Expanding Minds, Improving Language Skills ‘at Home’ at Penn

The classroom is not the only place at the University of Pennsylvania where a student can learn a language.

Gregory College House’s residential modern languages program offers five “language houses” where students can enjoy new cultural experiences and improve their language proficiency.

The offerings are Chinese, French, German, Spanish and Arabic. Residents may enroll in the program for a half-credit per semester; however, many take it just for fun.

Participants in “Arabic House” range from beginners to students who’ve taken the language in class. 

About a dozen students gather in the Class of 1925 building’s greenhouse twice a week to have conversations in Arabic. The topics they cover include news events, politics, pop culture and life on campus. The group is led by Gregory House graduate associate Omar Al-Ghazzi, a native Arabic speaker.

“It’s an informal conversation that just flows,” says Al-Ghazzi.

The group’s activities during the year also include watching Arabic movies and enjoying Middle Eastern food at Philadelphia restaurants, where they get to experience even more of the culture.

Jonathan Korn, a senior economics major in the School of Arts & Sciences from Miami, has been participating in Arab House since freshman year. He has taken several Arabic classes and attends the Arab House sessions to sharpen his language skills.

“Arabic classes only go up to a certain level,” says Korn. “I wanted to find a way to keep myself going through some program.”

The gatherings are a laid-back and fun way to learn a language.

“Often people will stop and say, ‘What was that word?,’” says Korn. “Or, ‘What does it mean?’ Or, someone will ask, ‘How do you say this word in Arabic?’”

There are times when they must use a word or two in English because there isn’t an equivalent in Arabic. 

“When we’re talking about Spring Fling, you can’t literally translate it into Arabic,” says Korn. “We’ll just throw in the English phrase.“

Korn says he has made his Syrian grandmother very proud by speaking Arabic with her. 

“Since I’ve studied more formal Arabic, sometimes, she’ll say I haven’t heard that word in years. It sounds very pretty.”

Al-Ghazzi, who grew up in Syria and Lebanon, is a doctoral candidate in the Annenberg School for Communication. His academic research examines expressions of collective memory in the Arab uprisings. He says his doctoral studies go hand in hand with leading the Gregory House program.

“It makes running the classes easier because it is communication-based,” says Al-Ghazzi. “Students are always asking about current affairs in the Middle East.”

Penn’s College House system also offers residents opportunities for engagement in activities that range from music lessons and cooking classes to discussion groups on current affairs.

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