Arabic Language History Essay Contest

27 June 2014 – An Arabic-speaking Chinese woman? A Mandarin-speaking Malagasy lady? A Spanish-speaking Portuguese gentleman from France? At first glance – or “listen”– all this might seem a bit strange, since the subjects come from cultures that are quite different from the languages they have chosen to speak and develop an expertise in.

Yet, these linguistic mavericks are among the 60 winners of an essay competition co-organized by the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) and ELS Educational Services, Inc. Their love of languages has brought them to New York, and their enthusiasm for global citizenship helps them bridge cultural divides.

The winners were chosen from among more than 4,000 students worldwide – from freshmen to doctoral candidates, majoring in fields as diverse as architecture and pharmacy – who participated in the “Many Languages, One World” contest. Today, they presented their essays at a Global Youth Forum in the General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters.

Unlike a traditional essay competition where entrants write in their native language, participants in the UN Academic Impact contest were not only required to write in one of the six UN official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish – but one that was not their mother tongue or the medium of instruction of their education.

“It's not just the acquired fluency in a foreign language that has astonished us in so many of the entries,” said Ramu Damodaran, Deputy Director of the Outreach Division and Chief of UNAI at the UN Department of Public Information, commenting on the outcome of the essay contest.

“[It is] the thoughtful and reasoned perspectives they bring, making elusive concepts almost colloquial,” he stressed.

To that end, one of the winners, Sandratrarivo Randriamanohisoamalala, a Malagasy student who attends university in China, told the UN News Centre: “For young people, multilingualism [is like a] passport is for travelers.”

In her opinion, a person who can speak more than one language can have more fulfilling interactions and exchanges with people from different cultures. “Not only does multilingualism make people communicate better, it also helps bring something from your [experience] to share with others [so you are] not just stuck in one place,” she said.

Typically, a student who comes to China comes to learn Mandarin. However, Randriamanohisoamalala, who spoke Malagasy and French at home, picked up yet another language there: English. “When I’m in China, I have to use Chinese on a daily basis. But English is also commonly used on campus as the main language among foreign students.”

Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language – that goes to his heart.”

Karim Ibrahim, another contest winner, would certainly agree. Born in Portugal to an Egyptian father and mother of South-African and Portuguese descent, he was brought up in France, attended school exchange in Hong Kong, and now studies in London. Ibrahim’s life is full of multilingual and multicultural flavors.

“In today’s globalized world, being multilingual enables us to negotiate with our counterparts less judgmentally and more cooperatively,” said Ibrahim, underscoring that multilingualism helps overcome prejudice and xenophobia.

“My experience has taught me to lift myself up beyond national borders and to better understand other parts of the world,” he said proudly.

"Multilingualism does much more than merely allow us to communicate with each other,” said Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and Coordinator for Multilingualism at the UN, adding “it enriches our understanding of each other and the human experience.”

Chinese student Lin Zhao could not agree more. Lin did not choose Arabic when considering majors for university, but in her travels, she discovered she had an interest in both Arabic and Persian cultures and later decided to become a professor in Middle Eastern pre-modern history.

“Some people might think Islam is a strange religion [because] Muslims do not eat and drink during the day [during Ramadan],” said Lin. “But since I started learning Arabic, I now also have a better understanding of Islam. I found out that people fast because they want to know how poor people feel.” In her view, the more languages a person speaks, the more tolerance he or she will have for other cultures.

Mr. Launsky-Tieffenthal, an Austrian UN official who himself speaks English, French, German and Spanish, told the UN News Centre that he believes multilingualism “brings multiple perspectives to global issues and challenges. It preserves a diversity of languages and cultures. And it promotes unity in that diversity. In today's globalized world, multilingualism is more important than ever."

Today’s youth forum kicked off 16 months of planned events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. The world body’s Charter was signed in San Francisco on 26 June 1945 and came into force four months later, on 24 October.

You can view the webcast of the event here. 

By Patrick Bray
DLIFLC Public Affairs


Specialist Caitlin League, an Arabic language student at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Presidio of Monterey, California, spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City July 24.

MONTEREY, Calif. – Specialist Caitlin League, an Arabic language student at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Presidio of Monterey, California, spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City July 24.

For League, speaking at the U.N. was not something she expected to do when she came to DLIFLC.

“I was dumbfounded when I got the letter saying I had been selected,” said League. “The closer the U.N. got the more nervous I became because I had only been learning for a little over a year when we went in July,” said League.

It all began in March 2015 when League’s chief military language instructor encouraged all Middle East school students to enter the “Many Languages, One World” international essay contest. She was only about 10 months into her Arabic program at DLIFLC.

The essay topic “should relate to the post-2015 global development agenda, in the context of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, and the definition of new goals reflecting the imperative of global sustainable development that recognizes, and is enriched by, cultural and linguistic diversity.”

“Just the topic alone was enough to deter a lot of people,” said League. “Fortunately, the organizers provided us with a lot of links to information to help us get started.”

The essay contest rules further stipulated that the essay be written in a language other than their first language and be an official language of the United Nations – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish.

“I chose to write in Arabic about the importance of cultural diversity in the U.N.’s sustainable development agenda and why it’s important to recognize view points from all over the world as opposed to just a Western point of view,” said League. “Bilingualism is important in sustainable development because it helps you speak to people in their native language where they’re more comfortable discussing ideas they may not have heard or encountered before.”

Students from 42 countries participated in the contest. All of them are pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees representing 60 prestigious international universities. A total of 70 students were selected from a pool of more than 1,200 entrants. League was one of the 10 winning Arabic language students.

Those who were selected underwent an interview via Skype to further ensure the student is not a native speaker but also capable of speaking in that language.

Specialist Caitlin League (right), an Arabic language student at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, joins others in her Arabic language group for a photo. She spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City July 24.

Finally, at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, League met the other Arabic language winners from around the world on July 20 at the “Many Languages, One World” forum. For the next two days, these students worked together to develop a topic to address to the General Assembly. From early morning until late at night the students wrote in Arabic about “equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.” They also had to ensure their presentation was within the time constraints, which equaled about two minutes for each student.

The “Many Languages, One World” forum culminated in the trip to the General Assembly July 24.

“It was really, really amazing to actually go into the General Assembly where you see major decisions taking place,” said League. “We walked in and were treated like very important dignitaries. We had seats assigned just for us. We had interpreters assigned just for us.”

“It was also interesting to see everything come together and to listen to the other groups and what ideas they came up with,” said League.

The U.N. set sustainable development goals for 15 years in 2000. Now, the U.N. is coming up with its post-2015 agenda through 2030. Many of the U.N. delegates in attendance were interested in what the students had to say.

“I could see people there listening to us and trying to pick out what they can take away from our presentations,” said League.

Afterwards, the students had an opportunity to socialize with U.N. delegates, but learned also how busy life can be as a U.N. delegate as many had to leave to attend other forums.

League visited New York many times before but believes this will be her most memorable experience in the city.

“I don’t think anything will ever top this,” said League.

Specialist Caitlin League, an Arabic language student at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Presidio of Monterey, California, spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City July 24.

The “Many Languages, One World” international essay contest held annually and is organized by ELS Educational Services, Inc. and the United Nations Academic Impact.

The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center is a degree-granting institution accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. DLIFLC is regarded as one of the finest schools for foreign language instruction in the world. The Institute provides resident instruction in 23 languages to approximately 3,500 military service members, five days a week, seven hours per day, with two to three hours of homework each night. Generally, students spend between 26 and 64 weeks at the Presidio, depending on the difficulty of the language.

Posted Date: 6 August 2015


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