Machulak, Erica

Name: Erica Machulak
Location of Study: USA
Program of Study: Arabic
Sponsor(s): Robert Berner

20 thoughts on “Machulak, Erica

  1. A brief personal bio:
    I am a fourth-year graduate student in the English department at Notre Dame. My research focuses on 14th-century Middle English poetry, which includes text such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and William Langland’s Piers Plowman. I am in the process of finishing up my qualifying exams and moving on to my dissertation proposal. The dissertation itself will take about two years to write. I took Arabic for three semesters in college, and have varying levels of proficiency in Spanish, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon.
    Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
    The strides I make in language acquisition this summer will have a huge impact on my future career as a teacher and scholar. Specifically, I hope to be able to work with manuscripts based in Europe that contain Arabic texts in order to study the influence of Arabic science and translations on late-medieval Western thought. Few people realize how incredible this impact really was— many important ancient Greek texts such as the works of Aristotle first came to Europe in the Middle Ages written in Arabic, and these texts traveled alongside philosophical and scientific writings. For my dissertation, I will be looking at the way that Middle English poets talk about these scientists and works in order to tease out the cultural exchanges between our culture and Arabic culture. The topic of my project is very specific, but it works toward my much broader goal to raise awareness about our shared cultural heritage with the Middle East.
    What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
    I hope to come out of this summer with a deeper understanding of Middle Eastern culture and solid proficiency in Arabic speaking, reading, and writing. I want to be ready to conduct serious research and to be able to engage with Arabic speakers.
    My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
    1. I will be able to have meaningful conversations with native Arabic speakers.
    2. I will gain a strong enough foundation in Arabic grammar and vocabulary to be able to continue building my language skills independently.
    3. I will be able to read Arabic texts (with a dictionary) and evaluate published English translations.
    4. I will have a deeper understanding of current issues in the Middle East and become familiar with multiple perspectives.
    My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
    My experience this summer will be quite a bit different from the study abroad programs of many of my fellow SLA-grant recipients, since I will be located at Mills College campus in Oakland, CA. My program is run by the Middlebury Language Schools, which are famous for their “language pledge”: on the second day of the program, every student will sign an agreement to communicate only in Arabic for the next eight weeks. A potential drawback of this program is that I will miss out on full cultural immersion but, on the other hand, I will be working with students and instructors from all over the world, and will have the opportunity to hear different dialects and learn more about the cultural differences between Middle Eastern countries. Furthermore, the program has an intense schedule of activities to help us learn more than just the Arabic language alone. In addition to five hours of class on Monday through Friday, we will have weekly lectures, film nights, and club meetings.

  2. Reflective Journal Entry 1: Pre-Departure
    As I start to say goodbye to my friends and family, it is really starting to hit me that I will be giving up all contact with them for the next eight weeks. I am also starting to realize that it’s going to be hard to make new friends at Mills– I took my last Arabic class six years ago, and I’m not sure if my Arabic pronunciation and vocabulary are good enough to have even a basic conversation. Still, I am so excited! I am determined to get as much as I possibly can out of this experience, which means that I will be taking notes in Arabic and writing my SLA blog entries when I get back to ND.

  3. Reflective Journal Entry 2: End of Week 1
    This week has been a whirlwind of new experiences, and my brain hurts. We started the program with a four-hour placement test on Saturday morning, which had reading, writing, and grammar sections, followed by an oral interview with an instructor. At that point, the sum total of the Arabic that I retained from college consisted of the alphabet and thirty words. The writing section asked me to compose a letter for a friend who was coming to visit, and my letter went something like this: “Hi! I am really happy. I am from South Bend, Indiana. I study in a big house, and, in reality, I like chicken.”
    For reasons beyond my ken, I was placed in Level 2. This is the ‘Advanced Beginner’ level—there is also a 1.5, and Level 1 for students who come in with no previous Arabic whatsoever (I have so much respect for them). On the first day of class, I literally did not understand a word my teacher said. I learned words like “word”, “sentence”, and “break”, and I definitely retained the word “homework”. I am blown away by my instructors’ patience and compassion. We are using the same book I had in college, but we are starting well beyond what I knew even six years ago. I’ve spent the week playing catch-up and trying to re-teach myself basics, like the past tense. Some of it is starting to come back, and I’m pleased to say that I can now actually finish the homework. It’s Friday night, and I will be in bed by 9pm.
    There are about 180 students in our program, and I’m dying to get to know them. I met some of them in the couple of days before we signed the language pledge, and it’s so weird not to be able to carry on conversations with them after having learned a decent amount about their lives. I am very envious of students who have smartphones, because they have the “Google Translate” app on them all the time. I can’t wait to get to the point where I can have real conversations with my classmates.
    Sidenote: The dining hall here is amazing.

