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Language & Community | Language Intersection Insights with Sarab Al Ani

JNCL-NCLIS Insights: Language at the Intersection

About the Episode:

JNCL-NCLIS is proud to introduce the second interview in our Language at the Intersection Insights series. Sarab Al Ani, a Senior Lecturer at Yale University, will help us explore the intersection of language and community, as well as how multilingualism moves her world.

Visit to explore more language intersections and learn more about this series!

The transcript for the episode can be found below.



Amanda Seewald (00:09):

Hello, and welcome to the "JNCL-NCLIS Language at the Intersection Insights" Interview Series, where we talk with professionals from many fields to hear their perspectives on how multilingualism moves our world. The Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Language and International Studies proudly presents this series with generous sponsorship support from Vista Higher Learning.

I'm Amanda Seewald, current president of the Joint National Committee for Languages and National Council for Language and International Studies, JNCL-NCLIS, and I am joined today by our president-elect, Linda Egnatz, to introduce you to Sarab Al Ani, who is a senior lecturer at Yale University, and will help us explore the intersection of language and community, and how multilingualism moves her world.

Sarab Al Ani (01:04):

Hello, my name is Sarab Al Ani. I'm a senior language lecturer of Arabic at Yale University, where I've been teaching since 2009. And I'm here today to talk to you about my language intersection, which is language and community. So, as I mentioned earlier, I'm an instructor of Arabic at Yale University, and one of the things we try to do when we teach is to make sure that our classes, and the content that we teach in our classes, is connected to the community outside the class. And the story that I would like to teach, even though it's not my particular story, it's my students, however I think I had a little bit of a role in it, and it started in March of 2020. And in that particular class that I was teaching, we were using a project-based approach, which means that the students on their own get to select a project that is related directly to the community.

Sarab Al Ani (02:08):

And throughout the semester, they get to work on it and they get to complete it. The project of course, has a number of criteria. One main criterion that they have to follow is that it needs to involve the target language that they are studying and learning. And as we all remember in March 2020, when the, you know, pandemic accelerated, and we all had to go back to teaching online, a lot of things changed for everyone. And one of the things that changed is the projects that the students had started since it became quite challenging for them to complete the projects the way that they had planned earlier. So, in order to overcome that change, I met with the students and I talked to them and I explained to them that at this point they have the freedom to change their projects a little bit or a lot, especially taking into consideration that one of the main goals of the project is to be in service of the community.

Sarab Al Ani (03:19):

So what happened to my great pleasant surprise, is that the students, a group of them, changed their project almost completely. And they helped the organization with which they were cooperating, which was an organization that helps a community of refugees and Arab refugees and immigrants in the area. And they helped them in ways that they use their language in a way to offer help to these families of refugees and immigrants. For example, one of the things that they ended up doing is creating information lists in Arabic of places that these families can go to get help in health issues, help with food needs, help with information that they might need regarding the COVID and ways to protect themselves and their children from, what to do and what not to do, et cetera. They tried to create ways in which they can help the kids and those who are students in those refugee families to complete their academic assignments by offering them online help and tutoring sessions via zoom.

Sarab Al Ani (04:45):

And they tried like as much as possible to be of help to these families in ways that they would use the language, even sometimes when it meant that they had to intervene in a way that they hadn't planned when someone you know, requested a kind of help that that family particularly needed. And I was definitely pleasantly surprised because they, even though they had worked so hard on a project that they had started, they did not mind putting almost all of it behind them in order to focus on the immediate needs of those families that that particular situation had created. And so it was perfect in a way that they put the knowledge and the skills they had of the language in a perfect use that was beneficial for them because they definitely grew as they used their language in an authentic situation, but also to help the other party in what they need. So that's basically the story that I was going to share with you.

Amanda Seewald (05:57):

What a beautiful story and what a phenomenal activity. And it's such an important time, and the way that the students reacted, I think, is just so meaningful to what we do as language educators, and in my opinion, as the global liaisons for our schools and our universities. So, you know, I think that from that perspective, I wanna just ask you, in what ways, as an educator, has multilingualism shaped you as an educator?

Sarab Al Ani (06:24):

So there I can, I would say that there's definitely more than one way, but maybe the most important is to realize that having a second and or a third language is really having that extra tool that can help any person in their personal, as well as professional, life. And in many cases, that is a unique tool that someone else might not have. And that this tool gives that person that kind of advantage in progressing themselves on a personal level, on a professional level and also helping others. So that realization, I think only comes when a person has actually experienced that. And then for us as educators, it is an experience that we wish we can also transform for all of our students.

Amanda Seewald (07:25):

Beautiful! Let me ask you, in what parts of your life would not be possible without being multilingual?

Sarab Al Ani (07:31):

My work, for instance, that's one major and clear thing! And also putting things in perspective when encountering different situations, small or vague, being multilingual, I think, enables you to put any situation that you encounter in perspective. And perhaps also enables you sometimes to put yourself in the shoes of the other party that's in front of you, that's interacting in whatever it may be. And in doing so, and in having that ability to evaluate something from a different perspective, I think, allows for easier problem-solving. Again, whether we were talking on a personal level or a professional level, or, you know, something big or small, it makes it easier to work around issues because A: You have the perspective B: You can put yourself in the place of the other and it makes it easier to find a solution, a resolution, a middle ground, et cetera.

Amanda Seewald (08:47):

Exactly. Just the whole idea of problem-solving, and I think that's important as well. When you think about your students and you think about how you express to them, you know, what the importance is of multilingualism in our society, what is it that you want your students, and you want others, not just your students, but everyone in our nation to know about the importance of multilingualism as a whole?

