Illustration by Oscar Bray.

One Campus, Many Tongues: Language Diversity at NYU Abu Dhabi

Acknowledging the limited academic lingualism at NYUAD, students and faculty work to create more language learning opportunities through student interest groups and newly proposed courses.

Mar 28, 2021

At the second floor lounge in Residential College A2C, Enrique López de la Peña, Class of 2019, scrawled “Hola” on a tiny whiteboard. With six sets of eyes pinned on him, the Hong Kongese-Mexican first year donned the title of teacher for the first time in 2015.
“It was just me trying to teach Spanish randomly with no … course materials, no classroom, book, no resources at all, not even much experience teaching my own language,” the NYU Abu Dhabi graduate recalled. “It was pretty messy at the beginning.”
López de la Peña is the founder of Tower of Babel, a Student Interest Group on campus that facilitates linguistic and cultural exchange through students teaching languages to one another. A hyperpolyglot himself, López de la Peña speaks more than 10 languages and was looking forward to expanding his horizons in a diverse environment such as NYUAD where students come from more than 115 countries. However, he was disappointed to find out that only Arabic and Chinese language courses were offered at the time of his admission.
Frustrated by the lack of official instruction and support, López de la Peña got together the 10 signatures needed to create a SIG and formed ToB in Fall 2015.
“It definitely wasn’t what I expected because [ToB] wasn’t really successful at the beginning. A lot of people told me that it’s probably going to die at the end of the semester,” López de la Peña reflected. However, the SIG of five or six people huddling in the lounge to learn Spanish has since expanded to a 300 member-strong group with classes held in multiple languages.
“It’s really been filling a gap for years. I think that has been pretty glaring at NYUAD given our student diversity,” said Caroline Sullivan, Class of 2021. She regularly fills out the SIG’s interest form and has taken Intermediate Spanish with them.
“We’re really blessed to have extraordinary diversity in our student population. We have students coming from scores of nations,” marveled Jonathan Shannon, Visiting Professor of Anthropology. “And then you come on campus and have the chance to take classes entirely in English.”
He stressed the importance of remembering that academic writing occurs in languages other than English as well. “English is … the dominant language in terms of scholarship, but it’s not the only one … Yet we put everybody in this North American model of teaching them to read and write in English,” he sighed. “There’s a contradiction between the great diversity and almost monolingualism of this campus.”
Students who speak underrepresented languages have noted that it rarely occurs to them to express themselves in their native tongues. “There’s this culture on campus of speaking English all the time,” López de la Peña observed. “People are just not going to have any language in common other than English, so in order not to exclude anyone, people refrain from using their languages a lot more than they should.”
Yerkebulan Imanbayev, Class of 2024, is a native speaker of Kazakh, a Central Asian language that is constantly overshadowed by Russian and English. “I personally find such comfort in those moments when I’m speaking Kazakh, but also a little bit of fear because I understand that these moments are very limited.”
These moments of comfort formed upon meeting speakers of one’s own language can also lead to deeper connections. Hannah Chu, Class of 2023, unlocked a community of Cantonese speakers after befriending a senior who spoke her mother tongue. “We’d go out for hotpot and basically chat in our language just because we missed it so much,” said the Australian-born Chinese.
“[When getting to know] people whom you’re speaking to, knowing their language will help establish an initial trust and rapport and also a willingness to share,” said Michael Xu, Class of 2023 and current President of ToB. The Chinese student spent his secondary school years in the U.S., picking up Spanish and Russian on the way.
“There are certain expressions and feelings and narratives that don’t just translate into English that really have more profound meaning in the original language,” he asserted. “We come from different backgrounds and different understandings and ways of usage of English, so we should not assume homogeneously that everyone shall communicate themselves in English.”
Xu spent his freshman year teaching Spanish with ToB while taking for-credit Arabic classes with the university. He then became president this year as he believes in the social interaction and cultural exchange promoted by the SIG.
However, he noted that even though they receive hundreds of signups every semester, the dropout rate is also very high as students get busier as time goes on. While it promotes exchange among peers, the informality of ToB’s workshops is a double edged sword as it does not provide the same structure and accountability as for-credit language courses.
“Students can really benefit from formal support and formal resources that the university would be providing,” Xu said. “[Formal classes] help you establish the categories of understanding grammar … whereas our workshops [focus on] establishing relationships, networks of exchange and also sharing of experiences. So I think [ToB workshops and formal classes] can be complementary and students would benefit from the existence of both.”
Recognizing the demand for formal instruction, Shannon revealed that one-credit language courses are in the works for Fall 2021. The administration previously attempted to address this gap by providing French classes — which were discontinued this academic year but will likely be reintroduced soon — and non-credit classes in languages such as Spanish and German in collaboration with an external institute.
“We have this idea right now … of offering one credit courses in a variety of languages on campus that arises from both the awareness that there’s a lot of demand amongst the students … as well as issues of a more abstract nature that a global university should be embracing multilingualism,” Shannon said.
He also suggested the possibility of offering First Year Writing Seminars in languages other than English to globalize students’ outlook on academia.
Funding for the one credit courses is still pending and an official launch is yet to be announced. But the initial idea is that a group of 10 to 12 students will come together once a week for one to two hours to learn from an instructor, progressing through the rungs of The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
Made with Flourish
According to data from ToB, the most frequently requested language in Spring 2020 was Spanish, followed by Arabic, French, Japanese and German.
Shannon envisions that the one credit courses will be piloted with Spanish, with other languages following soon. He hopes to eventually offer classes in Hindi and Urdu as they are prominent languages spoken in the UAE.
“After a couple semesters, you can get to a level which is conversationally competent … We could also offer more advanced courses for people coming back from study away,” Shannon revealed. “We’re hoping to have one credit courses that are low key and you don’t have tons of homework … It also doesn’t require an overload … The one credit can serve as [an] incentive for students to complete the course.”
This idea is welcomed warmly by students. More than 130 people have already expressed initial interest in taking one credit Spanish classes in a Facebook poll posted by Student Government. Shannon, along with relevant members of the administration, is working closely with ToB and Student Government to implement them.
“I think this is one step towards truly creating or realizing the vision of a global university,” Shannon concluded. “[Through] Student Interest Groups and our outreach to faculty and administrators, let’s see what we can do together to create a more vibrant multilingual space.”
Charlie Fong is News Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo