coming out of the Arab world, and how our views on the elections in Egypt differ from their assumptions.

Reflective Journal Entry 3: Week Three

I think that this past week was the first week where everything clicked. During the first two weeks there were a few classes each week when concepts clicked easily into place in my mind. This week not only did I seem to have a better grasp of the material covered in all the classes, there was more of a rhythm that I found when speaking and writing. The most noticeable difference however was interactions outside of school.
As we have grown more comfortable with our surroundings in Nizwa we have started to explore more. This of course has meant taking more cab rides, and that in turn necessitates speaking with the taxi drivers. The big upside to travelling by cab is all taxi drivers are native Omanis and speak Arabic. We are always met with essentially the same reaction when we pile into the cabs together. Normally, after the customary minute to minute and a half greeting, the driver will ask if we are tourists. Once he hears that we are students he immediately becomes interested in what we’re studying and how we’ve enjoyed Oman thus far. As a group we have started to recognize what subjects are the best for conversation, and this normally builds a better rapport with the cab drivers. Normally, the better the conversation we have with the driver, the better rate we get going to our destination.

Before our weekend trip to Jabal Akhdar a group of us went hiking in the mountains around Nizwa. Getting to the top of the small mountain range behind our apartment gave us a great view of the entire town stretched out along the highway. The coolest moment of the trip so far happened just after we reached the peak. From way up on top of the mountain we could hear the afternoon call to prayer from every direction. It was oddly reminiscent of the time I spent in Istanbul when mosques would call back and forth until the call to prayer was completed. There was not the same level of coordination in Nizwa and the surrounding villages, but the overall experience was just as impressive. Even small little towns which lay on the far outskirts of what could be considered Nizwa had someone performing the call. More impressive was how in sync the timing was.

Jabal Akhdar was very impressive. Nestled in almost every nook and cranny on the mountain there was some kind of agriculture or a small building. A few of the program’s staff members came along and were able to give us an account of the history of the mountain and the towns that call it home. Just before leaving we visited an old village which was close to three hundred years old, but was abandoned during the Sultan’s father’s war to take control of the country. In places you could still see the damage done to houses by the Royal Air Force bombing. Our instructors explained that the current Sultan has done a much better job of integrating this part of the country and providing services for its residents. Judging by how modern some of the buildings and offices were there, a huge effort must be ongoing to improve life on the mountain, and also increase tourism in the area. With so many tangible reminders of the government’s work for the people, it is no wonder why Sultan Qaboos is so beloved.

Reflective Journal Entry 4: Week Four

This past week’s focus in our classes was literature. This coincided nicely with several events at the university. At the beginning of the week there was a literary discussion about English works being translated into Arabic, and what effect this has on Arab literature, specifically in the Gulf. I was able to follow the conversations for the most part. This was reassuring, but I still had a lot of difficulty picking out even one or two words when the different panelists started to argue more vehemently. Still, I asked one question and even though I had to clarify it for the moderator no one in the audience laughed at what I said. I’ll count that as a victory. Credit is also probably due to the fact that I was dressed in the traditional Omani garb.

Later in the week as part of another campus event, I was asked by one of the Omani peer facilitator students to recite poetry at another event the university was hosting. Luckily I brought my binder from this past year’s Arabic class, which contained the reading I had done for Arabic Culture Night at Notre Dame. Even though I had most of the poem memorized, there was the added pressure of knowing that everyone in attendance spoke Arabic fluently and would be curious to see how well an American could recite Nizar Qabbani. Thankfully the event started a little bit late, giving me an extra few minutes to practice. Although I was ready to recite the poem, I had completely neglected to think of what I’d say while introducing myself. I kept that part short in the hope that I wouldn’t make too many foolish errors. Luckily the poem dealt with many of the issues we had discussed the previous week in class, so describing the background for the poem wasn’t overly difficult. Reciting the poem went more smoothly than anticipated. The two other American students who read and sang also did well, and the Omani students were nice enough to give us each a hearty round of applause. We are now all campus celebrities, which has its benefits. People now stop by our table at lunch just to talk. Sometimes they do so in English and other times in Arabic. Either way it’s been great getting to know more people.

