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German for Arabic-Speaking Refugees

German for Arabic-Speaking Refugees
by Sean Godfroy

 Picture of Professors

Three professors from IPFW's Department of International Languages and Culture Studies (ILCS) have designed a video series to teach basic German words and phrases to Arabic speakers to help refugees in Europe communicate with Germans. Suin Roberts and Lee Roberts, associate professors of German studies, have combined their expertise with that of Farah Combs, continuing lecturer in Arabic, to produce a series of videos for the benefit of these refugees.

In recent months, instability and violence in the Middle East has forced millions of civilians to flee. Many of these refugees traveled to Europe, hoping to find work and a better life. Germany in particular is a destination for the refugees, but most do not speak German and have no way to learn it. “Germany is in need of German as a foreign language teachers,” Suin Roberts explained. “At least 3,000 teachers need to be hired in the near future. Sometimes months, if not years, can pass before refugees can be enrolled in such courses.”

As the daughter of Korean parents who emigrated to Germany and having emigrated from Germany to America as an adult, Suin Roberts felt a personal connection with the refugees’ plight. “They escaped war and death,” she explained, “They risked their lives to get to Germany, a country that is completely different from what they know. I feel for them and want to help make their first few weeks in Germany a bit more bearable.” The idea for the program came from an article the Robertses read about apps that were being created to assist refugees. After reading the article, Suin realized, “We could offer free, short German language and culture videos (since teaching German as a foreign language is our expertise) and put them on YouTube, so that they are easily accessible.”

As few online resources online for Arabic-speaking refugees exist, Suin Roberts asked Combs to join the project. Combs was happy to help. Suin Roberts drafts the scripts for each video. Combs says each word in Arabic before the German word is introduced and repeated. They practice the scripts and then film each short lesson. After some video editing, the videos are posted to YouTube and promoted via the project’s Facebook page.

A number of IPFW students have also gotten involved with this project. Students in one of Suin Roberts’s advanced German courses create the vocabulary lists of words and phrases that will be incorporated into the videos. Nathan Brophy, a political science major and honors program student has been editing the videos. Brophy has past experience in this area, having worked on the short film The Forbidden Love that was a project in one of Combs’s Arabic classes. The project’s leaders are hoping to eventually involve more Arabic-speaking students as translators.

The videos are radically different from classroom lessons. “These videos are not meant to be educational videos on how to speak German,” Combs explained. “It’s basically survival vocabulary words and phrases. Survival vocabulary are words for someone who does not know the language. They allow them to function and communicate very minimally with German speakers.” The survival vocabulary in the videos includes greetings, emotions, everyday items, and ways to express specific needs. “It’s not the same procedure we teach in the classroom,” Combs continued, “We only repeat the words a couple of times, versus in the classroom you’d have to repeat it more, you’d have to model it more, and you’d have to understand the word structure.”

The videos are about five minutes long and are relatively low-tech for ease of delivery across wi-fi networks. Instead of flashing images on a screen, the professors use real props to demonstrate the vocabulary. “I believe,” Suin Roberts comments, “that this adds a certain kind of naturalness. Lee, Farah, and I are not competing with educational publishing companies, who spend thousands of dollars for educational videos. We want our videos to seem casual, and to show us as real people who just want to help.”

Informing refugees in Europe about the videos is a challenge. Because many refugees have phones or wireless devices of some kind, the team is relying on social media and word-of-mouth to raise awareness of the project in Germany and beyond. Even so, the team remains optimistic. “If these videos reach one family, and they end up using it and it helps them out, then I feel like we’ve accomplished something,” Combs explained. “We’ve accomplished our goal. If it reaches more, then the better of course.”

The team is trying to tape two and post at least one video each week. They hope to eventually include cultural information with the vocabulary. The Robertses plan to visit Germany next year and would like to spend time talking to refugees for ideas on how to help. “My own experience as a ‘two-time’ immigrant has shaped me,” Suin Roberts shared. “I want to empower other people by teaching them the language that they need to succeed in their new lives.”

To learn more about The German for Arabic-Speaking Refugees project, visit its Facebook page or watch the videos on their YouTube channel. To contact Suin Roberts or Farah Combs, send an email to shins@ipfw.edu or combsf@ipfw.edu respectively.