A life devoted to Arabic – An interview with Yael Cohen of Hebrew University

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Yael Cohen has a B.A. in Arabic Literature and Language and Islamic Studies from Hebrew University, as well as an M.A. in Semitic Studies with an emphasis on Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yael has been a senior instructor of the Arabic language for many years at both the Institute of Asian and African Studies and Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School, at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Her work experience also includes the Israel School for Excellency (Jerusalem), the Israel Foreign Office, and the Israel Police. On a personal note as the founder of Foreigncy, Alex Sorin, I’d like to note that Yael was one of my Arabic teachers when I was studying for my MA in Israel and made a tremendous impact on not only my love for the language but also on the methods by which I’ve continued to study Arabic for the past nine years since I left Jerusalem.

When did you start studying Arabic, what initially drew you to the language, and has Arabic language instruction changed substantially since you were studying for your BA?

I started when I was 15. My Arabic teacher in high school drew me to the language. Arabic instruction has changed in a way, but not totally. Nowadays, instead of teaching only the classical language we also teach the media language and the spoken Levantine dialects. We still greatly emphasize grammar and syntax.

As someone who has studied abroad yourself and toured many Arabic programs overseas, what are some of the main differences you see in how Arabic is taught in Israeli universities compared to others, and what does Israel have to offer for a student wishing to study Arabic? How can students studying Arabic in Israel take the most advantage of their time in the country to immerse themselves in the language?

From what I have seen, many universities in the US do not emphasize the dialects or colloquial Arabic and they tend to focus on the media language. There is generally little emphasis on grammar or syntax especially conjugational verbs/ knowledge of the system of verbs. In terms of what Israel has to offer a student studying Arabic, I’d say the opportunity to gain proficiency in both classical and modern Arabic plus the authenticity of the region and surroundings. A major advantage for the international student studying Arabic in Israel is to be able to mingle and converse with the local Arab population as well as Arabic speaking students attending the Hebrew University.

What advice would you give to students who hope to master the Arabic language?

True proficiency comes as a result of being exposed to Arabic on a daily basis. This includes reading, listening, speaking and even teaching. Outside of formal classroom instruction, students should give themselves daily homework consisting of at least two hours of study that includes exposure to Arabic media.

Do you recommend students obtain a base level of Fusha before studying an Arabic dialect, and if so, why?

Definitely – yes. Fusha is more difficult than the spoken language and from my experience, students advance quicker in dialect study once they have a firm grasp of Fusha.

What’s the best advice you can offer new instructors of Arabic to motivate and get the best out of their students?

You can motivate students by not only teaching in the classroom but also by encouraging them to work on a personal level outside of the classroom setting. I’d also recommend exposing students to Arabic culture and society.

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