Choosing an Arabic-Speaking Study Abroad Destination

Morgan Mccullough
November 8, 2017

The decision to study Arabic was born from a deep love of the Spanish language and Spain’s cultural ties to the Muslim world. I had the most amazing Egyptian teacher at WMU for my first semester, and I was hooked on the intricacies of the language before we even learned the alphabet. At the university level, students learn Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). MSA is a form of Arabic preserved from Quranic times and is quite complex to learn, so each country has a completely different colloquial language. To really understand the Arabic language, it is essential to also know a dialect well because they are rooted in MSA, but have a life of their own. Since MSA is primarily taught over dialect in schools… the best way to learn a dialect is to just hop on a plane and live in an Arabic-speaking country!

Unfortunately, for the average American college student, studying abroad in the Middle East is notoriously expensive, and many countries are politically unstable. My journey to find the right program was an arduous two-year adventure. Thanks to the patience of an enthusiastic study abroad adviser, I ended up with options in Jordan, Israel, and Morocco. I settled on Morocco for several reasons, and here is the reality of how each factor played out:


My father is slowly getting accustomed to sending his only child to travel to traditionally dangerous locations and is a huge supporter of my Arabic studies, but he was not thrilled when I initially presented the idea of studying in an Arabic-speaking country. In the U.S. we are all quick to associate Islam with terrorism and the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region with corrupt governments, instability, and high rates of unemployment. While all of these things are true, they don’t necessarily correlate with the safety of the average citizen.

The last terrorist attack in Morocco was in 2003. These things don’t happen every day. The government is on high alert and security is amped up in preparation for the worst. My biggest daily issues here are cat-calling (see relevant post) and vendors harassing me when they realize I speak English. While it’s annoying to deal with, it doesn’t lead to kidnapping or ISIS recruitment. I don’t feel that my life is threatened, and nearby police officers are usually happy to tell the offenders to buzz off. Moroccans, like many people in the MENA region, are truly so helpful and hospitable. They care so deeply for the wellbeing of their neighbors and are always apt to help foreigners.

The best way I think to address the safety issue is to resolve to lose a little bit of the independence we take for granted in the United States. I try to walk with neighbors or friends, especially after dark. I don’t walk down dark alleys alone and I avoid any political demonstrations and large events in general. Common sense and heightened observational skills go a long way, and the good Moroccans really outnumber bad ones.

Actual language usage:

Another huge factor in my choice of Morocco was for the language. A lot of institutions are hesitant to teach a dialect because it is grammatically “improper” and usually not written in the actual Arabic letters, just spoken. Here I am taking 6 credits of MSA plus 4 credits of Darija, or the local dialect. It is so helpful to know basic Darija to barter at the market and to have the basic communication skills. Restaurant and shop owners are always so touched when they realize a foreigner is trying to learn the local language.

Living with a host family in Morocco is also not the easiest after being used to independence in college, but the language benefits and the constant food source outweigh the cons. I am constantly forced to use Arabic and there is always someone nearby to help me with my homework. Many programs in the larger cities like Jerusalem, Amman, and Dubai did not include an option for a host family, and I have truly learned so much by observing all of the social cues and cultural norms from living inside a real Moroccan family.

I am also with 24 other Americans and my other classes are taught in English, so I fear that I would not be using the language as often without a host family.


There are a slew of scholarships from the government to study a not-so-common language like Arabic, and at WMU I qualified for the Department of World Languages and Literatures Travel Scholarship and the Global Engagement scholarship from the Haenicke Institute.

The cost of living is also much lower in Morocco than other places of my list. 1 US dollar = 10 Moroccan dirhams, and everything at the market is a negotiable price. You can also save money by flying in through Europe (~$400 round trip to a large city in Europe, and ~$20-30 via Ryanair to Rabat).

Personal interest in Spain: 

On a personal level, the history, art, religion, and architecture engrained in Morocco’s culture were important factors in my decision to live here for a while. I have this amazing opportunity right now to take a class at the local university in Spanish about the History and Civilization of Al-Andalus, when the Muslims ruled Spain. They also offer courses in French and Arabic for those proficient in those languages. The course transfers to my Spanish major and gives me a chance to make some friends my age with similar interests at the university.

Living in a world where Islam is prevalent in all areas of daily life is not only essential to learning Arabic (many sayings and words have religious connotations and necessary for communication even outside of religious contexts) but essential to understanding the politics and history of many Arabic-speaking countries. The call to prayer wakes me up around 5am each morning, but each day I am increasingly recognizing the value of understanding this culture through their deeply-rooted morals and values.

Living in this region is unfamiliar and very different from living in the West, but the biggest cultural challenges are often the most rewarding. I am so glad that I ended up on this program in the end because my language abilities are rapidly growing in a way that would not happen in a classroom, and I am starting to be able to comprehend and emphasize with Islamic culture from a unique, insider perspective.

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Morgan Mccullough

<p style="margin-bottom:12.0pt">I am a Michigan native studying Global &amp; International Studies, Arabic, and Spanish. I am a slow traveler and I value getting lost, staying with locals, and learning new languages and traditions. This fall, I am eating my way through the amazing food of the Maghreb and asking a lot of questions about camels, how to barter, and how to say “more tea please?” in Darija<span style="text-autospace:none"><span style="font-size:16.0pt"><span style="font-family:&quot;Times&quot;,serif"> </span></span></span></p>

2017 Fall
Home University:
Western Michigan University
Lambertville, MI
Global Studies
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