Living the Language Pledge: CET Jordan

Written by Mimi Yu, (American University) Alum CET Jordan, Fall 2015

In the days leading up to my arrival in Jordan, the aspect of the CET Jordan program that both excited and terrified me the most was the 24/7 language pledge. I knew how much my Arabic skills would improve under a strict language pledge, but I was also worried about how my low verbal proficiency would impact my daily life abroad. Looking back, I am so grateful the language pledge is a mandatory component of the CET Jordan Program and that I had the strength to stick to the pledge.

Arriving in Jordan, we were told that we were allowed to speak English for the first week as we got to know our fellow classmates and attended orientation. However, after our initial Oral Proficiency Interview and placement exams, we signed a pledge promising that we would not speak English until we were on a plane home to America. The moment I returned to my room, my previously loud and buzzing apartment was silent, as none of us felt comfortable enough with our Arabic speaking skills to strike up a conversation.

However, slowly throughout the next month, we began speaking more and more, using the new vocabulary we had been learning through scenarios and drills during class. The most valuable part of the language pledge is that because you are allowed to speak in only Arabic, you are forced to use your new vocabulary in real contexts. This is a crucial part of language learning; in America, I had learned vocabulary words without needing to use the terms correctly in a sentence, whereas in Jordan, I had to use these words and phrases in order to express myself. In this way, I gained a deeper understanding of Arabic through trial and error, and through learning the various contexts in which a word can be used.

Sticking to the language pledge was an incredibly humbling experience; as an American-born Chinese, I had never struggled with learning a language. Sure, I hated sitting through Chinese school on Saturday mornings, but I never had any trouble comprehending the teacher or expressing myself, since I learned Mandarin before I learned English. However, this was certainly not the case for Arabic; I found myself hearing words, realizing I knew them, sifting through my brain to remember the translation, before understanding a basic sentence. Similarly, whenever I wanted to say something in Arabic, I constructed the sentence in my head in English, internally translated it from English into Arabic, and then slowly spoke in a rehearsed way. However, after being in Jordan and speaking only Arabic for a month or two, I became able to think in Arabic without needing to translate to or from English in my head. I was able to keep up in improv scenarios during class, shouting out witty comments without thinking about what I was going to say. I even found myself struggling to speak English and Mandarin when I called home, accidentally uttering Arabic phrases when I meant to say something simple in Mandarin. At that point, I realized how much I had improved, and I knew that was due to the language pledge.

Looking back over a year after returning to America, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to study abroad with a program that required a 24/7 language pledge. Learning a new language is not easy, and one does not learn a language through osmosis; one learns through putting oneself out there, being frustrated with not knowing enough vocabulary to express oneself, and swallowing one’s pride to ask for help.

Only when you truly immerse yourself in a language will you wake up one morning and realize you dreamt in another language.