“Book,” “buch” and “كتاب”: Kühnel’s journey to Morocco
In Kerri Williams’ class, senior Cecilia Kühnel looked at her computer screen, gasped and started shaking. She left the room with her phone in her hand, saying she had to call her mother. Kühnel had just received an email from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) stating that she is a semifinalist in a program that will send her to Morocco for a year to learn Arabic.NSLI-Y is a language program that was initiated by the U.S. Department of Statethat sends American youth age 15-18 to several countries across the globe to learn Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Korean, Persian (Tajik), Russian or Turkish. When Kühnel applied, she had about a one-in-100 chance of getting into the program. Now that she is a semifinalist, her chances of getting in have gotten much brighter.NSLI-Y will offer Kühnel an opportunity to immerse herself in a culture other than her own to learn a language, but it will simultaneously bring her closer to her dream career.“I’m hoping to be a linguist for the FBI or the CIA,” she said. “I’m hoping that as a linguist, I can save people. Even if it’s as simple as someone [being] stuck in a bind, I could translate their message.”Kühnel’s love for the language began with books. In eigth grade, she read The Kite Runner. That Christmas, she received TIME: the Middle East. She still carries it with her today – it is stuffed with pictures and maps of where she wants to travel.“It’s already dirty and nasty and ripped apart, but it inspired me,” she said. “It talks about cultures, religions, the economy, geography. I guess that started everything. After that, I just started taking everything I could [about the Middle East].”
Kühnel has already began her journey in learning Arabic – as discussed in “Going behind the hijab” from the October 2011 issue of the Carpe Diem. She has studied Arabic for three years and recently attended the Federal Service Foreign Language Academy (FSFLA).
“If I wouldn’t have gone through this process of learning Arabic, I don’t think my love for learning languages would be as defined as it is,” She said. “When I was little, I realized that languages are beautiful. When I had to learn German, I realized it’s beautiful how ‘buch’ and ‘book’ are the same word, and they sound similar. I like the idea that two words can represent one idea and that somebody in America and somebody in Africa can say two words but see the same picture. When I started researching Arabic, I realized that it’s so much bigger than that. People that I would never be able to talk to, in theory, I could have a conversation with them, even though we have nothing in common. I just think it’s beautiful.”
“All I really care about is speaking Arabic and learning it,” Kühnel said. “If I’m alone in the desert learning it, or if I’m at home, and I have a bunch of kids and a wife, that’s fine. I just really need to learn it.”