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October 7, 2002

Al-Batal named associate director of NMELRC

By Stephanie Sonnenfeld

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,” Al-Batal said.

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, Al-Batal said.

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 in.

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