  4. Reflective Journal Entry 3: End of Week 2
    I have spent a lot of energy over the last week trying to learn how to ask basic questions like “How do you say…?” and “What time is it?” The latter has been particularly difficult, because I am just wrapping my head around the words for numbers and because. In Arabic, it is very common to say ‘quarter to five’ or ‘half to five’—since I can only catch snippets of what people say, I’ll hear the ‘five’ (‘hamza’) and run with it, resulting in me being late (‘mutaakhera’) a lot. I eat most of my lunches with my instructors and classmates, and am gradually learning how to ask for things without shrugging my shoulders and pointing. It’s a relief to know how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, because it grates on my Midwestern sensibilities to feel like I am being rude so often and have no way of correcting myself.
    One advantage of this program is that the instructors and students come from all over the world—one of the results being that I have been exposed to dialects from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lybia, Lebanon, etc. I knew that there was a wide variety of Arabic dialects, but I didn’t understand the extent until I came here and heard them side-by-side. The dialects vary to such extremes that native speakers from opposite ends of the Middle East often have trouble understanding each other; some linguists argue that they should be categorized as different languages. For this reason, the standard curriculum in the States (and the one used by my program) is to teach Modern Standard Arabic, which stays close to the grammar and vocabulary of Classical Arabic (‘fusha’) vs. dialects (‘aemya’). Students from levels 2.5 and beyond take actual dialect courses, in which they can specialize in Jordanian, Palestinian, Egyptian, etc. Egyptian is a particularly popular couse, since Cairo is the ‘Hollywood’ of the Middle East and therefore its dialect is the most widely understood.
    It can be very frustrating for beginning Arabic learners to start with ‘fusha’, which isn’t really used today except religious contexts (much like Latin for modern Catholics) and for writing legal documents. It works out perfectly for me, however, since my I’m planning to study medieval religious texts that will use all of the extended grammar and extra vowel sounds that have been made more efficient in modern dialects. Our program can sometimes feel like a bizarre commune, where Classical Arabic is the lingua franca for a mostly American student body. I really enjoy the complexities of the linguistic system, though, and I am looking forward to developing my knowledge of them.

  5. Reflective Journal Entry 4: End of Week 3
    Regardless of the amount of Arabic I learn by the end of this program, I will be a master of charades. Because of the language pledge, we’re forbidden from just asking “How do you say…?” I have made a few friends in the higher course levels who are mercifully patient with me, and will spend large amounts of time repeating themselves, drawing, gesturing, and even acting things out in order to help me understand. One of my proudest moments over the last few weeks was teaching some friends to play the board game Parcheesi—no easy feat without knowing most of the words for colors or numbers.
    Given that I barely knew how to introduce myself on day one, I’m still in shock from having given my first of two oral presentations in front of my class. We were asked to present on a topic for about twelve minutes, and I chose to talk about ‘Shakespeare in the Middle East’. The topic was a pretty fascinating one—I learned that translations of Shakespeare have existed in the Middle East since the Renaissance (though the first one was in French), and that many of these renderings made major changes such as, for instance, allowing the prince and Ophelia to live happily ever after at the end of Hamlet. I finished the presentation with a YouTube clip from a 1994 Isreali-Palestinian production of Romeo and Juliet in Jerusalem, in which Romeo and the Montagues speak in Palestinian Arabic, and Juliet and the Capulets speak in Hebrew:
    The Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, was unseated on Wednesday (July 3rd). I didn’t know what was happening at first, when a carful of Egyptian instructors drove around campus honking their horns and cheering. I was right outside the dining hall, and when I went in many of the students had their laptops open and were blaring Al Jazeera. I got the basic idea, and then snuck a Google search later to learn the details. We spent the next day in class watching the news and trying to understand it, and have since put a greater emphasis on watching news stories on our own and discussing them in class. The US’ involvement in the coup has been a heated source of debate, but attitudes toward the coup here seem to be mostly positive.

  6. Reflective Journal Entry 5: End of Week 4
    Ramadan started last Monday (July 8). I’m not fasting, but many of my friends are. I have had quite a few conversations with students and instructors over the last week, and it’s interesting to hear people’s reasons for fasting or not fasting— it is not simply a question of whether or not to observe the holiday, but also of whether or not it is feasible and healthy to fast within a culture that is not predominantly Islamic. The program has shifted our dinner time an hour later, though, so we can all eat together. Before sharing a schedule with Muslim colleagues, I had never considered the acute challenges of observing Ramadan in a country that does not recognize the holiday. In the Middle East, the community as a whole adapts its schedule to accommodate the new patterns of eating and sleeping that a month of daytime fasting demands. Businesses close during the day and stay open at night so that people can sleep during the day and conduct their work and errands after their evening meals. Even TV stations put on special programs that cater to the schedules of their viewers.
    Our program, in contrast, continues to start class at 8:30 every morning and hold lectures, clubs, and other activities throughout the afternoon and evening. The dining hall becomes a ghost town at lunchtime, but all of the fasting professors and students continue to keep up with their work and obligations even as they wake up at four in the morning to break their fasts. When I asked my friend Khalfan, from Oman, what this was like for him, he told me that the hardest part was not the scheduling, but missing out on the time he would normally be spending celebrating with his family and friends.

