As a child growing up in Tunisia, Douja Mamelouk, Ph.D., learned to move between three languages with ease: Arabic, the official language of Tunisia; French, the language of education; and English, her mother’s native language. Transitioning between these tongues became as natural to her as breathing, and she appreciates the beauty and complexity in each of them.
Today Mamelouk shares her love of language with her students at Le Moyne as an assistant professor of Arabic and French. She believes deeply in the interdisciplinary nature of language and how valuable it is, for instance, for a biologist to speak Arabic or a banker to be conversant in French. As the language used by some of the world’s earliest alchemists, philosophers and architects, Arabic holds a special place in Mamelouk’s heart. Yet, according to the American Councils for International Education, less than 1 percent of students at U.S. colleges – 32,000 out of 21 million students – are studying the language.
“I would love to see more students taking the opportunity to study Arabic,” she said. “It is increasingly important in the modern world, but it is also rich in history, and it has had a significant impact on other languages.”
Since arriving on the Heights just four months ago, Mamelouk has established a new Middle Eastern Film Series, as well as monthly sessions in which advanced Arabic language students meet informally and practice their conversational skills. This spring, she will reach even more students as undergraduates from other colleges and universities in the region join one of her classes remotely through the Upstate New York Language Consortium, a new initiative that allows students to immerse themselves in a broader, more diverse array of foreign languages.
The study of a foreign language has long been shown to expand a student’s worldview, promote creativity and enhance listening skills. However, facility in Arabic, which is spoken by more than 300 million people around the world, is particularly valuable today. It provides individuals with numerous professional opportunities in the government, business and nonprofit sectors. Beyond that, simply committing oneself to learning the language – particularly as an adult – says something powerful about the student.
“Studying Arabic demonstrates to graduate schools and prospective employers that a student is tenacious, has a strong work ethic, and is willing to accept a challenge,” Mamelouk said. “That goes a long way in making a positive and memorable first impression.”
Far from being merely practical, though, Arabic is also a beautiful language, and it is inseparable from the work Mamelouk does as a researcher. She studies representations of masculinities in Arab women writings, a field she was first drawn to as a graduate student at American University Cairo. It was in reading the texts of authors such as Ahlem Mostaghanemi, Fadwa Tuqan and Nawal al-Saadawy that she learned to look at things from a different point of view and cultivated her belief that people should be able to speak for themselves. Those are lessons that she hopes to impart upon her own students at a time when they are becoming more autonomous and are beginning to shape their futures.
“My goal in teaching is not just to have my students master the grammar, but to inspire them to think and to grow into mature, responsible people,” she said.