Learning by Immersion

By Maggie Teson | Published on Sept. 7, 2016

Taylor Cofield

Taylor Cofield spent the summer learning about the Jordanian culture while studying in Madaba, Jordan.

To master the Arabic language, MU junior Taylor Cofield knew she had to do more than take classes and work with a tutor. Studying in Madaba, Jordan this past summer gave her the opportunity to not only practice her Arabic, but to immerse herself in another country’s culture.

After taking her first Arabic language course as a freshman, Cofield wanted to learn more about Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East. She began working with a tutor from Sudan and visiting mosques to converse with native speakers. It did not take long for Cofield to realize that the best way for her to learn the language was to study abroad.

“While speaking Arabic here is alright, I really had to immerse myself in the language while abroad,” Cofield says. “In Jordan, I could only speak Arabic, so I picked it up a lot quicker because I had no other choice.”

Cofield wanted to learn about the Jordanian culture. She would like to eventually work as a diplomat in Arabic-speaking countries and believes understanding cultural differences is key to being a successful diplomat.

“I’ve always been really interested in conflicts in the Middle East and in relations between the U.S. and Middle East,” Cofield says. “I think a big part of understanding cultural differences is learning the language. By learning Arabic, you can learn a lot about the culture of the people who speak it.”

Most Jordanians, including Cofield’s host family, speak only Arabic. In addition, all of her courses were taught in Arabic and she had regular one-on-one meetings with a native speaking language partner for conversational practice.

Outside the classroom, Cofield explored Jordan to learn more about its culture and history. She visited Amman—Jordan’s capital—where she saw ancient Roman ruins, including the pillars of the Roman Temple of Hercules and a stone amphitheater built in the second century called the Roman Theater. She also stopped by a city north of Amman called Jerash. Jerash is home to structures such as Hadrian’s Arch and the Corinthian columns of the Temple of Artemis.

Cofield toured Petra, a famous archaeological site in Jordan’s southwestern desert with tombs and temples carved into vibrant red, pink and white sandstone cliffs. It was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire between 400 B.C. and A.D. 106.

Another highlight from Cofield’s trip include seeing the Red Sea in Aqaba, a Jordanian port. She also explored a desert wilderness in southern Jordan called Wadi Rum where she spent the night with Bedouins—nomadic Arab people who live in Middle Eastern deserts.

During two months studying and traveling abroad, Cofield noticed several differences between Jordanian culture and American culture. For example, neighborhoods do not have street addresses, her host family ate four meals each day and people in Jordan are not as private as people in the United States.

Taylor Cofield on steps of Roman Theater

Taylor Cofield exploring the Roman Theater in Amman, Jordan.

“When I’d walk down the street, strangers would invite me into their homes for dinner,” Cofield says. “That’s not something people in America do. In Jordan it’s a hospitality thing, and the people believe they should welcome you, especially if you’re a foreigner. They’re really interested in getting to know you and getting to know about your culture.”

The Critical Language Scholarships Program helped fund Cofield’s study abroad experience. The scholarship provides funds for American undergraduate and graduate students to travel overseas to study critical need foreign languages, including Arabic. The program’s goal is to broaden the base of Americans studying and mastering critical languages and building relationships between people of the U.S. and other countries. Participants are chosen based on their commitment to learn a language and their plans to apply their skills to future academic or professional pursuits.

“I was extremely excited when I found out I got the scholarship because it is very competitive,” Cofield says. “It confirmed for me that studying Arabic is what I want to do. I thought that if I got the scholarship, I was on the right path, and after going to Jordan, I still feel that way.”

Cofield recommends studying abroad to anyone interested in learning another language or exploring another country’s culture.

“Getting to open your mind to a culture that you’re not used to is a really good way to understand your place in this world,” Cofield says. “You have to put your culture on the backburner and be respectful of the culture you’re experiencing, which was a great opportunity for me.”