Sarab Al Ani (09:11):

So definitely the idea that I expressed to you earlier of, you know, on a person, because again, there are students, there are university students that are definitely thinking about their future, perhaps more so than the rest of us. So I definitely share with them, my actual belief that having a second or a third language is like having that extra tool that gives you a personal advantage. In addition to that, I always like openly and explicitly share with the students that, if you think that my sole purpose is to just teach you a language, then that is definitely a misconception. It's not just a language that we are trying to study and learn here. It's a system it's knowledge, it's a skill it's a new, or maybe relatively new culture that you are being introduced to.

Sarab Al Ani (10:13):

It's a perspective of the other. It's a new way of understanding the world and a way that would even on a personal level, hopefully make you a person with a deeper understanding. And at the same time, it can make you a person with a more focused understanding if that is something that you want to be by teaching you language and everything else is associated with it, we hope to be able to enable you to become a person who is more responsible, more cooperative, more communicative, and definitely hold that responsible, cherish that responsibility. As you know, it's value as you are progressing and as you continue to progress, you know, you would hold that responsibility value and you would treat it as such.

Amanda Seewald (11:12):

I love that, you know, the concept of global citizenship and how we approach our educational situations. And as I think about how many higher education language programs are being cut or being threatened right now, it makes me think about the way that you're posing the value of language education into the community. And I would love for you to maybe articulate why it is so essential that we advocate for language education, and through that perspective from the higher education perspective and from, you know, the perspective of community.

Sarab Al Ani (11:45):

In very simple terms, I think, and I hope in terms that a lot can comprehend, even if they themselves are not in that situation as well. It's basically a long-term investment into the persons that are, you know, the building blocks of your community. What we're doing as language educators, what the legislators would be doing by continuing programs are, is basically investing in these individuals. Because through teaching them a language, there is no escaping teaching a number of other disciplines along with teaching a language. Language will never exist in isolation. So when a person studies and continues, perhaps that's an important point, continues to study a language, they will have incorporated the knowledge and the skill of a number of things. And we will have invested in that person or these persons in a way that ensures that in the future 5, 10, 15 years down the road, they are not just a more well-rounded person, but a person who is better in many ways, including functionality in whatever aspect or domain they're working in.

Sarab Al Ani (13:16):

Through my career, I've had students who have, well, one of the elements that allowed them to continue their career, was their knowledge of the Arabic language. And through that, they were able to work in embassies around the world. They were able to work in projects for green energy production in the middle east. In my case, they were able to work in international education. Sometimes they were able to work in national education, but related to issues of language and language teaching, they were able to collaborate in economic projects with other international entities. So as a functioning individual, they are that much more qualified and that much more better due to their knowledge of the language and everything else that comes with it. So it's truly a long-term investment that in my opinion, does not cost that much currently.

Amanda Seewald (14:18):

Absolutely. Thank you so much, this is such a wonderful conversation, and I hope that we can continue it. Linda, did you have anything you wanted to ask?

Linda Egnatz (14:25):

Yeah, I was really kind of intrigued to go back to that intersection piece and wondered if you had maybe some sort of anecdote about from the community perspective of how your language learners have really impacted their lives in any way. Thinking about that as sort of a goal, and I think of that in so many of the other, you know, the heritage communities we have all around the country and certainly elsewhere as well, the import of serving a community via language skills. And I wonder if you just have like a brief little story or something that could put a face to that?

Sarab Al Ani (15:06):

Sure! Not too long ago, a few months ago, I was presenting in one of the Arabic language councils in the Chicago Arabic Language Council. And I was specifically talking about the way that we can have our classes and what we do in class be part of the community and collaborate with them. The presentation that I was giving was for a number of Arabic language instructors who wished to also implement projects like that, but maybe not, not know or not sure how or where to start. So as part of my presentation, I was mentioning a number of examples and a number of projects that we have implemented throughout the years. And amongst the people who were present and listening were some organizations that were invited that are, you know, of communal nature, as well as some or a big number actually of Arabic language instructors.

Sarab Al Ani (16:07):

So, as I was mentioning a particular example in which our class had communicated or had collaborated in a project with an organization, I had not, I wasn't aware of that, of course. But it turns out that one of my students who later became an Arabic language instructor himself, was present, as well as that particular organization with which he had cooperated a number of years ago when he was a student in that particular class. So when my presentation was over, my student wanted to share, who is currently a language Arabic language instructor, wanted to share that he remembers very well, that interaction and that through that interaction, he learned a number of phrases that he will never forget. At the same time, the representative of that organization was also present, and he in turn chimed in to share that he himself remembered that interaction and how through the help that the students gave them, they were able to advocate for the organization. And that event led to another event which enabled them to gather good amount of help, both financial and in effort to help the members of the organization that they were serving. So I thought that was a really nice and unique way that it all just kind of came together a number of years after the actual event.

Linda Egnatz (17:49):

Thank you. No, I think, yeah, definitely. There's those ripple effects to the things that we do that we don't ever foresee. It's nice when we have an opportunity to hear the result.

Amanda Seewald (18:09):

That concludes today's featured story from our "Language at the Intersection Insights" Interview Series. For more information about the advocacy work of the Joint National Committee for Languages and National Council for Languages and International Studies, please visit To learn more about this interview series, hear stories from other professionals, and explore how language moves our world, visit Thank you to our interviewees for sharing their stories, thank you to our series sponsors Vista Higher Learning, and thank you all for listening.

This series is made possible by a generous sponsorship from Vista Higher Learning. To learn more, please visit

_____________________________ About JNCL-NCLIS: Established in 1972, the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (NCLIS) unites a national network of leading organizations and businesses comprised of over 300,000 language professionals to advocate for equitable language learning opportunities. Our mission is to ensure that Americans have the opportunity to learn English and at least one other language. Contact:

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