Imagine traveling out of state for school. Out of the south. Out of the country. Off the continent. Imagine sitting in a classroom, being taught a language you never thought you’d take a chance on. Better yet, imagine teaching your language to a classroom of students who are eager to learn.
Zakaria Alibrahim, a senior at the University of North Alabama, knows exactly how this feels.
A long way from his home in Jafr, Saudi Arabia, Alibrahim pursued the language partner position at the university while he earns his bachelors in Geography.
“When I graduated from high school, my brother told me to come to America to study,” he said. “He told me the education is different from Saudi Arabia and helped me look online to find UNA.”
Little did he know he’d be teaching as well as learning.
“They’re giving students a look at other parts of the world.”
Language partners are members of a unique program offered by the university, where native speakers (who happen to be students) teach their language to their peers. Courses range from beginner to intermediate levels, up to four semesters in a given language.
“The university is offering students opportunities to learn languages more than just Spanish and French like they learn in American school,” Alibrahim said. “They’re giving students a look at other parts of the world.”
While offerings vary between semesters, the UNA catalog offers potential coursework in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili and Turkish.
Like Alibrahim, junior Miyu Fujita will be teaching courses this fall, but for her it will be the first time.“I was taking Spanish classes then my professor suggested to me to do it because I’m Japanese,” she said. “Then another Japanese student was a language partner and he suggested it to me.”
Fujita, from Nagoya, Japan, first heard about UNA through an agency connecting students to schools in the United States based on GPA.
“I decided from the list they gave me to go to UNA because I heard it was peaceful,” she said. “I want to come to the countryside to focus on studies.” After a chuckle, “And I heard about the lions.”
Both Alibrahim and Fujita agree learning any language can strengthen students’ education, but particularly languages in the critical languages program expose students to a culture they may not otherwise experience.
“It can be just for fun,” Fujita said. “For me, I’m learning another language, too, English. So this is a good opportunity to make other friends from all over the world. You learn another culture.”
“Learning new languages extends the worldview.”
While the focus of the coursework is language, many language partners incorporate culture studies into their curriculum. Some even invite their students over to their homes for handmade dishes from their countries.
Fujita said she plans to focus on the language, but that she knows she will touch on the topics of Japanese interests and American perspective thereof.
“Most of Americans think the biggest part of Japanese culture is anime,” she said. “But there is so much more — music, food, customs and how we think.”
Like Fujita, Alibrahim knows there are moments where culture will have to be explained to better understand the language, as Arabic is the foundational language of Islam.
“The culture in Saudi Arabia is too different from here,” Alibrahim said with a laugh. “As a family, we always stay together, we eat together almost every meal, we have different schools for men and women, boys and girls. Coming here was a lot of culture shock.”
If foreign languages are something that has always intimidated you, critical languages may be the opportunity you’re looking for, for more in-depth, one-on-one learning. Often, classes have fewer than 10 students and language partners are available to meet and study outside of class hours.
“Learning a new language really is not hard,” Alibrahim said. “You just have to practice and it gets easier.”
Alibrahim said the ultimate goal is not only in a literal language sense, but also in understanding cultural norms and differences for better communication. Even if all students learn are letters and numbers, which he teaches in his first semester, they will have a better understanding of the linguistics and general communication — even body language — in Arabic-speaking countries.
Likewise, Fujita recognizes students may be nervous to try a language with a completely new alphabet, but the cultural significance outweighs those concerns.
“Japanese is difficult to learn,” she said. “But learning new languages extends the worldview.”