After a 12 year tenure at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), Senior Language Instructor Abbas Al Tonsi is retiring home to Cairo, Egypt this year, leaving behind an innovative and thriving Arabic programme tailored to the needs of Arab students.

Abbas Al Tonsi came to GU-Q in 2007, already the co-author of some of the most globally recognised Arabic-language text books for non-native speakers. At the time, he had little idea that he would soon be developing a whole new system of teaching Arabic to Arab students.

When the Doha campus opened in 2005, it offered the same Arabic courses as those offered at the main campus in Washington, DC. However, Al Tonsi quickly realised that many Arab students attended foreign international schools and think in English, having to translate their thoughts in order to speak Arabic. In addition, while they may speak a dialect of the language, they cannot use professional-grade Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA. Many of their teachers were specifically trained in teaching non-native speakers.

Recognising the need for a whole new approach to teaching and learning tailored to heritage Arabic speakers, Al Tonsi worked with his colleagues to transform the curriculum, developing a separate learning track called the Heritage Learners Program – a groundbreaking Arabic language initiative that includes lessons in Arabic culture and the arts, and addresses the unique native speaking profile of many Arabic language students in Qatar.

According to Al Tonsi, the gaps addressed by the Georgetown curriculum also plague Arab education across the Arab world.

In the past, members of educated society have been able to speak and extemporise fluently in MSA. But now lawyers speak using the colloquial and judges make mistakes in the MSA when reading the texts of rulings.

Because of dependence on curricula from the West, he said that ‘all of us, to a varying degree, are heritage learners. Most of us think in dialects and then translate into MSA’.

Dr Yehia Mohamed, Associate Professor of Arabic at GU-Q, worked on the project with Al Tonsi from the beginning.

During his leadership the (Heritage Learner’s) programme has expanded to become one of the most important Arabic education programmes in the region and the world.’

As he said goodbye to the university and the Doha community, Al Tonsi reminisced with pride the changes he helped made possible under his tenure.

Today, there is no other place that offers the study of Arabic for heritage learners consistently, as part of the standard course offering each semester. We started with only two professors and now we are at nine. We started with one class and now we have multiple classes focused on content for advanced levels, conversational speech, literature, culture, cinema, and linguistics.’

In retirement, Al Tonsi plans to continue working on Arabic textbooks used in classrooms all over the world.

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