Student Spotlight: Jessica Calvario Velasco - Reflections on Arabic Language Learning

Authored by:
Rachel Kirk

Jessica Calvario Velasco is a rising senior at Central Park East High School in New York City. She is currently a student in the CIEE Arabic Language and Culture program in Rabat

One doesn’t realize how different life can be when you aren’t fluent in a language. From “Can I go to the bathroom” to saying “My name is” there are so many phrases that I would never think twice about saying in English or any language - until I came to Morocco. As a fluent Spanish and English speaker I am accustomed to correcting people in both languages. At home I would often correct my parents about English phrases and words, while at school I would often correct my classmates on Spanish words during Spanish class (given it was the only language class offered at my school). When I used to teach my parents and cousins English, I was confused how they could butcher simple words or phrases, and truthfully I would sometimes even lose patience with them, frustrated at the fact that I would have to repeat simple sounds over and over again. For 17 years of my life, there was no need to learn another language. Given the popularity of both English and Spanish, I always felt confident and proud of my language skills. Coming to Morocco with the purpose of trying to learn an entirely new language, I can now relate to everyone I have ever corrected. 

Despite my insecurity regarding my Arabic skills, I enjoy the challenge of learning a new skill and since I need to speak Arabic in a daily context, I feel I am progressing faster than I would have the ability to do so in America. Truthfully the first week was a challenge, as I tried picking up the basics of the language, from Salaam to Shukran. While my daily Arabic class was at first difficult, each and every day we learned and picked up new phrases, sounds, and sayings. The first week we were also introduced to Community Conversations, a daily activity, in which me and my classmates would go out and converse with locals. As a beginner I would ask only 2 or 3 questions, which was at first nerve wracking, especially when I would sometimes mispronounce words, leaving many locals confused. Although the first week was a challenge, I learned many things about myself and my goals for this program. I understood that while I may struggle, struggling is a vital part of the learning process, and it is impossible to make progress without struggling.  


Jessica, Molly, Kay, and Alex in Darija Class learning about describing weather and places.

Throughout my second week at Arabic classes I was able to expand my vocabulary. This week we kept on mastering the alphabet, learned numbers up to one thousand and learned to describe clothing. We even began to write 3-4 sentences in Arabic script and learned the positions of each letter in Arabic. We even mastered the art of bargaining (As my Arabic teacher says, bargaining in Morocco is an artform) and quickly put out skills to use, attempting to lower the prices in the market (some were more successful than others). 

Being in Morocco has given me a bigger purpose and reason to get better at the language. Truthfully before I came to Morocco, I had no real need to know Arabic in America, and when I get back home I may not have to use it daily to communicate with locals. Yet being now that I am here in Morocco, I owe learning Arabic to the locals, my homestay family, and my Moroccan community. I don’t want local Moroccans to try to please me by speaking English (something I experience nearly every single day), when in fact, I am in their country and it is I who have to make the effort to understand their way of life, including the linguistic aspect. Complex languages such as Arabic should not be forgotten, and especially not be erased by the Western world.

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