We met with Neil Russell, a PG Arabic alumni from Scotland who gained a MSc in Arab World Studies at the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies department, University of Edinburgh. In an interview with Neil, we asked the following questions:
Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)
My name is Neil Russell, I’m a third-year PhD student from Scotland, based in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I have been studying Arabic since 2013, when I started the two-year MSc in Arab World Studies at the university. After the completion of the course I was able to read Modern Standard Arabic to an advanced level, and also speak the Egyptian dialect to a high standard as well.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
My interest in the Middle East began during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, after which I immersed myself in the history and contemporary politics of the region. For a number of years thereafter I thought that I might want to do a PhD at some stage, and felt that if I was to specialise in the Arab world, then learning Arabic would be essential. Whilst doing an MSc in Comparative Government at Oxford University I tried to learn Arabic in my spare-time, but I soon realised that this would be insufficient if I wanted to use Arabic for doctoral research. Subsequently, I was lucky enough to be awarded an ESRC scholarship for intensive Arabic study followed by PhD at Edinburgh.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
Having had little interest in languages at school, learning Arabic was my first real experience of learning a second language. One of the most difficult things I found with learning Arabic initially was feeling stupid, even when I was trying my best. Having studied politics at postgraduate level previously, I was quite confident in a tutorial-scenario and felt able to engage in a wide range of discursive topics related to the region. However, placed in a language-learning environment this confidence was completely turned on its head, and it was quite difficult at first feeling inferior to my peers. The way I got around this was to first of all realise that in language attainment, everyone has their own learning curve. Secondly, I tried to observe the techniques that more advanced language learners used, and then incorporated them into my own study schedule.
What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
With my Arabic language skills I intend to continue on an academic career path. In my current research I rely mostly on text-based sources, so in the future I would like to pursue research that involves interviews in Arabic. I think the two most important things to become an excellent student of Arabic are perseverance and dedication. As a very complex and diverse language, there have been times when I have felt dismayed about my progress, and that I will never reach fluency. However, I came to realise that the learning curve in language-attainment can be steeper at different stages, but it is all part of the process of learning. In my experience my biggest learning gains have come from maintaining a dedicated schedule that covers different aspects of language-learning. For example, having a particular method of vocabulary learning that is strictly adhered to on a daily basis. Or arranging weekly meet-ups with native speakers for dialect practice that I stick to, regardless of whether I felt like speaking Arabic on a given day.
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
For anyone interested in learning Arabic I would recommend being open to the diversity of the language, its written forms and various dialects, and viewing this as a source of richness rather than a reason to steer towards a more unified language. For example, in the beginning, I viewed learning Arabic instrumentally, as a way to read newspapers and to speak to people. Since commencing my studies, however, my interests have widened far beyond what was initially a rather narrow politically-minded interest in the language. I have since developed a keen interest in the cinema of different countries and their specific dialects. Or literature, and identifying when writers incorporate colloquialisms into their MSA-writing. Therefore something which was initially terrifying to me – essentially trying to learn two languages concurrently, the written-form and the dialect – has broadened my interests and opened me up to different aspects of Arab culture that I might not previously have considered a great deal.