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An Arabic Crash Course

BYU students majoring in Arabic inspire young learners.

On Monday, June 13, I found myself surrounded by a group of children shouting “Marhaba!” at each other. I had no idea what they were saying—that is, until I figured out that marhaba is an Arabic greeting, and they were simply saying hello. This energetic scene began the Arabic Day Camp hosted by BYU, and it was my first introduction to Arabic. During the single-day camp, I participated in presentations about the Arabic programs available at BYU, interactive learning through conversations with peers in Arabic, and a delicious sampling of Arabic cuisine. This long-standing camp hopes to inspire the younger generation to study Arabic.

I was surprised by how much Arabic a dozen middle schoolers could learn in a day. The kids chatted happily in Arabic with the program coordinator, Professor Kirk Belnap (Arabic), who has been teaching at the camp for years and fondly related tales of past youth he taught who later returned to study Arabic as college students. Several of them even joined the Arabic Flagship program and spent a year in Morocco improving their language abilities.

Caleb Dewey, a BYU senior majoring in Arabic, shared with the kids how the Arabic Day Camp inspired him to major in Arabic at BYU. Back when Caleb attended the camp, it ran for three weeks. During the first week there, Caleb really struggled and wanted to quit. But the camp’s coordinators, Belnap and Ahmad Karout (Arabic Flagship Center coordinator), convinced him to stick it out. Caleb expressed immense gratitude for their encouragement, because as he kept learning he discovered a love for Arabic. This love led him to major in Arabic, and he eventually toured Jordan to hone his language abilities. Caleb explained that volunteering as a counselor at the Arabic Day Camp is his way of helping those kids who, like him, have an undiscovered passion for Arabic.

During this year’s camp, the kids first learned how to say basic words and phrases such as hello, goodbye, and thank you. Karout then invited each student to engage in an all-Arabic conversation with him. The kids rose to the challenge, practicing each phrase till they could say it properly. The adults then separated the kids into groups to begin introducing themselves in Arabic. Much of the camp included these simple Arabic conversations. The kids also learned the Arabic alphabet and wrote their names in Arabic on a card they got to take home. The faculty used an Arabic letters bingo game to help the camp participants recognize the sounds attached to each letter.

The counselors for the camp, like Caleb, are all seniors majoring in Arabic. They shared presentations about their experiences with the flagship program and visiting Arabic-speaking nations. To help the children engage with these cultural presentations, they included pop culture references such as photos from famous movies filmed in Arabic-speaking nations. One presentation that particularly impressed the kids showed an image of the Avengers eating shawarma, accompanied by an explanation of shawarma’s cultural significance as a dish in Arabic nations. The kids then enjoyed eating baklava—a popular treat in the Arabic world—and other cultural dishes before returning home.

Belnap later shared with me his thoughts about the camp: “I hope the kids learn that they are competent and can learn new, hard things. We can’t predict how many of those kids will remember how to greet someone in Arabic. But if they were able to realize they are capable learners, then Arabic might seem like a challenging opportunity instead of an impossibility.” Based on the animated chatter I heard after the camp, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more budding Arabic learners in the years to come.

To learn more about the Arabic Flagship program, follow it on Instagram @byuarabicflagship or visit