Photo by Alistair Blacklock/The Gazelle

Students struggle to apply Arabic learning outside classroom

Photo by Alistair Blacklock/The Gazelle With small class sizes and accomplished professors hailing from all over the Arab world, the Arabic department ...

Mar 16, 2013

Photo by Alistair Blacklock/The Gazelle
With small class sizes and accomplished professors hailing from all over the Arab world, the Arabic department at NYUAD has a reputation of being both intensive and rewarding. In only the initial half of their first semester, Arabic students may finish an entire textbook from cover to cover. After the semester ends, students are then asked to write full essays using only Arabic – a huge task for someone who was struggling through the sounds of an unfamiliar alphabet only four months ago.
Despite this impressive progress in learning the language, NYUAD Arabic students remain dismayed by the notable lack of verbal practice available in the city.
“Sixty percent of people here do not speak Arabic,” said Hidaya Ibrahim, a sophomore and Intermediate Arabic 1 student. “And even if they do, to be honest, they don’t talk to you in Arabic because they immediately assume you don’t know [it].”
There is a certain irony that students who live and study in the Middle East cannot find Arabic speakers in the streets. Due to the diverse nature of Abu Dhabi, where large segments of the population come from the Philippines, India and Pakistan, students attempting to speak Arabic with locals in shops and restaurants are often met with blank stares and confused responses in perfect English.
And although students receive a great deal of speaking practice in class, there is still a high demand for the unstructured and improvisational type of conversation that one might receive in the city. In class, students typically learn Fusha, the formal version of Arabic which is rarely used by native speakers.
“It's just abundantly clear to me that I will never learn Arabic unless I speak to people in the real world,” junior Yannick Trapman-O’brien said. “I get shy or impatient and often end up switching to English when I don't have to because I still can't easily express myself in Arabic. Because of this, I like to seek out situations where I have no choice [but] to speak Arabic. So far, traveling has been a wonderful opportunity for this. There's no better motivation for trying out your language skills than ‘I will starve and die unless I speak Arabic.’”
Sophomore Michael Vintr said speaking practice is necessary because of the grammar-oriented nature of his Arabic studies. “Even though this semester in class we do a lot of activities, it’s not the same [as] going out and just speaking to people.”
Vintr, an intermediate student, is not considering taking advanced courses next year because he wants his Arabic studies to have more of a conversational focus.
The Arabic department is aware of this pressing dilemma and, in response, has begun employing unique and innovative methods to ensure students get the practice they need. There are plans for future Arabic dialects courses, which both Ibrahim and Vintr are interested in taking. The Arabic Department has also adopted an Experiential Learning program, which organizes cultural immersion trips that take students to events in the city like the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and talks by famous figures in the Arab world such as Marcel Khalife.
“The cultural and experiential learning component in the program is a response to the notion of the difficulty in learning and practicing Arabic in Abu Dhabi,” said NYUAD language immersion coordinator Ayesha Al Hashemi. “Through this part of their studies, the students as well as the community are being guided towards a mutual learning experience through which both sides give and take in order to learn. It also aims to be a special gateway for students who are interested in learning about Emirati and Arabic language and culture.”
“They are very useful. You get to speak in Arabic and hear a lot of Arabic, so it’s good,” said Ibrahim, who has been on several of these trips. She said a day journey to Dubai’s Global Village has remained her favorite so far.
Vintr also said class trips organized by the department have been very helpful.
“The best experience with Arabic was when we went to Oman because Oman is so different from Abu Dhabi, and we could actually talk to people,” Vintr said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating [learning Arabic], but when I went to Oman, it was like, ‘I’m so glad I’m learning the language.’”
Despite these opportunities Vintr wishes that there were more chances to set out into the city by himself.
“I think the best way to learn something is if you do it on your own,” he said. “I would love to go outside and just talk to someone.”
Students may also run into some learning difficulties when they study abroad. Vintr plans to study in Prague for a semester, but this study abroad site does not offer any Arabic courses. Ibrahim also foresees having trouble when she takes a break from Arabic to study abroad next year, as she will have to come back to Abu Dhabi and learn Arabic as a busy senior.
“I’m going to have to focus on my capstone and my major so it’s going to be hard to incorporate Arabic,” Ibrahim said.
Even students who are planning to stay in Abu Dhabi may lose touch with the language over summer vacation. Due to the difficulty of learning a foreign language, any significant amount of time spent away from regular study can result in some students forgetting much of what they have learned.
Although Arabic professor Nasser Isleem acknowledges the difficulty that may arise from these breaks, he said there are ways students can still practice. Isleem said that Dardasha, an online course, is a useful tool for students.
“It was done last year during the summer time, where myself and another two professors rotated to help students practice Arabic and review what they have covered,” Isleem said of Dardasha. "We even talked about grammar, literature and cultural problems that students encounter. Another thing is that the program offers services for students who are abroad. If we have two or three students who are from the same level in the fall and they are in countries that don’t offer Arabic the program, we also can help those students in keeping up with their Arabic language [through online correspondence].”
NYUAD sophomore Craig Breckenridge has used the Dardasha program.
“The summer Dardasha program was extremely helpful in maintaining my Arabic skills,” he said. “I attended two hour-long sessions a week for six weeks. I highly recommend this program, and I noticed that upon my return to Abu Dhabi, I remembered much more than the students who did not participate in the program.”
“The success of the Arabic language program in leveraging its location, despite the challenges, has resulted in students with superb levels of proficiency in Arabic, not just formal text-book proficiency as often attained from other programs, but both academic and street-wise practical proficiency,” said Muhamed Osman Al Khalil, director of Arabic Studies and clinical associate professor of Arabic Language. “This important tenet is beginning to be recognized internationally.”
Zoe Hu is deputy news editor. Email her at
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