We met with Jonas Burkhard, a Policy Adviser from Switzerland. Jonas, studied Arabic at the University of Edinburgh. In an interview with Jonas, we asked him the following questions:
Tell us about yourself
My name is Jonas Burkhard. I’m from Switzerland but grew up mostly in the USA. I studied Arabic and Politics at the University of Edinburgh from 2014-2018 and am currently on the Civil Service Fast Stream.
How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?
I started studying Arabic in my penultimate year of high school. I restarted when I began my undergraduate degree and now that I’ve graduated I am still practicing it as much as I can in my free time, using language partners, books and online resources. I would say I have an advanced but not yet fluent level of Arabic, though sometimes it very much depends on the day.
What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture? What & who inspired you? What were your motivations?
As a child I grew up fascinated with the travel fiction literature of the German novelist Karl May. I devoured them, especially the series “Durch die Wüste”, which dealt with a German’s adventures while traveling across North Africa and the Levant. Looking back, they were horribly Orientalist, but nevertheless instilled a fascination with that area of the world. When I got the chance to study Arabic at the local university while still in high school, I therefore jumped at the opportunity. Soon, a very rich culture far removed from Karl May’s stereotypes opened itself up and I haven’t stopped loving Arabic since, deciding to continue studying it at University. Besides these early experiences, the many wonderful people I’ve met, whether students, teachers or native speakers of Arabic all over the world, have inspired me along the way.
Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?
Like any student of Arabic, I’ve had many times when I was frustrated at a seeming lack of improvement in my Arabic and the never-ending vocabulary and dialectal varieties to learn. While I often understood the grammar and vocabulary well, I was often frustrated by my lack of confidence in applying my knowledge to real-life situations and in conversations with native speakers. However, the ups more than compensate for the downs, whether that’s discovering a new favorite Arabic word, piece of literature (check out أنشودة المطر) or being able to discuss an interesting subject with a native speaker!
What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?
Since graduating in 2018, I have joined the Civil Service Fast Stream. Though I’m currently working in a policy area that has very little to do with Arabic (post-Brexit UK climate policy), I’m very much enjoying working in public service and hope to develop my career to work in more foreign-policy related civil service positions or in international civil service positions (UN, etc…).
What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?
I would recommend to students to not get stuck in vocab flashcards or Memrise sets as the default study mode! Read short stories, watch youtube clips and, most importantly, find native speakers to practice with! I currently have a language partner I meet up with weekly (and who is ruthless in avoiding using English). While I was in Edinburgh I volunteered with a group for Syrian refugees, and still keep in touch with some of them on a regular basis. Also, try to learn to at least passively understand more than one dialect, it makes you much more versatile but you also learn to recognize connections and patterns much more quickly!
What’s your favourite Arabic word?
What is your least favourite Arabic word? Why?
Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?
What is your favourite place in the Arab World?
What is your favourite Arabic quote?
أسمع جعحعة و لا أرى تحينًا Much ado about nothing
What is your favourite book? Why?
Zina, by Nawal Al-Saadawi. I find al-Saadawi’s style very elegant.