Reflective Journal Entry 5: Week Five

There are few things stranger than celebrating the Fourth of July in a foreign country. That said it isn’t the worst thing in the world either. As part of the holiday celebration that was taking place in Muscat our group had to create a play which summarized the entire American Revolution in three acts. Leading up to the play we spent the afternoon class sessions figuring out what exactly we were going to present. It was fun to switch places with our peer facilitators and use the Arabic we’ve learned to teach them about our country and its founding. Being able to stand up in front of a small group and take questions and explain early American history was another confidence booster.
Everyone at the program center in Muscat seemed to enjoy the play we performed for the other students and peer facilitators. Afterwards we ate the Omani version of hamburgers (what kind of meat they used to form the patties we may never know), and the best imitation of apple pie that we could throw together given the limited resources in our apartments. After everyone had their fill of food we started preparations for the Oman vs. USA soccer game. In a strange series of events all of the students from our program in Nizwa were selected for the Omani team. At first we were pretty upset about this. Is there anything less American than playing against your country on the Fourth of July, especially when the American team is made up of midshipmen from the Naval Academy? The upside to this was I got to practice my Arabic a little bit more.
Just like speaking Spanish in pick up soccer games back home, it didn’t take long to figure out the key words needed to communicate with your teammates. Most of the words were simple vocabulary words that I’d been practicing since the first year of classes. I had just never thought of them being used in this kind of context to express a different meaning. In the end the Omani students and instructors made short work of the American team, with a little help from the Nizwa group I’d like to think.

Reflective Journal Entry 6: Conclusion

As I write this final review of my time in Oman I can’t help but notice how many different events I’ve overlooked. What started as a bumpy ride the first two weeks, turned into one of the best summer’s ever. The last month seemed to fly by, and even I didn’t think I would ever learn so much in such a short time. In the beginning I complained about paying too much for cab rides, and by the end we received the “Mashallah, you speak Arabic!” discount almost every taxi ride, and got to name our own price, and sometimes not even pay for a ride! Even interactions which seemed so strange and difficult in the beginning, like ordering dinner, became natural. In every shop we visited in the souq we were met with a smile and a chance to practice our Arabic or learn a cultural nuance we hadn’t yet discovered. By the fourth week here I lost track of the number of times we were warmly invited to the home of a complete stranger to share lunch or dinner with them. And even though I felt like I was still stumbling through my sentences at the end of the trip I was mistaken for a Moroccan or Syrian on a couple of occasions.

Adjusting to a new culture, language and setting, in addition to six plus hours of class a day was a shock at first. In hindsight though I don’t think there is any better way to learn a language and truly come to understand the culture of a foreign people. The past few days our group has had the chance to explore Muscat before we return home to the states. I know I speak for the entire group when I say that staying in Nizwa made the experience so much better. Muscat, although still noticeably foreign seemed too similar to the big cities we’d all experienced at home in the states. Nizwa on the other hand forced us to get out of our comfort zones. Not everyone spoke English, and speaking Arabic was essential to accomplishing even simple, everyday tasks. Living in the interior of the country gave us all a better glimpse of traditional Omani culture.

I cannot think of a better place to have spent my summer studying Arabic. In the news media outlets like to comment on the clash between modernity and traditionalism. In Oman I saw this interaction every day. Yet instead of the problems that are so often mentioned I saw harmony between what others view as two entirely separate worlds. Convertible sports cars shared the road with farmers walking home with their goats. Old men sat outside the Friday mosque and debated the meaning of scripture while children in the newest Nike sneakers kicked the soccer ball back and forth. All along the way I met welcoming individuals who were more than happy to spend anywhere from a few minutes to an entire afternoon telling you about the Oman they know. The welcoming atmosphere that greeted me at every turn, the diversity of people, and the open minded culture I discovered made the time I spent in Oman an experience I will never forget.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

Looking back at my time studying this summer it is hard to believe that I learned so much in such a short time.  Six weeks is by no means a small amount of time, especially considering I was taking classes at least 6 hours a day.  Nevertheless I was still surprised at how quickly my proficiency in Arabic improved.  Although I had always assumed living and study abroad was the best way to improve language skills, I now know for a fact that is the case.  Being challenged both inside and outside the classroom added another dimension the the language learning process and helped me to reach many of the goals I set for myself.  Although my writing skills may not have improved as much as I anticipated, the improvement I saw in my oral proficiency far exceeded my expectations.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

Living and studying in the Arab World helped me to truly understand many of the concepts I have spent the past three years studying in the classroom.  Throughout my experience I was able to contextualize cultural nuances that I learned about in course readings, and understand why certain practices are observed.  Beyond this I learned from my friends and neighbors the importance of things like religious practice, traditional greetings, and local customs.  In interacting with Omanis I also became aware of the fact that misperceptions and stereotypes exist just as much in other countries as they do tin the United States.  I would recommend to any future language learner travelling abroad keep an open mind.  It is too easy to jump to conclusions even unintentionally.  Remaining cognizant of the diversity  you will encounter can pave the way to learning even more.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

While my study abroad experience was eye opening in many ways, it also confirmed many thoughts for me.  Before participating in the program I was unsure to what degree I wanted to use my language skills in a future career.  Now, not only do I know that I want to use the skills I’ve gained in what I do, I feel confident knowing that I will be able to use them effectively.  My experience abroad also taught me that I will be able to adapt to a job that might put me in an unfamiliar setting.  However if I am going to take full advantage of my summer experience I need to find ways to continue developing my language skills.  Returning to school may make this more difficult, however maintaining the contacts I made this summer, and continuing to read, write, and practice my language skills in and outside the classroom will place me on a path to success.