NaTakallam / We speak Arabic – Carola Bertone, Italy

A new platform to overcome prejudices and learn from Syrian refugees


A young Syrian woman is my new Arabic teacher; Her nice soft French accent hints that she has been living in France for almost six years. Here, she has started a family. She tells me she has worked on “NaTakallam” for just a few months, but already has more than twenty students, from all over the world and different ages. Why are they learning Arabic? Surprisingly, not everyone is doing it just for job prospectives. Some are learning the language to help refugees in the country where they live so as to get a deeper understanding of the critical situation in the middle East.

The platform she works for is called “Natakallam” ( نتكلم), which translates to “[We] speak” in Arabic. It connects people willing to improve their Arabic conversation skills with Syrian refugees around the world. It was initiated by Aline Sara, a Lebanese-born, New Yorker, where she attended the French Lycée. She aimed to improve her language skills in any way possible, trying both in the United States and Lebanon. She felt the necessity to find an alternative way to learn colloquial Arabic, as in universities the one taught is Fusha, Classical standard modern Arabic. Moreover, another obstacle was the difficulty to find Arabic native speakers, because in New York, they can usually ask up to 100 dollars an hour! After finishing a Master at SIPA, and having received a message from the university of Columbia stating that the annual venture competition was taking place, she entered with her initiative, making it to the second round and bringing Natakallam to other competitions, one with the World Bank as well.

Refugees involved not only come from Lebanon, a country which is going through a difficult political and social crisis, where there are more than a million of them, mostly jobless and living in harsh conditions, but also Turkey, Egypt, Brazil and Germany. Life for them is not easy. In fact, despite having been able to escape the violence and obtain asylum abroad, there are little job opportunities due to labor and language restrictions.

The Arabic language has long been popular with members of the Arabic Diaspora interested in keeping their oral abilities but also with professionals that speak the language abroad. Just in the United States, these past few years, the language has had an increase of students learning it and the same interest has been growning all over the world, in order for some to gain a deeper understanding of what is happening at the moment in the Middle East and future job opportunities in mind.

Arabic is not an easy language to learn, there is a discrepancy between modern standard Arabic and the oral form that varies from region to region. The lack of opportunities to learn and practice the language, especially the Levantine dialect, spoken in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine is obvious. The capital of Syria, Damascus, is no longer accessible to students and due to the civil war, foreigners have no opportunities to pursue Arabic courses there. The situation in the other Levantine -speaking countries is not so different; The political, economical and social issues they are facing are forcing students to change their Arabic courses destinations and as a result, the dialect is increasingly less practiced by foreigners.

There is the tendency to link refugees with people who live in poor conditions -which is true- from under-developed backgrounds -which is not-, but this opinion does not reflect the reality;  They are professionally trained and well educated, coming from a middle class with a lot to offer.

Perspective students who want to apply need to fill out a questionnaire on Natakallam’s website, providing information regarding their language level, goals and preferred schedule. They will be matched with a tutor according to the preferences and for 15 dollars, they can get an hour long lesson. Refugees are recruited through partner NGOs and networks, who are then trained on online interaction and how to use the platform by NaTakallam itself. Syrian conversation partners are not professionally trained as teachers, but are usually professionals coming from fields like teaching, law, medicine, architecture, engineering…

It does not provide students with a simple language course, but much rather a cultural exchange, which can help us nowadays to overcome stereotypes, trying to alleviate the worsening situation of displaced individuals. To date, there are 25-30 conversation partners and more than 500 students joining the platform, half of whom come from the United States and the rest is from all around the globe. Students age varies from 10 to over 60  with a more than half under 30. At present, NaTakallam is establishing partnerships with universities across the United States which have Middle East faculties, so that they can hopefully include NaTakallam conversations to traditional Arabic lessons. At the same time, they are working on a partnership with the Al-Mashriq Center for Arabic Instruction in Jordan.

Natakallam, being much more than a language conversation platform, helps Syrian refugees in earning some money and, in a way, contributes to making them feel useful again, with many people around the world learning from these individuals and building a bridge between cultures, across the globe.

Information was provided by Aline Sara, the founder of Natakallam

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