Top Scholars Talk: Senior Noreen Madden discusses her experiences on the Critical Language Scholarship

Tags: Critical Language Scholarship, Study Abroad, Foreign Language, Arabic, Middle East and North Africa

Noreen Madden

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Noreen Madden is majoring in Linguistics with a minor in Arabic Studies and Teaching English as a Foreign Language.  She spent two months in Rabat, Morocco during the summer of 2013, studying Arabic on a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS).

The Critical Language Scholarship is an intensive summer language program that sends U.S. undergraduate and graduate students to live and study at over twenty overseas sites.  They receive language and cultural instruction equivalent to a full year of university-level language study.  The next deadline is November 12, 2014, 8:00pm Eastern Time.

Noreen sat down recently with Richelle Bernazzoli of the National and International Scholarships Program to reflect on her own CLS experience and offer some advice to CLS hopefuls:

What was it like being an American living and studying in Morocco? 

I lived with a host family* in Rabat and I loved it. It was really helpful for a number of reasons. For one, it was the language exposure, language practice, and if there were things I wasn’t sure about with Moroccan culture, it was really reassuring to go home and ask my host family about it. You learn what’s culturally appropriate and what’s inappropriate.  They get so excited to ask how your day was, and what you did.

In my experiences being an American in Rabat wasn’t really a big deal.  I think that most Moroccans are curious about the West, and in terms of the American government doing controversial things, they understand that the American government and American people are two different things. If anything, Morocco was the first country to recognize America’s independence, so a lot of times, Moroccans will assert that to you, like “Welcome to Morocco; we were America’s first friend!” I felt very welcomed, and a lot of people asked questions about my culture that I’d never even considered before.  They were also very willing to share their culture, and they allowed me to ask them questions too.

Was it easy to make connections with everyday people in your host community? How did you go about doing that?

When I first arrived there, I didn’t really speak Moroccan Arabic, so it was harder for me to make these connections.  Despite that, my host family and their friends and relatives were so excited to meet me!  So, some of the relationships I built with Moroccans happened very naturally, despite my lack of Arabic at first.  As I learned more, those relationships became much easier to navigate, and meeting other Moroccans became a lot easier.  So, at first it was intimidating, because I didn’t know how to interact with people socially, and I didn’t know much in Moroccan Arabic besides “hello,” “how are you,” but people were very willing to teach me and help me out, and very willing to talk to me.

Tell us about the progress you made in the language.

I definitely grew in leaps and bounds in the Arabic language, and also with the culture.  The cool thing about the CLS, and about living with a host family, is that they don’t want you to only come out with improved linguistic competency; they also want people to have a better understanding of their culture and the relationship the US has with the host country.  I took an OPI [Oral Proficiency Interview] before my program, and I scored intermediate-low.  After my program, I scored advanced-low.  It was so much easier for me to carry on conversations in Arabic after completing this program.  I never thought I would get to the levels that I did.

What about your American classmates—were they helpful resources for dealing with the challenges of intensive study in a foreign country?

Absolutely!  They can relate to all the homework and school and how difficult that is, and also the homesickness and culture shock.  You know, sometimes people feel lonely when they’re abroad because they’re learning the language and you can’t connect with someone as easily as you’re used to doing it in America.  I felt like we were really supportive of each other.  I had seven classmates and despite having so much homework, we had a lot of fun and really engaged with the culture. Instead of giving up or withdrawing, we became even more involved.

The CLS emphasizes how busy you’ll be with your studies – did you still manage to interact with your host community and take advantage of cultural sites and events?

For sure.  Yes, the schoolwork was really intense, and it was difficult work.  At the same time, I had a lot of opportunities—not just to travel around Rabat, but also to the different regions of Morocco.  We had class Monday through Friday, but we had the weekends free, so my classmates and I planned trips to different cities, or to the old part of Rabat, or we’d try to hang out with our host families.  I’d still be working on my Arabic, whether we were having tea or going out somewhere together, but yes, I had a lot of time to have a lot of cultural experiences.

Did you have to take a language pledge to only use Arabic the whole time, even if you were just with the other American students?

Yes, I had to take a language pledge, and it was not easy.  But, it worked out really nicely, and in addition to signing that slip of paper, my host brothers also enforced the language pledge. If my roommate and I had a really hard day, sometimes we would say a few things in English, and our host brothers [who were young children] would get upset and say “Oh, they won’t talk with us!  We don’t know what they’re saying!”  If I couldn’t say what I wanted to say in English, I would have to think about phrasing it in Arabic, and it soon became a very natural process. It’s difficult, but it’s worth it.

What’s the primary piece of advice you would give to someone who is thinking of doing the CLS program?

Make sure it stands out in your application that you are an enthusiastic learner, and that you’re excited not just to learn a foreign language, but also to learn about a different culture and to gain experiences of life abroad. Express a genuine interest, and how it will improve your life, how getting close to the culture can help you with your career. 

During the program, don’t ever stop believing in yourself.  There are things that are stressful, like trying to navigate new transportation systems and etiquette, but you’re learning.  It’s OK to make mistakes, because how can you learn if you don’t make mistakes?  So, don’t be too hard on yourself, and be aware that you can talk to your host family, you can talk to your classmates and teachers, and there’s also a resident director.  There are lots of resources available for when you are homesick, lonely, or frustrated with your language progress.  So, don’t give up!

*Please note that some details, such as living arrangements, may differ between CLS host countries. For more information on the CLS program and the thirteen languages it supports, please visit

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