Yale sophomore Selma Abouneameh grew up in Connecticut speaking English at home, not her Palestinian father's native language of Arabic. But this semester at Yale, she is progressing toward her goal of becoming a more fluent Arabic speaker, with this bonus: She's learning a little Hebrew, too — in the same course.
Abouneameh is among 18 undergraduates taking "Languages in Dialogue," a new course that blends the study of Arabic and Hebrew. It is believed to be the only one of its kind currently offered in higher education worldwide.
Taught by Dina Roginsky and Sarab Al Ani, senior lectors in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC), the course offers students learning advanced Arabic or advanced Hebrew twice-weekly sessions in their language of primary interest, or "core" language. The two groups then convene for an additional weekly class that exposes them to its "sister" language. All students in the course have had at least two years of prior study in their core language.
Every Friday morning, the students in Roginsky's Hebrew class and Al Ani's Arabic class sit side by side in a classroom in the Poorvu Center for Teaching & Learning, where a mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and English is used in conversation and to instruct.
"The course is a unique collaboration among two languages that have a long, shared history and belong to the same language family (Semitic)," said Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, director of the Center for Language Study. "It offers students the opportunity to explore linguistic and cultural similarities and differences, and gain a deeper understanding of cultural perspectives and practices on a range of topics and issues, such as food and dietary restrictions, music, identity, and gender relations, among others."
Roginsky, a native of Israel, and Al Ani, who grew up in Iraq, said that the idea for the course began during lunch conversations about their teaching and Yale classes, as well as the similarities between their native languages.
"Both of our languages share a lot in terms of grammar, morphology, verb structure, conjugations, and more," said Roginsky. "I said to Sarab, 'Let's do this class where our students can have exposure to each other's language, not only for our enjoyment but for our students'.'"
Al Ani and Roginsky spent some three years developing the course, identifying materials and weekly themes, and planning cultural events that would interest students. In addition to the topics of food, identity, music, and gender relations noted by Van Deusen-Scholl, other weekly class themes include cultural manners; etiquette, gestures, and body language; ecology and the environment; and globalization's effect on Hebrew and Arabic. In addition, the class features a visit to the Beinecke Library to explore the Arabic calligraphy collection and the decorated Jewish Ketubah collection.
"The students are very committed, because the class is more demanding than a regular language course," Roginsky said. "Advanced language courses typically meet twice a week, but with our joint class, our students meet three times weekly. In addition, they attend a Hebrew-Arabic table and mandatory cultural events during the term."
Last month, for example, "In Dialogue" students attended a one-man theater performance by Israeli-Palestinian actor Ibrahim Miari, organized by the Hebrew language program director, Shiri Goren, with the help of the Council on Middle East Studies. Miari then spoke at the Friday class about the issue of identity. Students asked him questions in both Hebrew and Arabic, and Miari answered in both languages.
Al Ani and Roginsky believe that "getting people together around the common ground of the Semitic language" has benefits that extend beyond linguistics. In the course description, the two note, while Hebrew and Arabic speakers have been in cultural contact throughout history, there is a lack of communication between them today for "mainly political reasons."
"I think there are social and cultural benefits to drawing our classes together, and some would say that there are political benefits as well," Roginsky said. "But this class is not about politics. There are many classes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have a different mission, which is to put people together for a dialogue based on linguistic parameters. They don't need to go into politics in search of common ground — the common ground is the Semitic origin of both languages and cultures. Nobody denies the existence of conflict in the Middle East, but with our course we are saying, 'We all know that, let's do something else!'"
Nevertheless, common and divergent perspectives are explored in classroom discussions about culture, identity, and more, Al Ani said, and politics cannot completely be avoided.
"Dina and I bring in real-life situations and stories into our classroom," Al Ani explained. "We make it real, relevant, and relatable. Students get to look at topics from both perspectives, and in our Friday class, we try to pair them so that they are learning from each other. As much as possible, we encourage them to run the discussion."
Freshman Ben Kotton, whose primary focus is Hebrew, said he joined the class because he wanted to learn "how Arabic uses the same grammatical patterns" as Hebrew. "I was also interested to learn more about the similarities between Jewish-Israeli culture and history and Arab-Islamic culture and history," he added. "I appreciate that this course goes far past linguistics in its content ... and that we study religious and cultural similarities between the two sides because I'm also very interested to learn more about what life looks like in the Arabic world. I think it's unfortunate that such an opportunity is rare."
Abouneameh agrees. "I believe that language is one of the most important ways that we can understand other people, and I think that exposing both Arabic and Hebrew students to the other language is an extremely useful way of creating dialogue," she said.
Jacob Feit Mann, a student of Hebrew, said his new class illustrates why he chose to come to Yale: to "be in contact with more cultures dissimilar from my own."
For Roginsky, her favorite part of the class so far is seeing the Hebrew and Arabic students "sitting and learning side by side," she said. Al Ani was glad to observe after the first joint class that even as she and Roginsky were leaving the classroom, some of the students stayed to continue talking with each other.
"I'm still a little cautious because I feel we have a huge responsibility," said Al Ani. "We are providing a first glance [into each other's culture] for our students. I enjoy the fact that I can work with our carefully selected themes in the classroom and can introduce the Arabic language as well as share the traditions and perspectives of Arabic-speaking communities."
"We in NELC are delighted that all the planning and hard work that had to go into devising and planning this innovative — and, frankly, pathbreaking — class is already yielding such wonderful results," said Shawkat M. Toorawa, chair of the department.
The language model may have potential in other courses, according to Van Deusen-Scholl.
"I could imagine, for example, a course on Spanish and Portuguese or Russian and Ukrainian," she said. "I am thrilled to see this innovative approach being launched at Yale, and am sure that it will be of interest to language programs across the country."