By Deana Elhit, Editor-in-Chief
Arabic is a complicated, difficult language to learn, but teaching it is a passion for Maha Sweis-Dababneh.
When she came to the U.S. from Jordan in 2007, Sweis-Dababneh brought her dedication to spreading the knowledge of her native language. She created the first Arabic courses at Moraine Valley that year. Since then, she has never stopped inspiring students, opening minds and creating enthusiasm. Her innovative methods and creative use of technology led her to be recognized as Moraine’s 2021 Professor of the Year.
“I knew in my heart that I could contribute to enhancing the teaching of my mother language in the United States,” she said. “I feel a certain responsibility to do so.”
Large Arab minority groups are expanding in the United States, which Sweis-Dababneh says creates a need for translators in services and fields that require an Arabic speaking person.
“The globalization of the world economy is moving faster and stronger, making learning the Arabic language a necessity in many fields,” she said. “On the other side, some students like to learn a new language just for the love of learning.”
I knew in my heart that I could contribute to enhancing the teaching of my mother language in the United States. I feel a certain responsibility to do so.”Maha Sweis-Dababneh
Sweis-Dababneh, who was promoted to full professor this semester, was nominated by her Arabic Language students for Professor of the Year, an honor she says is “not only encouraging but truly humbling.”
“It was great to be nominated by my students during the pandemic time during the uncertainty where the screen was the only tool to connect, engage and work together.”
Arabic is one of the official languages from the United Nations and is the sixth most common spoken language in the world. It is considered to be of “critical importance” by various government agencies around the world, including the United States.
Sweis-Dababneh expresses the challenges her students face learning the Arabic language, as it’s one of the most challenging languages in the world, she says.
The 28 Arabic letters have different rules that apply to connecting with each other, both in print and handwriting. Arabic is also written from right to left rather than the standard left to right.
The same letters creating the same word can mean different things. Grammar and pronunciation use a wider range of mouth and throat positions than English, she says.
She adds there are many sounds in Arabic that aren’t found in English, causing her students to struggle with the Arabic word order. For example, when using present tense Arabic, which has 13 pronouns, everything is addressed by gender. Present tense Arabic has very few irregular verbs, and doesn’t include the words “is” or “are.” For example, when translated in English, the sentence becomes “the boy tall” rather than “the boy is tall.”
“Nevertheless, the important thing to remember with learning any language is to study and enjoy it! It doesn’t matter what your origin is. It is the enthusiasm you have and choosing the right learning tool,” she said.
The important thing to remember with learning any language is to study and enjoy it! It doesn’t matter what your origin is. It is the enthusiasm you have and choosing the right learning tool.”Maha Sweis-Dababneh
Sweis-Dababneh’s central philosophy of teaching is to create classroom environments that are stimulating yet non-competitive and non-intimidating. She believes bringing enthusiasm to the classroom will create its own encouraging and supportive atmosphere, enabling her students’ language skills with as little hesitation as possible.
Motivating students to work at their own pace can also be a challenge.
“We live in a diverse world where the Arabic language plays an important role in preparing American students that are heritage and non-heritage speakers for the 21st century’s globalized workforce and increasing national competitiveness,” she said. “I would love to see the new generation deal better with the globalization of our world.”
Learning about different cultures helps students reconsider their own culture by becoming aware of the daily behaviors that have been “driven by established culture rules,” she says.
“In this manner, learning Arabic language or a foreign language is about learning about the culture and opening the students’ mind to a new experience, [making them] able to expand their horizons, communicate, and learn new approaches and new practices in the religious and social aspect that makes them better educated students,” she said.
Interest in learning Arabic has grown drastically, says Sweis-Dababneh. However, she saw a need for flexibility in her students’ schedules.
“I was thinking of students having the freedom to juggle their careers and school and they aren’t tied down to a fixed schedule or worrying about commuting,” she said. “For that reason, in 2010, I started developing Arabic language online courses.”
Two years later, she won the Innovation of Year award. Sweis-Dababneh’s online course was the only one of its kind in the Illinois Community Colleges system. Sweis-Dababneh also won Moraine Valley’s 2020 Master Teacher Award
Sweis-Dababneh received her doctorate in Educational Administration at the Amman Arab University for Graduate Studies and her master of arts in Physical Administration and Organization at Jordan University in Amman. She also received her master of arts in the Arabic Language at DePaul University when she moved to the U.S. to finish her second master’s degree.
Sweis Dababneh took a different, technical approach to teaching by creating “fun and interactive material” for her face-to-face and online students. She created a YouTube channel with more than 400 videos on Arabic supported by closed captioning.
She also created 300 Quizlet study-sets, along with Kahoot exercises of each unit with interactive study material, flashcards and games.
For me, teaching provides an opportunity for continual learning and growth. I learn from my students as much as they learn from me.”Maha Sweis-Dababneh
Her work ethic was recognized by students and staff.
“I believe we never stop learning, and I want my students to know we can learn from each other,” she says.
Sweis-Dababneh believes her high expectations for her students help them reach their maximum potential, as she feels a responsibility to do so.
Sweis-Dababneh recalls a quote said by Ignacio Estrada, stating, “If the student cannot learn the way we teach, then we have to teach the way they learn.”
“For me, teaching provides an opportunity for continual learning and growth,” she said. “One of my hopes as a professor is to instill a love of learning the Arabic language in my students, as I share my own passion for learning with them. I learn from my students as much as they learn from me.”
Sweis-Dababneh says she has been inspired by the support and guidance she has received from her dean, Wally Fronczek, and department chair, Tom Dow.
“They have always given me confidence and encouraged me to try new ways of teaching,” she says. She refers to her Moraine Valley family as her “Happy Valley family.”
She says she is grateful for the recognition as Professor of the Year and being “included among such a high caliber of nominees.”
“Winning awards means I have an obligation and responsibility to continue to make a difference as the years go by,” she says. “I continue to look forward to teaching and giving back to my students, department, college, and community.”