As director of the Emory College Language Center (ECLC) and
associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies, it’s safe to
say Mahmoud Al-Batal is a man of many roles on campus.
And he’s expanding his responsibilities off campus, too.
In August, Al-Batal was named associate director of the newly created
National Middle East Language Research Center (NMELRC), a consortium
of Middle Eastern language experts headquartered at Brigham Young
University (BYU) in Provo, Utah.
The center, the first Title IV Language Resource Center to focus
solely on Middle Eastern languages, was created through a $350,000
grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
As associate director, Al-Batal is charged with primary oversight
of Arabic language isses, while other associate directors include:
Shmuel Bolozky (University of Massachusetts-Amherst), Hebrew; Erika
Gilson (Princeton University), Turkish; Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak (University
of Washington), Persian.
Each associate director will work with a separate board of four-to-five
language-specific professors representing different academic institutions.
The boards will meet once a year and primarily work via e-mail,
the Internet and video conferencing. Additionally, he will meet
throughout the year with other associate directors at BYU.
Currently, Al-Batal and the Arabic board are working on a strategic
plan examining the needs of the Arabic field, fitting in with NMELRC’s
larger task of coordinating efforts aimed at increasing and improving
opportunities for learning Middle Eastern Languages.
“These languages have similar issues—they belong to
what are called the ‘less commonly taught languages,’”
Al-Batal said. Often shadowed by European languages, Middle Eastern
languages are rarely exposed to primary and high school students—an
issue the NMELRC is interested in examining.
“Because these languages require more time than other languages,
such as Spanish, you have to get an early start,” Al-Batal
added. “One of the problems we have in the American educational
system is that the study or learning of a language doesn’t
begin until a later stage—unlike what we see throughout the
world, where they begin studying languages in elementary school.”
He added that, for many non-native speakers, their first introduction
to Middle Eastern languages is in a university setting.
Establishing Middle Eastern language programs in primary and high
schools is achievable, he added, especially in urban centers with
large Arab, Turkish, Persian and Jewish populations. “You
need to have native speakers in the area to have some kind of cultural
framework—in the form of activities, community centers, theaters—that
would allow students to go and have exposure to the culture,”
That cultural framework is a concept Al-Batal and others at the
NMELRC are looking to expand for all Middle Eastern language students
and instructors. Interest in such languages is on the rise (due
in part to Sept. 11), and this brings a varied student population
to all educators, necessitating equally varied learning materials,
Particular issues the NMELRC plans to research include study abroad
programs, materials development, teacher training and pedagogy and
technology—an issue Al-Batal already has made great strides
As director of the ECLC, Al-Batal said the center’s mission
is to provide more faculty and student exposure to the latest pedagogical
trends and technology, to show how the two interact—something
aptly illustrated in the ECLC ‘smart classrooms’ and
language labs in Woodruff Library.
Currently, he is working with a two-year grant from the U.S. Department
of Education to develop Arabic listening materials on the Internet.
The website will bring authentic material from Arab television and
radio stations to students.
In the second year of the grant, Al-Batal said these sound bytes
will be accompanied by text and questions and will be posted to
a website for academic use.
“The Internet brings the whole culture to you,” he added.
“Ten years ago, we used to rejoice if we could find just a
piece of an Arabic newspaper. Now, I can go to [Emory’s] language
classrooms and bring the sounds, images and the look and feel of
the culture to the classroom though the Internet.
“You feel connected,” he added. “It reduces the
sense of isolation.”
For more information on NMELRC, visit its website at http://nmelrc.byu.edu/.