Language Barriers

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Since 2007, UT’s Arabic Flagship Program has been training students in advanced Arabic language and culture. The program sends Longhorns abroad for a full year of study in Morocco. That immersive year, coupled with coursework on the Forty Acres, gives students an edge: Graduates have gone on to top jobs as linguists, diplomats, researchers, international business consultants, and more. We sat down with the program’s director, Middle Eastern studies professor Mahmoud Al-Batal.

What is the Arabic Flagship Program?

Flagship programs are federally funded language- training programs at universities across the country. Our program here at UT is the biggest of the five Arabic flagships in the nation. We have graduated the largest number of students to be certified as Level III (professional proficiency) speakers of Arabic.

Americans are at a really significant disadvantage when it comes to language proficiency. It’s important for us as a nation to have students who can reach higher levels of proficiency, not just in Arabic, but in all languages. We’re behind the rest of the world, and it’s time to start catching up.

UT has earned a reputation as one of the best places in the country to study Arabic. How did we get here?

It’s the talent of our faculty and students. We have a large, diverse faculty in Middle Eastern studies who bring strength in many different areas. Our focus on language is another big reason. All our students, regardless of whether they are graduate or undergraduate students, majors or non-majors, we hold them all to very high standards for language training. When you put highly motivated students with experienced instructors, good things start to happen.

How is the program growing?

We’ve recently expanded to two local high schools. We have 55 high school students in Arabic classes taught by graduates of our program. Arabic is alive and well in Pflugerville!

What’s been one of the biggest challenges?

In the United States, you’re working against the prevailing idea that languages are difficult, that we don’t need them since the rest of the world speaks English. And Arabic is perceived as a difficult language. This is a shame. It is a wonderful thing to function in another language.

Is there an aspect of Arabic culture you wish Americans would emulate?

Yes, spending more time with each other and not being so work-oriented. Slow down. Sit. Talk. Have a cup of tea or coffee. Enjoy the fellowship of your neighbors, friends, coworkers. Although, this is changing in the Arab world.

How do people react when you tell them you teach Arabic?

When I was teaching in Vermont, I went to have a haircut. The lady cutting my hair said, “So what do you do here? Are you at Middlebury College?” I said, “Yeah, I teach Arabic.” “Oh! How nice!” she said. And there was her neighbor, “Oh what is that?” “He teaches aerobics!” And the other one said, “Like Jane Fonda?” I said, “Well, not exactly. I don’t make as much money as she does, but we use video a lot. I jump up and down in class, but I am not as famous and rich as Jane Fonda.”

With reporting by Rose Cahalan

Photo by Ben Sklar


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