Abroad in Al Ain: Arabic Students Reflect on J-Term Immersion Experience

For three weeks this past January, NYU Abu Dhabi students in the Emirati dialect January Term course lived, breathed and dreamt in Arabic. The ...

Feb 7, 2015

For three weeks this past January, NYU Abu Dhabi students in the Emirati dialect January Term course lived, breathed and dreamt in Arabic. The immersive language course, which took place in the city of Al Ain, plunged the students into a strict Arabic-only environment, having particpants pledge to forgo speaking English and any other language besides Arabic.
“It was hard in the beginning while our brains did the switch from English — or, in my case, from Spanish — to full Arabic,” said sophomore Gabriel Figueroa Torres, who has been studying the language for three semesters. “There was this beautiful, but uncomfortable silence when we first entered the bus [to Al Ain] ... Over time, we found ways of expressing ourselves.”
Figueroa recalls fondly the nights spent with his host family, roasting chestnuts around a campfire and chatting in the garden under the stars. Every evening, relatives and friends of the host family from various Arab countries would stop by to join in the conversation and exchange stories. It was these immersive experiences, Figueroa said, that opened his eyes to another side of the UAE.
“They didn’t show us the stereotypical face of the Emirates, which is something that I think many activities do,” he said. “By being in Al Ain, I was able to see so much diversity … I got to see that there is a complex mesh of social [networks], of interrelated stories and experiences connected in the Emirates.”
Senior Arabic Language Instructor Nasser Isleem, who designed and has taught the course over the past two years, emphasized the link between language acquisition, particularly with spoken dialects, and cultural understanding.
“Learning a dialect breaks a barrier and gives [the students] a feeling of intimacy towards this culture,” said Isleem. “It’s a way to learn about this beautiful country.”
This is why, explained Isleem, there is a particular focus in his classes on both language and culture. Between intensive in-class instruction, afternoon tours, presentations by Arabic guest speakers and staying with a host-family, students were fully immersed in Emirati dialect and culture.
The homestay component of the course was a new addition this year. Previously, students had spent only one weekend with a family. But for the 2015 J-Term, students lived with a host family for the duration of the three-week course.
Sophomore Moonie Sohn described the homestay experience as the highlight of her J-Term course.
“From being overfed at every single meal to ten members of the family comforting my tears of homesickness one night, I saw genuine concern and care that transcended my definition of hospitality," wrote Sohn, in a reflection on the course.
Photo by Juliana Bello/The Gazelle
Photo by Juliana Bello/The Gazelle
Sohn is continuing her Arabic studies in Jordan this semester, once again living with a host family because of her firm belief in the importance of studying a local dialect in addition to Modern Standard Arabic, the standardized version of Arabic used in text and formal speech.
Director of Arabic Studies Muhamed Al-Khalil echoed the sentiment, saying that learning a dialect is vital to the study of the Arabic language.
“Arabic is a language where there are multiple ways of expressing the same idea, especially at literary and cultural levels,” said Al-Khalil. “Dialects are one of the expressions of this great language … It’s different in Cairo, for example, than it is here in the UAE  and each dialect expresses local varieties and sensibilities. You can’t capture those if you just study Modern Standard Arabic alone.”
The push for courses focused on Arabic dialects, Al-Khalil said, has been a collaborated effort between the Arabic department, the professors and the students. For the spring semester of 2015, a course is being taught on Levantine Arabic. Similarly in the past, Colloquial Egyptian Arabic has been offered.
As student interest increases in both Modern Standard Arabic and the various dialects, the Arabic department has grown and there is talk of offering a major in the language in the future. Two years ago, a concentration in Arabic was created, with the Emirati dialect course fulfilling one of the requirements for the concentration.
“This class is not for the faint of heart,” wrote junior Juliana Bello to The Gazelle, who took the class in 2014 and worked as a teaching assistant with Isleem this year. “But the immersive experience is unlike anything offered by any other course at NYUAD … It sounds romantic but I really believe this is more than just a class — it’s a real world experience that brings people together and helps them share their stories with each other.”
The Emirati dialect J-Term is based off of a textbook written by Isleem, with contributions by Ayesha Al Hashemi, which will be officially published at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in May 2015.
Clare Hennig is features editor. Email her at
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