Learning by listening

Arabic Granville, Columbus & more Middle East & North African Studies Modern Languages
March 13, 2019

Learning deepens when you can go to the source, and clearly see the nuance and factors that affect your topic. Hanada Al-Masri, associate professor of Modern Languages, is connecting her Arabic students to the Arab community in Columbus through a digital oral history collection. The project gives Denison students real opportunities to use their Arabic knowledge outside of the classroom and learn more about the culture and traditions of the Arab-American community.

The project, called “The Arab-American Community in Central Ohio: Negotiating Cultural Identities and Adapting Traditions,” also helps students working toward a concentration in Middle East and North African (MENA) Studies meet the program’s requirements for a research-based experience in a Middle Eastern community.

“I want students to dig deeper into the question of identity formation and how the Arab-American community—as a hyphenated community— functions both back home in the Middle East and in their new home in the U.S.,” Al-Masri says.

“The other thing is, I really want to give the Arab-American community some cultural visibility that introduces their values, norms, and customs to a wider audience, especially in light of negative stereotyping about immigrant communities in general. Most people, when they think of Arabs, think of refugees. But Arabs have been here and they have been partners in the community for a very long time.”

Interviews are conducted in both Arabic and English, with a combination of beginner and intermediate level Arabic students collaborating on asking questions about reasons for migration, cultural practices, and everyday items like family, food, and clothes. With face-to-face interviews and videos that will be archived, there are also transcribers, translators and digitizers rounding out the team, all Denison students from a variety of majors and backgrounds.

“Two of the students have taken beginner Arabic with me for a language requirement, but then they were fascinated by the idea of connecting their majors in theater and cinema to a community learning project, so they jumped into it,” Al-Masri says. “They’re interested in filming and digitizing the interviews.”

Students all received training on proper interviewing techniques and cultural interactions before meeting with the families. Each of the interviewers brought a different perspective and set of questions, depending on their interests.

For Grimm, experiencing another culture firsthand and gaining an understanding of its people made the language challenges almost fade away.

Alexis Grimm, an international studies major with a MENA concentration, wanted to understand identity formation and how Arab-Americans in Columbus form and maintain their cultural identities. Her questions attempted to penetrate a complicated subject. ‘What comes first in your identification and why? Do you say you are an Arab, a Muslim, or an Arab-American?’

“Dr. Al-Masri prepared us well in how to respectfully interact with the families and their homes,” Grimm says. “I felt nervous but honored to be granted the privilege of being welcomed into the families’ homes and learning about their lives.”

Once the interviews were conducted, the digitizers broke them into parts, prepping each one for the transcribers, who listened to the interviews and transcribed them in Arabic. After the transcribers were done, the project moved to the translators. If the interview was done in Arabic, they would translate it back to English, back and forth, over and over again.

“Imagine how many times they have to listen and repeat, and then put it into actual writing,” Al-Masri says. “It’s intense practice in Arabic linguistic skills.”

For Grimm, experiencing another culture firsthand and gaining an understanding of its people made the language challenges almost fade away.

“What has surprised me most throughout the project so far have been the men, women, and families we interviewed,” she says.

“Each of the families the team and I have spoken with possess such admirable traits: their ability to persevere and overcome, to be successful despite all obstacles, and to maintain their pride and love for their respective home countries and the United States. The eloquence in the way they speak about these things is not only what surprised me the most, it’s also one of my favorite parts.”

When it’s finished, the digital collection project will take stories of real people and turn them into an open resource, accessible online not only by Denison students but other schools and the Arab community as well. Al-Masri plans to keep adding more stories to the digital repository by reaching out to Arab-American communities in Cleveland, Dayton, and possibly Dearborn, Michigan.

“I wanted, so passionately, to do something along these lines. It makes sense for me,” says Al-Masri. “As an Arab-American professor who teaches Arabic at Denison, I want to provide this unique opportunity for my students to test their linguistic and cultural skills outside of a formal classroom context. I also want to give back to the Arab American Community allowing their values, their dreams and their stories to be heard.”

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