Montana State University

MSU International Programs wins grant to expand Arabic language program

February 18, 2004 -- by Carol Schmidt MSU News Service


MSU teaching assistant Nabil El Ferradi works with students in MSU's Arabic Language and Cultural Program. MSU photo by Steve Hunts.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Bozeman - An award-winning Arabic language and cultural program at Montana State University that draws on cutting-edge applications of distance education technology has received a $431,000 grant to expand to other universities across the country.

MSU's Office of International Programs has received the grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) to broaden the distribution of MSU's Arabic Language and Cultural Program.

"We've put together an entirely new model for teaching less commonly taught languages, including Arabic," said Norman Peterson, Assistant Vice Provost for International Education, about MSU's Arabic Distance Learning Program, which fulfills a language requirement. "There's nothing like (the MSU Arabic program) in the country. Maybe there's nothing like it in the world."

MSU currently telecasts the two-semesters of Arabic language instruction to three other universities, but hopes to increase that number eight-fold by utilizing the FIPSE grant to expand the U.S. Arabic Distance Education Network. This fall, a total of 81 students in classes at MSU, the University of Montana, Idaho State University and North Dakota State studied Arabic simultaneously. In the last five years, the program has taught Arabic to 400 students.

The FIPSE grant is the latest in a series of honors and awards for the MSU language program. The National Security Education Program (NSEP) supported the program's four years of pilot courses. Two years ago, MSU's Arabic Language and Cultural Program won the Institute of International Education's inaugural Andrew Heiskell Award that recognized innovative university programs that foster international learning on U.S. campuses.

The program is delivered to varied locations with a partnership formed from MSU International Programs, the Department of Modern Languages and MSU Burns Telecommunications Center, which provides the broadcast technology. That technology allows the program to use a first-rate professor of Arabic language and culture. The program's professor is Nabil Abdellfatah, a Ph.D. who teaches from the California State University-Hayward campus. Yvonne Rudman, the program's manager, calls Abdellfatah "a nationally respected leader in Arabic instruction" who formerly served as the director of the Arabic School at Middlebury College. Abdellfatah teaches the students the Modern Standard Arabic through conversation, writing, important points of culture and even Arabic poetry in the first year.

From the beginning, the program has tapped students who are native Arabic speakers as teaching assistants at each instructional site. For instance, this year's teacher's assistant at MSU is Nabil El Ferradi, a graduate student in electrical engineering from Casablanca, Morocco.

El Ferradi is impressed with his students' progress. American students, known for long vowels and short attention spans, have risen to the challenge of learning the language, he said.

"It is a cliché that American students are bad at language," El Ferradi said. "They can write better than people who have been writing Arabic 20 years. It's all about listening, I think."

The final piece of the program is a semester abroad in an Arabic-speaking country. Students who have finished the first year of MSU's Arabic studies program can choose to study at Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, located in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The classes at the university are taught in English but the students are immersed in an Arab culture.

The class moves rapidly and students take it for different reasons. For example, MSU student Masheeha Khaleel is a senior majoring in cell biology and neuroscience from Billings. She has Indian Moslem ethnic roots.

"Learning the language has been challenging, but I think of it as a challenge to learn all languages," said Khaleel, who said she took the class to learn more about her heritage.

Difficult as it may be, students who take the Arabic distance education course have scored as high or higher on standardized tests on the language than students who study the course in a traditional classroom and professor situation, Rudman said.

Best of all, the method is relatively inexpensive. MSU can offer the course at less than $10,000 per year per site, which is one-fourth of the cost of offering a traditional classroom. MSU has surveyed other institutions, and 35 expressed interest in connecting with the U.S. Arabic Distance Learning Network. The goal is to expand the network to 25 of those schools.

"The instructional method allows universities, most of which are strapped for funds in the current fiscal environment, to offer instruction in less-commonly taught languages," Rudman said.

Contact: Norman Peterson or Yvonne Rudman (406) 994-7150