  7. Reflective Journal Entry 6: Wrapping Up and Coming Home
    The last two weeks at Mills contained several milestones that showed me how far my language skills have come: I gave a second, fifteen-minute oral presentation, I wrote an 800-word paper, I took a final exam, and I collaborated with my classmates on a parodic ‘Welcome to the Program’ film for our talent show. This second presentation was still a challenge, but was less stressful than the first because I was so much more comfortable speaking. When I was preparing for my Week 3 presentation on ‘Shakespeare in the Middle East’, I had spent hours trying to memorize phrases that instructors with me had checked over and corrected. All of the vocab had felt completely strange, and I had been happy just to get the consonants in the right order without being able to worry too much about the vowel intonations. This time, I wrote my presentation out in advance, but ultimately had the confidence to rely on notes and trust that I had enough vocab and grammar to improvise. My topic of choice was the early authorship and translation of 1,001 Arabian Nights, known in Arabic as Alf Layla wa Layla. I discussed the international origins of the stories (only the first 268 or so actually originated in Arabic), as well as the cultural tensions embedded in modern translations such as Disney’s Aladdin. I was proficient enough to be able to enjoy teaching the material—that, to me, was a truly rewarding milestone.
    By far the greatest challenge of the program was writing my final paper. I chose to cover the development of translation and intellectual exchange centered in Baghdad during the Abbasid period. In retrospect, a more familiar topic would have made this process as much easier. Relying on Arabic sources as much as possible, I covered the various spiritual and political factors at play during the early collection of the texts of the Qu’ran, and the intellectual trends that developed as linguistic focus on the Arabic language merged with new information acquired during the expansion of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. Any grad student should know that this was much too broad of a topic for an 800-word paper (or even a dissertation), but I was so excited to be writing and researching again that I couldn’t help myself. The product was not one that I could ever hope to publish, but the process brought me to a greater proficiency in the language and a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of academic discourse. I have no idea what I would have done without two friends in particular—Rawad, who spent hours helping me find and understand resources, and Omar, the human dictionary, who put up with my never-ending stream of grammatical questions and newly-learned expressions of exasperation.
    The last week was a blur: we took our final exams on Thursday morning, and then waited until the official end of the language pledge in the evening to talk to each other in English for the first time. After two months of struggling to communicate basic ideas, switching back to fluent conversation was overwhelming. For the next week or so, the words coming out of my mouth sounded strange, and I occasionally slipped in some Arabic by mistake. As I have readjusted to life in South Bend and started drafting my dissertation prospectus, I am increasingly more aware of the impact that this program has had on my life and my career.

  8. How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
    The skills that I developed during the Middlebury Arabic summer program have prepared me well to investigate intercultural interactions that have been largely ignored due to the linguistic challenges they present to researchers. My research has become increasingly focused on the impact of the ‘New Aristotleian’ science and philosophy that came to England and France via Arabic manuscripts found in Spain in the 12th century. Because I am now proficient in Latin, Spanish, and Arabic, I am in a unique position to study the development of intellectual discourse in the Middle Ages and its impact on literary theory and poetics. While there has been ample discussion of anti-Islamic sentiments in medieval poetry, few scholars have examined the fascination that many authors clearly had with Arabic learning and culture. By dropping the names of Arabic philosophers and by demonstrating detailed familiarity with their theories, poets like Chaucer hint that Arabic sources featured heavily in their education and independent intellectual pursuits. In my dissertation, I will be investigating the kinds of sources that these poets have had access to in order to get a more specific idea of their perceptions of the Middle East. As my research develops later in my career, I will continue to use my language skills to study the assimilation of Arabic texts into European intellectual culture in the later Middle Ages.
    When I first decided to attend the Middlebury Arabic summer program, my main goal was to become proficient enough to be able to read Arabic texts related to my research. As I continued to meet graduate students and professors who had come to the program to improve their own research interests, I became increasingly excited about the potential that I would be able to converse with scholars in a wider range of fields. I was fortunate to meet and work with scholars of history, art, Arabic literature, philosophy, and other subjects who showed me that my research could benefit from and contribute to areas of the humanities that had not previously been on my radar. While I will of course continue to hone my reading skills, my new goal is to become proficient enough in writing and speaking to be able to read modern Arabic scholarship, to attend international academic conferences, and to share ideas with researchers who hold vastly different perspectives from my own.