Abbas Al-Tonsi, Senior Lecturer at GU-Q
Georgetown University Qatar (GU-Q) announced the recent launch of the full implementation of their Heritage Learners Program, a groundbreaking Arabic-language initiative that addresses the unique learning needs of native-speakers. This initiative, which began in 2008 as different course offerings for new and native speakers, has been expanded to include new faculty, new classes and materials, and a research agenda that explores the issues surrounding the policy and implementation challenges facing Arabic language instruction.
When GU-Q first started teaching Arabic, the courses were the same offered on the Washington, D.C., campus. Then, in response to the high percentage of students who enroll at Georgetown having already studied Arabic, and who speak a dialect of the language, they began offering separate learning tracks for non-native, and native speakers. “Arabic-speaking students can become frustrated when they don’t do well in the entrance exam,” said Dr. Abbas Al-Tonsi, who is a Senior Lecturer at GU-Q. “But in reality, they can’t speak Modern Standard Arabic. Our students at GU-Q should be qualified to engage in professional Arabic discourse.”
Expansion of the Heritage Learners Program includes the recent addition of 5 new GU-Q faculty members to the Arabic Language department, bringing the total up to 9. This new addition to both classroom and research staff will support the further development of the instruction for Heritage Learners, or native speakers, who lack professional levels of language fluency. New courses include teaching professional writing skills, as well as classical Arabic poetry, modern novels, and many more offerings that go well beyond the basics of language instruction.
The broadened initiative also includes research into understanding how teaching materials and teaching methods can be adapted to specifically address the learning needs of this unique group of students. One current research proposal that will go a long way towards addressing the needs of Heritage Learners is the Dialect Atlas, an innovative study of Arabic dialectology.
“We have to understand why grammar problems occur in certain cultures of native speakers. So through developing this first atlas of Gulf dialects, starting with Qatar, we hope to track generational and geographical changes of dialects, and to understand what accounts for the differences.”
Another GU-Q focus is the development of an online Arabic language platform, a teaching resource that includes graded drills for vocabulary and grammar, for students from grade 1 through university, and beyond, to include professional language development. “Explaining grammar and vocabulary rules in Arabic alone doesn’t help students learn,” said Abbas. “Language is a matter of practice, it has to become second nature. So we are also working on providing the practice material for others to turn into apps for smart phones and other mobile devices.”
There are also plans for a biennial conference for “Arabic language empowerment” that brings together various individuals and institutions to contribute to finding solutions for the challenges young people face in learning the language.
Beyond courses and learning materials, GU-Q seeks to make their own contribution to Arabic-language culture, with future plans for a MoosimThaqafi, or cultural engagement platform, by inviting thinkers, writers, movie directors, and anyone who contributes to Arabic culture. “Arabic isn’t just a language, it also includes culture,” explains Abbas. “The issue of language development has a tremendous identity component, so it’s very important to our students both in their professional careers, and personally, in the role of language in their families and communities.”
Georgetown University also announced the launch of the 3rd edition of their internationally bestselling Arabic language-instruction textbook. “Most texts are dry and written by officials. So our textbook uses authentic text, and takes dialect into account, as well as functional grammar for professional use, to provide the same level of excellence students are accustomed to receiving in English language instruction. This book series, Al-Kitaab, completely changed the way Arabic is taught to non-Arabic speakers.” said Abbas, who is also one of the textbook co-authors. “And we hope by taking our Heritage Learners Program to the next level, we can revolutionize the field again, but this time, in teaching Modern Standard Arabic, to Arabs.”