In Michigan, U.S. Diplomats Participate in Arabic Language Immersion Program

Posted by Aaron Snipe
November 24, 2009
Foreign Service Officer Seth Wikas Presents the Owner of Shatila a Certificate of Appreciation
FSO Seth Wikas Prepares a Chicken Shwarma Sandwich
FSO Krister Anderson Learns the Finer Points of Middle Eastern Sweets
Immersion Participants Pose with the Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad
FSOs Randall Kaailau and Daniel Wright Chat with Students from Edsel Ford High School
Immersion Participants Visit the National Arab American Museum

About the Author: Aaron Snipe is among a group of Foreign Service Officers studying Arabic in preparation for their next assignments.

The State Department's Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is where American diplomats come to learn the tools of their trade. A wide range of courses prepare Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) to engage the media, speak, read, and write in numerous languages, and to draft efficiently and think critically about political, economic, and human rights issues. Yet, in all the courses taught at FSI, there is a common thread: cultural competence. This critical component of diplomatic engagement is best gained when FSOs can communicate in the language of the host country. Currently FSI hosts over 1,000 students studying more than 70 languages. From Azeri to Vietnamese – and every language in between – FSI is preparing diplomats to engage foreign audiences to explain America's policies as well as our values.

It's a unique environment to study language. Each day, before 7:00 a.m., you can find students sitting in the FSI cafeteria with coffee in hand pouring over flash cards in Spanish, conjugating verbs in Farsi, practicing introductions in Czech, and explaining trade agreements in Chinese. Before I began studying language at FSI, I often found it strange when my colleagues would roam the halls between breaks, talking to themselves. That is, until a teacher stopped me in the hall one day recently to ask me (in Arabic), "Who are you talking to?""Atakalem ma nafsi." (Talking to myself), I told her.

The Arabic Language Department at FSI is busy churning out students to staff our embassies across the Middle East and is always finding new and innovative ways to teach. Recently, I was able to attend a one-week, Arabic-language immersion course for advanced students. Accompanied by two professors, six students, who are headed to various countries in the Middle East, piled into a van to make the long drive from Washington, D.C., to Dearborn, Michigan, where the largest population of Arabic-speaking Americans and Legal Permanent Residents live in the United States. The trip was a fantastic (and very cost effective) opportunity to utilize a great American resource in our own backyard: an Arab-American community eager to assist U.S. diplomats in preparing to better understand the language, cultures, religions of the Middle East.

The group visited an evening Bible study session at a church, attended afternoon prayers at two local mosques, met with university students, and even worked behind the counter of one of Dearborn's finest Middle Eastern bakeries. In all of our interactions, the group found proud Americans of Arab decent eager to speak with us about our upcoming diplomatic assignments. "You are great representatives for America to work in the Middle East," one parishioner from a Chaledean Church in Dearborn told the group. "You know the language, and even more than that, you understand the culture. This serves America well," he noted. Among the many meetings with civic, religious, and law enforcement leaders, the group also attended a celebration of Lebanese Independence Day sponsored by the Lebanese Consulate General of Detroit.

While all of my colleagues (author excluded) did a tremendous job of speaking Arabic, non-stop, for the entire week, one of my Foreign Service colleagues distinguished herself as a truly outstanding linguist. Headed out on her first overseas assignment next year, Samantha took the trip's coveted “Linguist of the Immersion” award by handling the most difficult of all tasks: driving over 1,000 miles to and from Michigan, all the while taking her queues from our vehicle's GPS system . . . in Arabic. Not one wrong turn, not one missed exit; there and back again . . . quite an accomplishment, Sam.

Read more entries by Aaron Snipe.



Tennessee, USA
November 25, 2009

Joe in Tennessee writes:

While I understand the direction of this, somehow there seems to be a 'loss' of understanding of the U.S. citizen in general to me:

What happened to being an American who speaks English? OR new resident of the U.S. learning English?

What is the push for us to learn a langue other than our own to reside in the United States of America? This is just one reason for Americans being upset now: Loss of National Identity from Religious beliefs to taboos now accepted and forced onto the general public by a minority under the pretense of Law, to our spoken tongue.

Want to speak Arabic, move to the Middle East. How far and away are you all from the General Public, don't you hear them? The General Public seems alienated by the Government now...and this is only one example of the difference of veiws between those who represent the U.S. and those who are supposed to be represented: Think I'm wrong? This is a major part of the insecurities Americans face now: Loss of Idenity created by the People, not the Government.

Aaron S.
District Of Columbia, USA
November 25, 2009

DipNote Blogger Aaron Snipe writes:

@ Joe in Tennessee,

Thanks for your comment. All of the folks I wrote about do speak English. They were kind enough to turn the English off for a bit to help a group of U.S. diplomats -- who work abroad and need Arabic as an essential tool to implement U.S. foreign policy -- become better linguists when we are serving our country. There is great value in training our State Department and military officers to communicate in foreign languages while serving abroad. I can tell you as someone who has served in Iraq, the State Department is right on the money to encourage its diplomats to learn Arabic (and the many other languages spoken around the world). Doing so doesn't take anything away from America, it only strengthens our ability to engage and confront the many challenges we face together.

Best regards,

Momodou B.
November 30, 2009

Badjie in Mauritania writes:

I am a Gambian Diplomat at the Embassy of the Gambia in Nouakchott who is interested in write ups from FSI to develop myself career wise.


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