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Story | Community
17 November 2021

QatarDebate plays an “integral role in bringing the Arab culture” to America

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QatarDebate plays an “integral role in bringing the Arab culture” to America

As the Qatar-US year of culture comes to a close, individuals from across the US speak about how their journey to learn Arabic has exposed them to all that the MENA region has to offer

The phrase “language is culture and culture is language” accurately describes the relationship between the two. Language is, without a doubt, a vessel for culture. It is often through language that culture travels through space and time.

John Sunnygard - QF - Quotes - 01
John Sunnygard - QF - Quotes - 01

It is no secret that learning a new language inherently results in knowledge of a new culture

John Sunnygard
John Sunnygard

“It is no secret that learning a new language inherently results in knowledge of a new culture. How else would you explain the presence of a Qatari majlis – what we call the QatarDebate Majlis – at Western Kentucky University (WKU),” said John Sunnygard, Associate Provost Global Learning and International Affairs at WKU.

Sunnygard highlighted that most students at WKU have never had any sort of interaction with Arab culture before. “Bowling Green in Kentucky is a small mid-western city, and therefore doesn’t have a significant Arab population. Many of our students come from small towns and rural areas where opportunities to interact with Arabs, Arab culture or Islam are rare.”

He said, it is only after they come to university, and through language, that thesestudents are able to experience other cultures.

According to Sunnygard, the best part about the majlis is it isn’t limited to those in the Arabic language program at WKU, which really opens up cultural exchange opportunities for those outside the Arabic language program, too.

Lily Erickson - QF - Quotes - 03
Lily Erickson - QF - Quotes - 03

Now I am a lot more relaxed, and I make it a point to prioritize family and friends over my professional life

Lily Erickson
Lily Erickson

“Just by being in the majlis, they get to learn so much about the culture. The Dallah (Arabic coffee pot) and the Bukhoor (incense) burner are always such great conversation starters. It might seem like small things but what’s important to note is they are the only way for a lot of people to learn about Arab culture – most don’t have the means or the opportunity to travel to Arab countries. Through this majlis, QatarDebate is playing an integral role in bringing the Arab culture to them.”

For 21-year-old Lily Erickson, what got her interested in the Arabic language was the discrepancy between what she was hearing about Arab culture on the news, and through her studies at school and what she knew about it through a few personal friendships with Arabs.

“It just wasn’t adding up and I thought what better way to learn the culture than through the Arabic language,” said Erickson.

Erickson is originally from Indianapolis and is currently a junior at Georgetown University. She is the first person in her entire family to ever study the Arabic language.

She said, being exposed to the culture through the language has had a positive influence on her life. Her favorite thing about Arab culture is how central personal connections – friends and family – are to life.

Benjamin Lotto - QF - Quotes - 02
Benjamin Lotto - QF - Quotes - 02

It was through learning Arabic and meeting Arabs that those misconceptions were dispelled

Benjamin Lotto
Benjamin Lotto

“I used to lead a very regimented lifestyle, but now I am a lot more relaxed, and I make it a point to prioritize family and friends over my professional life – which has really improved who I am as a person,” said Erickson.

23-year-old Benjamin Lotto was born in California, and grew up in Montana, where his interest in learning Arabic was not received positively by many in the community.

“Unfortunately, very unfortunately, growing up I was exposed to misconceptions about Arabs and their culture. I wouldn’t say I believed them, but they were present in my mind. It was through learning Arabic and meeting Arabs that those misconceptions were dispelled. Alhamdulillah.”

Lotto said he has since made it a point to change perceptions about Arabs within his community, particularly his own family.

“Just telling them about my cultural experiences with Arabs through learning the language has resulted in them realizing that a lot of the misconceptions they have had could not be more wrong. In my opinion, there isn’t a better entry point into a culture than language, not just for the person who is learning the language but also those around.”

QatarDebate plays an “integral role in bringing the Arab culture” to America - QF - 01

Lotto currently serves as Arabic Language Reviewer for The New York Times. He has been part of two debating competitions held by QatarDebate, and most recently served as a judge at the 2nd U.S. Universities Arabic Debating Championship held in Chicago.

“In addition to the obvious role that QatarDebate has played in transmitting Arab culture – just the way their championships are designed – make them an incredible way for people to learn about other cultures. In the last championship I attended, there were teams from countries like Kazakhstan and Poland and the only thing we had in common was the Arabic language – a language that was not native to either of us yet we used it to connect and that was a surreal experience,” said Lotto.

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