Mike Turner is Assistant Professor of Arabic at UNC-Wilmington, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was a minor in Arabic and Modern Hebrew here in the Department of Asian Studies. He shares the following:
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, and had limited exposure to other cultures when I came to UNC-Chapel Hill as a freshman in 2004. I had taken Spanish in high school, and not been particularly successful in learning it, so the thought of being “forced” to take yet another language in order to graduate did not enthuse me. I nonetheless figured that I would go ahead and “get it out of the way” early, so I decided I’d enroll in whatever language I could find a seat in, as long as it wasn’t Spanish. I signed up that fall for Modern Hebrew.
Surprisingly, I soon discovered that learning a language wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, Hebrew quickly became one of my favorite classes, and the encouragement I got from my professor gave me the confidence to ask whether I might be able to learn other languages, too. As my interest in the history and culture of the larger Middle East grew, I decided to sign up for Arabic. Again, with the guidance of UNC faculty, I developed skills and discipline to engage another language and culture on its own terms. By the time I graduated in 2008, I had studied abroad in Jordan and Israel, completed a degree in International Studies with a concentration in the Middle East, and minored in both Arabic and Hebrew.
Following graduation, I was selected to be a Peace Corps Volunteer and assigned to a rural town in the south of Morocco, where I worked as an English teacher and on-site staff at a local youth center. I had only very irregular access to other English speakers, so I put continued effort into learning Arabic, including the spoken dialect of Morocco, which I used at work, around town, and when traveling. Coincidentally, my Peace Corps site was also in a majority Berber-speaking region, so I took the opportunity to live in a nearby village and learn a good amount of the local Berber dialect (called Tashelhiyt) as well.
Living in such a multilingual environment sparked my interest in the history of these languages. I started to see commonalities between Moroccan Arabic and Berber dialects that seemed to explain some of the differences between Moroccan Arabic and Standard Arabic. But was I right? What if these were just chance coincidences? Who could really tell me? As my questions grew and I probed deeper into increasingly academic sources from my dial-up Internet connection in my mud-walled house, I started to realize that, perhaps, some of these questions hadn’t been answered yet. Maybe I had something to contribute myself. But I’d need training – so I applied to graduate school.
In 2011 I enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin as a combined M.A/Ph.D. student. My program was a combination of coursework in Arabic and linguistics, the latter of which I’d never taken before. I also got the chance to discover a love for language teaching. Over the course of my years at UT, I was able to do extended research abroad, teach my own courses at UT and in study abroad programs, and present at a number of international conferences. In 2018 I graduated with a Ph.D. in Arabic Linguistics, the culmination of a journey that all started back in the Department of Asian Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
But it didn’t end there. I’m happy to say I’m now just a couple hours down the road from my alma mater, directing the Arabic program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. I am continuing my work on the history of Arabic dialects, working with students from our state and beyond, and – of course – enjoying the beach.