LARC Instructor Profile: Ghassan Zakaria

Ghassan ZakariaThe Language Acquisition Resource Center (LARC) at San Diego State University fosters effective teaching and learning of world languages locally, regionally, and nationally. LARC pursues this through initiatives involving research-based design and delivery of language and culture programs, teacher professionalization, and assessment.

Through a partnership with SDSU Global Campus, LARC offers the Summer Intensive Language Courses in Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese designed to cover an entire year’s worth of foreign language studies.

Instructor Ghassan Zakaria teaches Arabic courses and gets a solid A from students on RateMyProfessors.com, who also voted him Faculty of the Year in 2013 at the College of Arts and Letters.

Give us a brief history of how you came to be a LARC instructor at SDSU.
I grew up in a household that emphasized education, so my parents were a tremendous motivation for my future career in academia. My father had a passion for reading and my mother taught elementary school in Jordan for 25 years. Falling in love with Arabic literature in grade school, I knew I wanted to teach. I started out as a Sunday school teacher at my church and, when I moved to New York in 2001, I began working for the United Nations Arabic Translation Department. In 2004, I moved to San Diego and served as an Arabic instructor at Cuyamaca College. A semester later, I started teaching Arabic at SDSU as a lecturer for the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern languages and also served as an instructor and material creator at the SDSU Language Acquisition Resource Center, where I remain today.

Do you speak many of the different Arabic dialects or any other foreign language?
Raised in Amman, the capital of a central Middle Eastern country, I was exposed to numerous dialects of spoken Arabic at a young age due to my day-to-day interactions and exposure to the media. I am familiar with the Egyptian, Gulf, Iraqi, and Levantine dialects. Having attended a Catholic private school, I learned formal Arabic, French, and English growing up.

Assuming they’ve taken both courses in the sequence — Arabic I and II, which total five weeks of instruction — how fluent can students expect to be at the end of a Summer Intensive?
After five weeks in two intensive language courses, students will be able to communicate with native Arabic speakers on a wide range of familiar topics (e.g. self, family, daily and weekly activities, home, location, food, personal characteristics, weather, etc.). They would be able to order food from local Middle Eastern restaurants in Arabic and will have the ability to read and write formal Arabic.

On RateMyProfessors.com, in addition to thinking you’re “amazing,” “awesome,” and “this guy needs to be CLONED,” most students also commented that despite Arabic being a tough language, you make it fairly easy by the way you explain things. Can you give an example?
Instead of simply asking students to memorize Arabic vocabulary, I employ a variety of activities to keep students interested. For instance, in my lesson on house structure (room names, furniture, appliances), I split my students into two groups. One of the groups is asked to wait outside the classroom while the other group remains inside. I describe a house in Arabic to the students inside the class and ask the students to write down keywords. I repeat the description a second time and then invite the second group of students back into the classroom. The students are split into pairs with one student from each of the groups. The students that were inside the classroom are asked to describe the house in Arabic to their partners (who were not present for my description) while reviewing their notes. The students who were outside are asked to draw the house based on their partners’ descriptions. I then take some of the drawing samples and display them on the document camera while reading the original description out loud once again. The class compares the drawings with the description. The groups are then switched and the activity is repeated with a new house description. This activity facilitates the learning of the vocabulary while also allowing the students to get directly involved (and get a laugh out of it).

Students also commented on the “great videos and group projects.” Can you tell us about them and how they facilitate language acquisition?
My goal in employing a variety of videos and projects in my courses is to provide my students with authentic and captivating first-person experiences of the culture and everyday life of the Arab world. These activities provide insight and expose the students to Arabic music, art, literature, architecture, and religion. This helps to erode common Western stereotypes of the Arab world.

What does the cultural awareness portion of the course entail?
The cultural awareness aspects of the course involve the aforementioned videos and projects. I also invite guest speakers that my students can relate to. I make an effort to ask American students who studied in the Arab world to come in for a class, describe their experiences abroad, present their thoughts on the rich culture, and also respond to student questions. My intention is to provide my students with a general and authentic look into Arab culture.

In addition to students completing foreign language requirements, who else takes your classes?
My students usually consist of those who are interested in world cultures and international politics.

What’s your favorite aspect of teaching at the LARC?
LARC is unique in that the environment fosters collaboration, openness, and friendships between the students, staff, and faculty members.

