It happened one day when I was out with my friends. “Yallah!” I said. “We’ll be late to the movie!” It happened so naturally that I didn’t even realize it then, but it was the first time I had conversationally used a word outside of my native languages, English and Konkani. It was a thrilling realization, but I had no reason to be surprised. It's impossible to spend a year at NYU Abu Dhabi — where there are students who speak more than 100 languages — without imbibing some of this linguistic diversity into your own vocabulary.
Freshman Mia Mancuso, from the US, hopes to take advantage of this diversity. “I’m trying to hang around the Latino [students] more so I can pick up more Spanish!” she laughed. “I would really like to learn [Spanish and Mandarin], most likely through conversations, because I feel like it creates an ... authentic interactive environment.”
For students who seek structured language environments, however, NYUAD offers Arabic, Chinese, German, French and Spanish language classes, as well as access to Mango, an online language-learning resource. Sophomore Firas Ashraf, who is minoring in Arabic, noted that his Arabic lessons helped cement his relationship with Arabic speakers.
“[I] feel happy when I speak Arabic off campus … as I see how happy those individuals I speak to feel when I try and communicate in their language. My freshman spring break trip in Oman was so reassuring of my progress ... I remember this one moment where we were just hanging out and an elderly man with his grandchildren came over to us, and I had such a nice conversation with him in Arabic. He complimented me on my progress in Arabic and that was very touching,” said Firas.
I remember this one moment where we were just hanging out and an elderly man with his grandchildren came over to us, and I had such a nice conversation with him in Arabic. He complimented me on my progress in Arabic and that was very touching.
But staying on a campus as diverse as this does pose its challenges. Sophomore Enrique López de la Peña, who has studied over 11 languages, noted that the multiplicity of languages spoken at NYUAD leads students to revert to languages like English to ensure ease of communication, even in situations where they could potentially use or teach others their native tongues instead.
"There’s so much diversity, and there’s so many things you can learn from people if you take [on] the adventure of studying their languages.”
To facilitate this, de la Peña and his peers founded the Tower of Babel, a Student Interest Group (SIG) intended to create a space where students can teach one another their native languages. The group hosts student-led workshops in over ten languages, and students are not assigned homework: the only requisite is a dedication to learning. So far, Japanese and Spanish have been the most popular workshops, and the SIG has found a following amongst students who hope to gain insights into other students’ rich cultures.
With all the things that are happening in the world, I believe that people are communicating less and less … and [learning] languages can really help build that bridge.
“The main thing that I hope to gain from learning a [second] language is understanding of a different culture,” said Mancuso. “It would allow me to truly travel, to talk with locals and hear their stories, which, to me, is worth much more than a picture at a famous landmark.”
It's this kind of enthusiasm for cultural and linguistic exploration, be it through formal classes, informal conversation or peer-led workshops, that leads students to become expert navigators of cultural differences during their time at NYUAD, and prepares them to make an impact in a changing world.
“I would encourage people to study languages because I do believe that it’s something that can make a difference,” de la Peña explained. “With all the things that are happening in the world, I believe that people are communicating less and less … and [learning] languages can really help build that bridge.”