Teaching Emirati Arabic at NYUAD

Students on a field visit to Al Ain as part of the Colloquial Arabic: Emirati Dialect course taught by Nasser Isleem. An Immersive 3-week experience including homestays with local families is part of this Community-Based Learning course.

It sounds more like a calendar of extra-curricular activities than a credit course. Students in Nasser Isleem's intermediate and advanced classes learn Arabic not only in the classroom but through lively immersion in Emirati culture.

The curriculum includes an evening of falconry, home stays with Emirati families, study of Emirati proverbs and fables, wheelchair basketball with disabled Emiratis, and screenings of regional films.

The emphasis on Emirati ways and traditions is no coincidence. Isleem's students are learning a distinct Emirati dialect of Arabic in which, for example, "marhaban," the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) word for hello, becomes "marheba-ssaa."

Arabic is the sixth-most-spoken language in the world, but it might be more precise to say "Arabic are." The language has at least four major dialects, Isleem explained. MSA is the norm in publishing, but spoken Arabic is increasingly diverse. The Levant speaks a version called Shaami; in North Africa there is Maghrebi Arabic, tinged with French; the Egyptians have their distinctive version; and then there's the Gulf dialect, of which Emirati Arabic is a main component.

Choosing among these is always a point of argument when Arabic-language instructors convene, Isleem said. "Some say it should be only MSA, some say start with dialects," he noted. "Everybody claims their dialect is closest to MSA," he added, laughing.

Now, though, the dialects are getting a foothold in academia. "It's something pioneering, in the last few years."

Students learn better. Seeing how people live triggers the students' interest.

Nasser Isleem, NYUAD senior Arabic language instructor

The cultural adventures are noteworthy, but the course is grounded in rigorous academic work. It includes three morning hours in the classroom each day, then an hour of discussion, and other activities in the afternoon or evening. "We make sure they have a balanced load," Isleem said. "The academic part is essential."

Integrating cultural awareness and experience always improves language acquisition, Isleem said. "Students learn better. Seeing how people live triggers the students' interest." It is an approach he discovered while teaching in North Carolina. As a Palestinian who grew up in refugee camps in Gaza — his parents still live in the troubled territory — Isleem was able to go to America to study, earning a master's degree in educational management; his thesis was on integrating culture into teaching.

He found work teaching MSA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), at Duke University, and at nearby Meredith College. The title of his first book, Popular Proverbs: An Entrance to Palestinian Culture, reveals his approach.

He has also found ways to get his students out of the classroom, from Iftar evenings during Ramadan to restaurant events where students can meet local Arabs over cardamom coffee while an oud player performs. In North Carolina, a friend loaned his farm for an annual "Arabian village," where Arab residents of the area would present their various national arts, food, and attire, in "an atmosphere full of harmony and fun."

His classes boosted cultural understanding, and grew steadily in popularity. UNC gave him its prestigious Golden Fleece Award, noting that "his colleagues recognize him as a driving force" in developing the school's fast-growing Arabic program.

In 2012 he came to Abu Dhabi to be closer to his parents, to be sure his own children learned MSA as well as the Palestinian dialect, and to "explore the wonderful opportunity of teaching at a prestigious institution like NYUAD." Here he soon saw that an Emirati-dialect class would make sense. With just MSA, "students were having a difficult time using the language outside the classroom," he noted. One American student even chose to wear a sign: "Speak to me in Arabic." But being able to talk to Emiratis as they talk to each other is even better, Isleem said.