While most local teens stayed around town over the summer – perhaps working a summer job or taking a class – one ventured halfway across the globe to Morocco to learn her sixth language.
Los Altos Hills resident Anjali Ramanathan received a selective scholarship from the National Security Language Initiative for Youth to travel to Morocco and learn Arabic last June and July. The program encourages applicants from all walks of life and language ability but focuses solely on learning languages to increase international conversation.
Ramanathan said her passion for language stems from seeing “how important language is as a symbolic indicator of cultural exchange.”
Since she already knew French, Mandarin, Japanese, Tamil and English, the junior at Nueva School in San Mateo said Arabic felt like a missing piece in her portfolio and she wanted to learn it before it was too late.
“The importance of language in all of our lives should be to remind ourselves that we don’t need to be the best in order to be doing something valuable,” Ramanathan said.
While in Morocco, Ramanathan stayed in Marrakesh, studying in an immersion program that introduced her to her host family: a mom, dad and three teenage sisters who were also hosting an American from Alabama.
Ramanathan said her favorite place to go was the city’s Majorelle Garden, where she would do homework. She studied with 18 other students under the guidance of what she called “the best teachers I’ve ever had.” The classes were difficult at first, according to Ramanathan, because she barely understood 10 percent of what was being said, but by the end of the summer, she knew at least 90 percent of each lesson.
During her stay, Ramanathan said she found the Moroccan people to be family oriented and body positive. Through the weekly ritual of Hammam (the act of going to public bathhouses with your family), young people learn to see all body types as beautiful and normal. With so many women in one household, the bathhouses became a community of all ages that helped clean each other, Ramanathan said.
The Moroccan culture is also influenced by the many dialects of Arabic, she noted. The increasingly different accents made communication more difficult, adding to an emphasis on linguistic accommodation that we don’t see here in the U.S., she added.
Ramanathan also noticed that individualism isn’t nearly as important to Moroccans as community.
“(Americans) get so caught up in our own ambition and forget to value our own family,” she said.
After returning to Los Altos Hills in August, Ramanathan said she has a better understanding of how she fits into the world and what she wants to do in the future.
“Personalization of national experiences is so important, because … America isn’t one culture, or president, or statement,” said Ramanathan, who hopes to one day work in international law.
Ramanathan added that just by living with her host family, she was able to find commonalities with them and they learned to further respect each other’s nation.
“I discovered a new form of patriotism while there,” she said, “because we got to represent America in a way that I wanted it to be represented, reminding me of what being American can mean.”