Four New Haven children, ages 5 to 7, sat around a crayon-covered table in the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library Tuesday learning Arabic.
The gathering was the third installment of an inaugural language and cultural engagement program that introduces the basic phrases and vocabulary of either German or Arabic to New Haven elementary school children. The program was founded by Theresa Schenker, language program director of Yale’s German department, and Sarab Al Ani, the co-director of undergraduate studies of the Modern Middle East Studies major.
The Arabic lesson was led by undergraduate assistants Julian Martin ’20 and Sara Maani ’17, who engaged the children with coloring activities, chocolate and Arabic phrases scattered in between.
“Marhaba,” Martin said, using the Arabic word for “hello.”
Across the table, two 7-year-old identical twins shouted “What?” in unison and erupted into laughter.
Both Schenker and Al Ani said they were inspired to lead the project because they said very few American elementary schools offer foreign-language instruction, despite the proven benefits of learning a language at a young age. While the teaching sessions remain in their fledgling stages, Schenker said she hopes to expand them to a semesterlong program based out of New Haven elementary schools.
Maani and Martin are two of dozens of Yale undergraduates assisting Schenker and Al Ani in the program. Schenker recruited German students through email, and Al Ani’s asked students studying Arabic in her advanced Arabic class to help with the sessions. The Arabic textbook for Al Ani’s class contained a chapter on community service, Al Ani’s curriculum contains a unit on community service.
Maani, a native Arabic speaker, said that although she had never worked with children before, the class’s curriculum inspired her to volunteer. She added that she was impressed that New Haven parents took their children through the snow on Tuesday to learn Arabic.
Schenker and Al Ani proposed the project in May 2016 at the Yale Center for Language Study’s annual Instructional Innovation Workshop, which focused on community-based teaching and learning and allows Yale faculty to develop projects that approach learning in an innovative way. Schenker and Al Ani also received a pilot grant of $1,000 from the Instructional Innovation Workshop to support their program.
The New Haven library provided art supplies, teaching space and publicity free of charge. Yumei Wu, the mother of the identical twins, said she was unaware about the classes before they arrived at the library on Tuesday. Because her girls already study Chinese in an immersion program on the weekend, she said the weekday Yale teaching sessions might be an overload of language learning for the children.
Another mother, Qi Guo, whose family immigrated to the United States from China last July, said she wished the library would also offer English classes for her 5-year-old son, who attended Tuesday’s session.
The New Haven library offers online language learning software and adult English as a second language courses, according to Luis Chavez-Brumell, manager of the library’s Young Minds and Family Learning Department. He said he was excited to be able to offer more individualized instruction and access to native speakers through the new Yale Arabic and German programs.
The final language lesson in the series will be held on Thursday from 4 to 5 p.m. at the main branch on Elm Street.