SFS Qatar launches new Arabic-learning initiative

Abbas_Tounsi_2In late September, the Arabic Department of the School of Foreign Service’s Qatar campus announced plans to spearhead the development of a groundbreaking Arabic-learning program that targets students with backgrounds in Arabic language and culture, otherwise known as “heritage learners” or “native speakers”. The press release was sent to campus media last week.

Unlike most students at the SFS-Q who study Arabic as foreign language, “heritage learners” and “native speakers” are unique that they already posses fundamental knowledge of Arab culture and language from their personal backgrounds.”This new initiative will address two groups of students of Arabic who fall outside the traditionally predominant group who learn Arabic as a foreign language,” Dr. Gerd Nonneman, Dean of SFS -Qatar, said.

Studies carried out by a team from the SFS Qatar campus and funded by the Qatar National Research Fund found that, on average, standard Arabic among students in primary and secondary public schools was three years below their age level. Thus, the initiative will target students who have some experience in Arabic, but whose knowledge of the language lacks fluency and professionalism.

Professor Abbas Al-Tonsi, one of the initiative’s principle developers states: “The new initiative will enable a student of business to continue learning about his or her major but also much expand the ability to read and write in the clearest of Arabic. The same is true for a media student or a political science student. They will then know business or media or political science not just in English, but also in Arabic. ”

The programs developers define “heritage learners” as students who have cultural backgrounds in Arabic, but limited classroom instruction, and “native speakers” as students who have had classroom instruction in Arabic, but need supplementary materials to polish off their language skills. However, although the developers distinguish between these two groups of students, the respective curricula for the two groups overlap in may respects and share the common framework of authenticity and language integration.

Moamer Qazafi, SFS-Q Director of Communication stated that “these two concepts are in fact a continuum of language development. In both types of learners, we can recognize a heterogeneous development of various language skills. Both terminologies use the label ‘Arab’ with reference to ethnic and cultural identity.”

The University has high hopes for this initiative. However, the program remains in its infancy and will be subject to review and development.  In the coming months the SFS will be working in conjunction with Northwestern University in Qatar as well as Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar to expand the program beyond the classroom by reaching out to Education city as a whole as well as developing web-based programs that enrich the program’s curriculum. “For now, we hope that with cooperation and coordination with external entities and media organizations such as Aljazeera, as well as cultural and heritage-based institutions, we can share our experiences and expertise in creating a rich language acquisition environment,” Qazafi said.

When commenting on Georgetown’s efforts to expand the scope of the initiative, Dean Nonneman stated, “Because our existing Arabic program offered the most variety of courses at Education City, and our faculty has just competed a major study on the subject of ‘heritage learners’, as well as already having introduced a measure of targeted teaching for these two categories last year, Georgetown has comparative advantage in taking this new initiative forward. But we very much see this as a collaborative effort with our colleagues elsewhere at Hamad Bin Khalifa University.”

When asked about the SFS-Q’s long-term goals for this initiative Qazafi said that the hope is to eventually expand the Arabic program’s scope to meet student needs.

“Although we are only at the initial stage right now, we hope that all students of Arab Heritage at Hamad Bin Khalifa University and partner universities focusing in various disciplines, varying from computer science, to medicine, to the arts, will realize the importance and value of the Arabic language in today’s globally connected environment, and will be eager to build their discipline-specific linguistic proficiency. Our role is to make sure that our program is capable of fulfilling the different academic and professional needs of the country, the region and beyond. We hope that in time, the Initiative helps lead the way internationally in the development of Arabic language teaching for heritage learners.”

Photo provided by SFS-Qatar of Abbas Tounsi

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