Arabic program partners with language learning start-up that connects students and Syrian refugees

The Arabic program at Tufts is partnering with a new start-up called NaTakallam, which pairs students who study Arabic with Syrian refugees who work as language partners for the students via Skype.

NaTakallam, which translates to “we speak” in Arabic, was co-founded by Tufts alumna Aline Sara (LA ’06) as a way to connect refugees with Arabic learners for conversation practice while also offering the refugees a source of income.

Sara, who is originally from Lebanon, said she came up with the idea for the program when she was job hunting shortly after finishing her master’s degree.

“I was thinking of what it must be like to be a Syrian refugee, who is exactly like me — who had just finished their master’s, had a normal life and all of a sudden, it’s over,” Sara said. “Their country is completely falling apart. The conflict in Syria is extremely violent and horrifying.”

Many Syrian refugees are not permitted to work in their new host countries, according to Sara. She wanted to help find a way for them to make a living.

“[I can’t imagine] what it must be like to not even be able to apply for work. I know so many people who want to work on [their] Arabic, and Syrians all speak Arabic and they need some sort of income, and so why not create some sort of program where you connect refugees and language learners?” Sara said.

According to Rana Abdul-Aziz, language coordinator for the Arabic program, NaTakallam reached out to Tufts in the summer of 2016, and the program was piloted at Tufts last fall in its colloquial Arabic classes. The program has since expanded, Abdul-Aziz told the Daily in an email.

NaTakallam is intended to serve as an extension of what students learn in the classroom, according to Arabic Lecturer Souhad Zendah. Students take what they have learned in class and have conversations with their language partners, with whom they meet regularly.

“Each student has the opportunity to meet with [their] language partner twice a week, and they are supposed to meet with them throughout the semester for eight full hours,” Zendah said.

Students’ sessions with their NaTakallam language partners reinforce material learned in class, according to Abdul-Aziz.

“Last semester, students had a unit where they were learning about traditional Levantine dishes. Students shared a recipe of their favorite dishes with their [language partners] and the [language partners] did the same,” Abdul-Aziz said. “Other interactions include speaking about films, discussing literature, mock job interviews, etc.”

Abdul-Aziz explained that NaTakallam benefits students in several ways. First and foremost, it offers the chance to interact with a native speaker who can provide valuable feedback to the student.

“We hope that this interaction increases their motivation for learning the language,” Abdul-Aziz said. “It can be a motivating reminder of the overarching goal of language learning, which is to connect with native speakers. We do separately bring in Arabic speakers from the local community as guest speakers, but NaTakallam supplements this very effectively and at a more individualized level.”

Zendah added that she noticed two major changes in the students after NaTakallam was implemented. First, students’ pronunciation improved. Second, students gained a deeper understanding of the language and the culture.

“[Students] would bring in new stories, new cultural information into the classroom. A lot of them would end up talking about the stories of [the language partners] using the target language of Arabic,” Zendah said. “There was this human element that was added.”

According to Abdul-Aziz, students make a direct difference in the lives of their language partners through participation in NaTakallam, since the language partners earn an income through their participation in the program.

“Students through their language study are having a small positive impact on [what is] arguably the defining humanitarian crisis of our time through the income their [language partners] earn, while gaining exposure to the lives of the everyday people caught in this conflict,” Abdul-Aziz said.

Zendah also emphasized that NaTakallam provides students with a tangible way to help refugees. She noted that her students often ask about ways they can help Syrian refugees, and that NaTakallam provides them with a method of doing so.

Zendah mentioned a specific Syrian language partner named Carmen who benefited greatly from participating in the program and formed meaningful connections with the students. Carmen was very popular with students, Zendah said, and when her name disappeared off the list of available language partners, the students were upset.

“They were asking where Carmen was, [because] they had created this relationship with [her]. We learned that from her work in [NaTakallam], she was able to save money and go back to college,” Zendah said. “When they heard she had gone back to college, they wrote her encouragement letters in Arabic. They were so happy. This is exactly the example of moving language education beyond the classroom and making it a real tangible experience.”

Sara emphasized that NaTakallam can help break stereotypes about refugees from the Middle East.

“Of course there’s the language factor, but it’s also [about] getting to know someone from the other side of the planet, especially in places like the U.S., where not only are refugees demonized, but Middle Easterners are demonized,” Sara said. “It’s extremely enriching and extremely humbling. It helps to break stereotypes. It helps to raise awareness. I am so excited that Tufts has come on board.”