We met with Michelle Lonnquist , a PG Arabic alumni from USA & Sweden who has completed her MSc in International Relations of the Middle East with Arabic back in 2015 at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, University of Edinburgh. In an interview with Michelle, we asked the following questions:
Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, etc.)
My name is Michelle Lonnquist. I’m from Washington, DC of Swedish origins. I’ve studied for a MSc International Relations of the Middle East with Arabic, 2015 at the U. of Edinburgh. Prior to that I’ve studied International Relations, Islamic Studies, and French at Boston University
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I have been studying Arabic since 2011 when I studied at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon for a full academic year. At AUB I learned to speak Lebanese Arabic and studied pure Lebanese 3amieh so my speaking level is high. I learned to properly read and write fus7a at IMES.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
I always had an interest in learning Arabic so I jumped at the chance to go to Lebanon for a year. I arrived with an open mind and not knowing one word of Arabic and I immediately I knew that this was the right choice. It was going to Lebanon that actually inspired me to get where I am today. I worked with and learned about Palestinian refugees and the hardships they faced in exile in a country that doesn’t recognise them or their basic human rights. Through this experience, I learned about Palestine, its history, and the current political situation, and this motivated me to get involved with human rights advocacy, eventually leading to an internship with Human Rights Watch, which is where I now work.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
The biggest challenge for me was learning to read and write Arabic after I learned how to speak. I was taught (Lebanese) Arabic in transliteration so my reading was quite slow at the beginning of IMES and it was easier for me to make notes and write in transliteration. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to ween myself off of relying on transliteration.
What careers are you planning to pursue using your Arabic language skills?
I currently work at Human Rights Watch in the Emergencies division so I use Arabic when our work brings us to an Arabic-speaking country. I’ve worked with researchers on reports documenting human rights violations in Yemen and Syria, including chemical weapons attacks on civilians, targeting of civilian infrastructure, and high civilian casualties following coalition bombing campaigns. I had the opportunity to work from our office in Beirut for two weeks over the summer and would love to eventually end up back in Lebanon or elsewhere in the region!
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
To become an excellent student of Arabic, you have to be ready to go beyond simply memorising vocabulary. It’s about understanding the lifestyle and culture of the people with whom you are trying to communicate, and putting yourself in it. My advice is to immerse yourself in Arabic language and culture. Listen to (and love!) Fayrouz or another singer who sings in 3amieh, study abroad or live in an Arabic-speaking country, make friends who speak Arabic, and be ready to dedicate a lot of your time to your studies. It takes a lot of time and patience, but it is definitely worth it 😊