Anything you’d like to add?
In my classes, I use the communicative approach which is one of the most effective teaching methods. It requires students to engage in interaction in order to fulfill a task, and involves learners and teachers in some joint selection. It is based on bringing tasks and selected scenarios into the classroom, so the goal of this approach is to develop overall proficiency in the Arabic language through a functional approach. The focus, therefore, is on performing language functions, using the language forms learned, rather than on analyzing them.

LARC Student Perspectives

“I studied Russian at SDSU through ROTC’s Project Global Officer program in 2013. It greatly prepared me to study abroad, and my contacts at LARC even helped to set me up with the University of Pittsburgh’s study abroad program in Estonia, also with Project GO. Both instructors, Masha and Dasha, were extremely committed to our successes. The 2013 group I was a part of reached OPIc [Oral Proficiency Interview by Computer – an Internet-delivered proficiency test] ratings of Intermediate Low by the end of our 12-week seminar. Five of us continued on to complete the 2014 Estonia program, where we further increased our OPIc ratings to Intermediate Moderate. “The SDSU team was dedicated to ensuring we were well prepared to study abroad, and even offered us year-round sustainment courses at no extra charge. When we landed in Estonia, we were able to effectively communicate with the local population and live comfortably. “It’s also worth mentioning that completing the SDSU Project GO Russian Program is looked upon highly by other Project GO Universities, which offer the advanced in-country programs. I had applied to several in-country Project GO advanced programs in 2014, and was accepted to all of them. Many of my former classmates even applied to go on a third trip for the 2015 year and were accepted again. “All in all, seven of the nine ROTC cadets from our program continued on to study abroad. Many of us traveled together and are still close friends today.”
– Cameron O’Connell

Matthew KellerProject GO is a Department of Defense initiative that promotes the study of critical languages for ROTC students, and focuses exclusively on the languages and countries of the Middle East, Asia, Central Asia, and Africa. “I studied Russian last summer and had an absolute blast doing so! I took the course out of personal interest in the language and culture of Russia. The course was 8 am to 4 pm, every day, of Russian. It was really well planned out; the timetable for learning new material was adequate to meet my needs. The instructors were also VERY helpful, they were more than willing to spend extra time to help students if the need arose. I would definitely recommend the course to someone wanting to learn Russian.”
– Matthew Keller

Andrew Linsmeier“I truly enjoyed my time spent learning Farsi (Persian). The instructors were patient and kind throughout the learning process, and learning about the culture is very interesting.”
– Andrew Linsmeier

“This class surpassed my expectations. In the past I had participated in the Intensive Arabic Program at Georgetown University and I would recommend the program at SDSU over Georgetown. I learned more and paid significantly less. My instructors were phenomenal and I highly recommend this class to anyone, whether it is your first Arabic class or you just need a refresher.”
– Dea Kollekowski

Amandine Bahro“I took the class not only for my degree requirement but because my family is from the Middle East and I can already understand the Iraqi dialect of Arabic but I wanted to learn how to write, read and speak in the “proper” Arabic dialect. It was an amazing experience; I really learned a lot! The instructors were amazing and very, very helpful! I actually now text my parents in Arabic so that the alphabet is always fresh in my mind. Also, if I make a mistake, my parents correct me.”
– Amandine Bahro

Conor Fagan“I first worked with LARC through Project GO (Global Officers) while a cadet with Air Force ROTC. I studied Arabic with the program, and the professors and assistants were all very eager to teach us their language. I’m so glad I was involved in the program; today, I’m using the language skills I gained there as a student archaeologist working at a site outside of Aqaba, Jordan.”
– Conor M. Fagan

“I joined the Russian language program out of interest. I have never had so much success with any other language course. The other students were as motivated as I was and the professors were fabulous! They offered all the help any of us needed.”
Alyssa Selberg

Grant Varnau“I took Persian because of personal interest; I already knew German conversationally and wanted to try a more difficult language. The program met my expectations amazingly. I learned a significant amount about the culture and how to use the language in different settings. The instructors were very personable and occasionally tough – but only because it brought the best out of their students. I’d absolutely recommend anyone who has the summer available to take these courses, you learn so much more than just a language.”
– Grant J. Varnau