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We met with Dr. Paula Santillán Grimm, a lecturer in Arabic & Translation from Spain. In an interview with Paula we asked her the following questions:

Tell us about yourself (name, origins, current degree/studies, academic background, university & graduation year, professions, etc.)

My name is Paula Santillán Grimm and I am a Spanish teacher of Arabic who looks Russian and has Argentinian roots! I hold a BA in Arabic Studies from the University of Barcelona (2000), and an MA in Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language from the University of Michigan (2003). In 2016 I obtained a PhD in Arabic Linguistics from the University of Granada. I presently lecture in Arabic language and translation at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and at Pompeu Fabra University, as well as work as a freelance Arabic language translator and interpreter.  

How long have you been studying Arabic? What is your current level?

I began studying Arabic back in 1995. It was an extracurricular course offered at my school by a couple of alumni. I soon felt in love with this beautiful – both in shape and soul – language and felt so much attracted by the cultures it embraced. After that first approach to Arabic and a trip to Morocco, I decided to pursue my BA degree in Arabic Studies at the University of Barcelona. However, I soon realized that, in order to actually learn Arabic, I had to live Arabic; therefore, in the third year of my BA degree I applied for and obtained a scholarship to study Arabic in Damascus, where I spent two years learning and living Arabic. Shami was the first communicative Arabic that I learned…how? Living with several Damascene families, interacting with as many Arabic friends as possible (rather than with the “handy-to-me” Spanish native ones), watching musalsalaat of all kinds and talking to children and shop owners (they are a great resource to learn vocabulary because they don’t mind repeating words as many times as requested).

I presently command fusha and two variants: Levantine and Moroccan Arabic. With these tools, I can virtually communicate with any Arab willing to -or I believe so!

What made you decide to study the Arabic language and culture?  What & who inspired you?  What were your motivations?O

nce I had begun studying Arabic, my teachers showed to be terribly boring (they basically taught it according to the grammar-translation method), and so I soon realized that I wanted to try to improve that situation: there had to be funnier and more effective ways to teach it! In fact, I used to explain the contents of our lessons to my peers because I simply enjoyed doing that. I looked for a program specialized in the Teaching of Arabic as a Foreign language, and I found one at the University of Michigan. Thanks to a scholarship granted by La Caixa bank, in 2001 I was able to join that MA degree in TAFL in the US. In fact, I arrived in Ann Arbor a month before the 9/11 events, which represented a turning point in the field of Arabic and Islamic studies globally. From that time on, I have taught Arabic (fusha, shami and Moroccan darija) in three continents at nine relevant institutions (the University of Michigan, Middlebury College, Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, the University of Granada, IES Granada, Casa Árabe, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Universitat Pompeu Fabra and ESADE) to over 1,500 undergraduate and graduate students.

Have you had any ups and downs while learning Arabic?

Certainly, learning Arabic is a winding road…but the views are so spectacular! I think the worst period was in the onset, when I was taught Arabic by teachers who did not know Arabic and who taught it as a dead language. But, since that was the beginning, the rest of the trip became far more comfortable from then onwards: discovering shami Arabic; using Arabic as a lingua franca with other students; being able to travel around the Middle East alone; teaching a second language (Arabic) in a third language (English); teaching Arabic in an Arabic country; teaching Arabic to illiterate women; training teachers of Arabic… Nowadays people want everything to happen quickly; despite all the mindfulness trends, we still value the product more than the process. And learning Arabic is a process that deserves to be enjoyed.     

What careers are you planning to pursue (or have embarked on) using your Arabic language skills?

The most recent -and challenging!- project I have been involved in is the coordination of an MA degree in Contemporary Arabic Studies offered by the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in which all the courses are taught in Arabic (http://pagines.uab.cat/meac/). A wish: being involved in the set-up of an international accreditation of Arabic language proficiency levels.

What does it take to become an excellent student of Arabic? What recommendations would you give to anyone interested in learning Arabic?

As you can imagine, I have been asked this question dozens of times, both by foreigners and Arabs themselves. At the beginning, I used to answer with sentences such as “memory is crucial” or “interaction is the key”. Nowadays, however, my answer has changed as it really depends on the kind of learner you are (something you will discover throughout the journey itself!). My suggestions would be not to settle for one’s strong linguistic points (i. e. practice the weakest as well) and trying to spend as much time as possible in an Arabic country.

Further Questions

– What is your favourite Arabic word?   سنبلة، شاشة، أمّهات

– What is your least favourite Arabic word?  إجّاص

– Who’s your most inspiring Arab personality?  All Syrians struggling for a better life.

– What is your favourite place in the Arab World?  الصحراء والأسواق

– What is your favorite Arabic quote?  اختر الرفيق قبل الطريق though I like this one too: اختاري الرفيقة قبل الطريقة 😉

– What is your favourite Arabic book and why? لسان العرب because it feels like snorkeling in the Red Sea.