Conversational Arabic lessons bridge cultural divides

How do graduates from Columbia University decide to start an Arabic language tutoring service? Turns out it was quite simple: they saw a need for affordable, conversational Arabic training and found a way to offer this service via Skype, while providing work to displaced Syrian refugees.

We love learning of all the creative ways that people are using Skype to solve real-world challenges, so we caught up with Aline Sara, one of the founders of NaTakallam, to learn more about their innovative service.

Aline Sara and Reza Rahnema were students together at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. They share a Middle Eastern background and in addition to being familiar with the challenges most students face when trying to find opportunities to practice conversational Arabic, they were acutely aware of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.

As Aline explains, “I was at a stage in which I didn’t need a professor or a book with complex grammar rules, I simply needed to practice speaking. I thought to myself, I could just meet with a native speaker, have a nice chat with them, and offer them a compensation for the exchange.”

The colleagues came up with their tutoring concept and entered a World Bank and IE Business School WE Resilient Cities Competition, a start-up competition to transform ideas related to risk management into ventures in March 2015. Although they did not win, they had momentum to keep going and, by the summer of 2015, NaTakallam (which means “We speak”) was created.

The group started in Lebanon, which has the highest refugee concentration of any country. Over 1.5 million displaced Syrians currently live in Lebanon, a high percentage of whom are educated professionals, in need of work. Partnering with Sawa for Development and Aid to help recruit “Conversation Partners,” and just recently a Lebanese partner arcenciel, they now have 25+ Syrians teaching around 400 students around the globe every week via Skype.

The group does their best to match Conversation Partners with students from similar education backgrounds or who have common interests.

We asked Aline how they chose Skype, and learned that it’s the most common communication tool used by their Conversation Partners and students. “Skype is a well-known platform in the Middle East and seemed like a natural fit for NaTakallam and its users. Thus far, it has been working well, although Lebanon is known for its unreliable internet connections, which has led to some challenges. It has been generally intuitive and easy to use, and most users already had an existing account.”

While the founders of NaTakallam are happy to be able to help their students and the refugees, they are also aware the larger role their service provides, namely, bridging a wide cultural divide. “There’s an amazing power to connecting people in these countries with students in the West—there’s a cultural exchange that goes beyond the language component,” Aline told NBC News. In fact, she explained to us, “I recently spoke to a student who informed me he is trying to help his Conversation Partner get asylum in Canada. There are many touching and inspiring stories that users and partners tell me about how much they enjoy getting to know each other and how it breaks down media stereotypes.”

We here at Skype wish the team at NaTakallam great success and will continue to watch how their language service develops. In the meantime, we’re excited to announce Skype Translator for Arabic—perfect for those wanting to speak to anyone in Modern Standard Arabic.

Do you have a Skype story you’d like to share? We’d love to hear it! Just tag us #Skype on social media.