Encountering Arabic

A hands-on exhibition piece that leads to an online platform, my thesis project offers a personally engaging, tactile learning experience with the Arabic language.

Every encounter with a foreign language is a reminder of what separates us from those who use it. Yet at the same time, such encounters also present the opportunity to transcend entrenched social, cultural and political boundaries. My thesis seeks to build on the latter point by developing a playful approach to language-learning to encourage a spirit of interaction and exchange.

‘Encountering: Arabic’ is a proof-of-concept, a focused, short exhibit designed to experientially encapsulate the objectives and methods of a larger, future exhibition. Visitors learn the letters of their name in Arabic through a visual-tactile interface, which then links them to a social media channel facilitating further exploration. The project is directed at a wide range of English-speaking audiences.

E:A considers the promotion of second-language acquisition as a means of encouraging compassion and goodwill. As such, it approaches language-learning from an emotional prism. While the methodology could be applied to any language, I chose to focus on Arabic. The main reason is my own background: I was born and raised in Jerusalem, a city violently divided between Hebrew and Arabic speakers. Both are official national languages. Yet rather than be taught that language, I and those around me were for the most part encouraged by our environment to fear and oppose it. While the circumstances in America are very different, here too — and increasingly — Arabic is often portrayed as a threat.

E:A does not attempt to teach the language: but rather, offers participants a fresh look at it by employing the lessons of playful pedagogy to create a personally engaging experience. The proof-of-concept exhibit centers on a custom-built tactile-digital learning station that provides participants with a personalized lesson. After submitting their name to the program, users are taught the letters of their name as well as central features of the Arabic writing system using custom animations and projections. Practice of the letters is facilitated by an easily erasable backlit sand tray.

Once participants successfully master writing their entire name in the Arabic script, an embedded camera captures the result and a nametag is printed. In addition, the image is sent to the participant’s phone, and the participant is encouraged to join the ‘Encountering: Arabic’ social media channel. This channel forms a platform for the distribution of further playful instructional material. While focused on short, social-media-friendly mnemonic-based lessons, the project’s online aspect welcomes public engagement with a wider scope of learning: idioms, pronunciation, and opportunities for immersive study.