Conversation and Culture

Maysoon Fayez Al-Sayed Ahmad knows all too well that conversation is key to mastering another language.

That’s why most Wednesday afternoons during the spring and fall sessions the UMW visiting professor holds a “Conversation Hour” outside of class for her students learning Arabic and for native-born students from Saudi Arabia to learn English.

Maysoon Fayez Al-Sayed Ahmad (center) works with students during her weekly Conversation Hours.

The UMW students range from the first to fourth-year of language experience, while the Arabic-speaking residents are enrolled at the ELS Language Center, located just across the pedestrian bridge in Eagle Village Center. The center, which opened a year ago, partners with UMW to bring international students to the Fredericksburg area to study English.

Before the center opened, Al-Sayed Ahmad, a native of Jordan, held the conversation sessions with just her students, as do other faculty members in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages. Then, her students concentrated on their language weaknesses, sought extra help for tests and reviewed grammar questions discussed in class.

Once she learned that Arabic students were taking classes nearby, she invited them to join the afternoon sessions.

“It adds another level to the sessions,” said Al-Sayed Ahmad, who provides coffee or tea, doughnuts and cookies, as a backdrop for students to practice their skills. “It’s better than communicating with just the teacher. With both languages, students are hearing different dialects. They learn about cultural traditions, holidays.”

On a recent spring day, 30 or more students gathered in the basement of Combs Hall. They paired up in groups of two or three to write simple conversational questions, then, posed them in a dialogue with one another, in both Arabic and English.

Marjahn Goodman, a UMW junior in her third year of Arabic, looks forward to the sessions.

Students work together to improve their conversation skills.

“During Conversation Hour, I’m always learning new vocabulary, and I’m improving my reading, writing and speaking skills,” said Goodman, an international affairs major who is president of the Arabic Language Club.

Hashem Alawwad, 23, a Saudi who has been in the U.S. for a year, is delighted to meet with American college students.

“It improves my language, and I’m able to help someone else too,” he said.

ELS Center Director Kathleen Rodriguez is thrilled with the ELS students’ participation.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for all of the students – Arabic speakers and English speakers – to share authentic conversations and information about other customs and cultures with each other,” said Rodriguez. “We look forward to partnering students again in the fall and in continuing with these sessions throughout the year.”

In one section of the room Saudis, Abdullah Alnufaiee, 24, and Mohammad Barnawy, 27, took turns quizzing UMW freshman Jake Olson. At one point, Barnawy showed Olsen the sentence he had written in English, then, asked the question out loud. “What is your favorite book?” he queried Olson.
“It’s ‘Lord of the Rings,’” said Olson, then pointed to a word of the written question. “But you’re missing a letter. Favorite is spelled with an “r”, f-a-v-o-r-i-t-e.” he said. “And, oh yes, my favorite book is ‘Lord of the Rings.’”

A first-year Arabic student, Olson said the conversations sessions have helped sharpen his pronunciation.

“It really helps to use the language in real situations,” said Olson, who plans to major in international affairs and Arabic. “The only way to learn a language is to use it.

Alnufaiee has discovered an additional benefit to the conversation sessions. The students are learning about each other’s cultures and dialects. They’re finding common ground.

“It’s good to get help with my English and enjoy being with real Americans,” he said. “We can hang out. It’s good to make friends.”

Photos by Kimmie Barkley ’14

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