Georgetown Professor who Revolutionized Arabic Instruction Retires after 12 Years of Service

May 7, 2019

After a 12 year tenure at Georgetown University in Qatar, Senior Language Instructor Abbas Al-Tonsi will retire home to Cairo, Egypt this year, leaving behind an innovative and thriving Arabic program tailored to the needs of Arab students.

Abbas Al-Tonsi came to GU-Q in 2007, already the co-author of some of the most globally recognized Arabic-language text books for non-native speakers. At the time he had little idea that he would soon be developing a whole new system of teaching Arabic to Arab students. 

When the Doha campus opened in 2005, it offered the same Arabic courses as those offered at the main campus in Washington, DC. However, Al-Tonsi quickly realized that many enrolled Arab students attended foreign international schools and think in English, having to translate their thoughts in order to speak Arabic. In addition, while they may speak a dialect of the language, they cannot use professional-grade Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA. Furthermore, many of their teachers were specifically trained in teaching non-native speakers.

Recognizing the need for a whole new approach to teaching and learning tailored to heritage Arabic speakers, Al-Tonsi worked with his colleagues to transform the curriculum, developing a separate learning track called the Heritage Learners Program—a groundbreaking Arabic language initiative that includes lessons in Arabic culture and the arts, and addresses the unique native speaking profile of many Arabic language students in Qatar.

According to Al-Tonsi, the gaps addressed by the Georgetown curriculum also plague Arab education across the Arab world. “In the past, members of educated society have been able to speak and extemporize fluently in MSA. But now lawyers speak using the colloquial and judges make mistakes in the MSA when reading the texts of rulings.” Because of a dependence on curricula from the West, he says, “all of us, to a varying degree, are heritage learners. Most of us think in dialects and then translate into MSA.” 

Dr. Yehia Mohamed, Associate Professor of Arabic at GU-Q, worked on the project with Al-Tonsi from the beginning. “During his leadership the [Heritage Learner’s] program has expanded to become one of the most important Arabic education programs in the region and the world.”

It is praise repeated by everyone who worked with him.  “I was honored to be a member of the selection committee that appointed him to GU-Q in 2007. We are proud to have had him lay down solid foundations of such a notable educational program,” says the dean of GU-Q,  Dr. Ahmed Dalal.

According to Dr. Gerd Nonneman, professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies, and a former dean of GU-Q, Al-Tonsi will be remembered as the lead in GU-Q’s creation of “the world’s leading team researching and developing pedagogy for Arabic heritage learners.”

As he said goodbye to the university, and the Doha community he called home, Al-Tonsi reminisced with some pride about how much has changed under his tenure. “Today, there is no other place that offers the study of Arabic for heritage learners consistently, as part of the standard course offering each semester. We started with only two professors and now we are at nine. We started with one class and now we have multiple classes focused on content for advanced levels, conversational speech, literature, culture, cinema, and linguistics.”

In retirement, Al-Tonsi plans to continue working on the Arabic textbooks used in classrooms all over the world. “Abbas is a treasure of Arabic language instruction. He still has so much to offer, and I am sure that his intellectual production will continue and will benefit future generations,” says Dr. Hana Zabarah, assistant professor of Arabic at GU-Q.

The lasting legacy of Al-Tonsi’s ability to meet the changing needs of Arabic learners will continue to bear fruit as future generations go on to work in and build institutions on a solid foundation of Modern Standard Arabic, ensuring the preservation of the Arabic language for Qatar and the region.

Abbas Al-Tonsi, in the Words of His Colleagues

“I was honored to be a member of the selection committee that appointed Professor Al-Tonsi to Georgetown University in Qatar in 2007. Obviously it was a good choice. It was of great benefit to the university that Professor Al-Tonsi started by establishing this department and developing it as one of the pioneers of Arabic language instruction for foreigners and heritage learners. Abbas is a creative and highly intellectual instructor, who is deeply respected and appreciated by his colleagues and students. He is credited with developing the Arabic language program at the university, which continues to serve as a model worldwide in teaching Arabic to non-native speakers.”

Dr. Ahmed Dalal - Dean, GU-Q

“He has been one GU-Q’s absolute greats. He is of course famous as an author of the top Arabic textbook (Al-Kitaab), but he needs to be acknowledged as the lead in our creation of the world’s leading team researching and developing pedagogy for Arabic heritage learners.”

Dr. Gerd Nonneman: Professor of International Relations & Gulf Studies, Former Dean, GU-Q

“Professor Abbas was a great brother and a sincere friend over the course of the twelve years I worked with him. Regardless of any cultural, ideological, or intellectual differences between us, he worked to bring us all together as one interconnected family, rather than just colleagues. During his leadership, the program expanded to become one of the most important Arabic education programs in the region and the world.”

Dr. Yehia Abdelmobdy Mohamed, Associate Professor of Arabic, GU-Q

“Abbas was a humble colleague, a witty conversationalist in cafes, an intellectual, a compassionate father at home, and a kind refuge in times of trouble. 

“Before I met him, I already knew him as a legend in our field, and having been privileged to work with him and under his care and supervision I realized that he is a true legend in the art of life, not just in the field of work.”

Abdul Rahman Chamseddine, Member of Arabic Faculty, GU-Q

“For me, Abbas is an example of a true friend and colleague. He possesses vision, insight and expert intuition. This is not only a reflection of his actual experience in the field, but also his ongoing work and contributions to scientific developments on the ground both theoretically and experimentally.

“Abbas moved away from literary criticism and turned to the teaching of Arabic to foreigners, but his linguistic and critical sense and cultural knowledge remained with him. For this reason, Abbas was not only a teacher of Arabic as a foreign language, but was always an outstanding professor. Perhaps this explains the high degree of popularity among his students. He remains a capable author, and a mastermind of planning, teaching, and program development.”

Dr. Mahmoud Al-Ashiri, Associate Professor of Arabic, GU-Q

“Mr. Abbas is one of the rare personalities who have left us with a passion for work and excellence in our field. But what really sets him apart is how he has always been a modest colleague and friend, despite his stature as a legend in this field.”

Dr. Ahmad Alqassas, Assistant Professor of Arabic Linguistics, Georgetown University

“Despite his very busy schedule and working on a number of books and research, Abbas was able to maintain his deep interest in Arabic literature and stayed up-to-date with new titles. I was always impressed by his ability to propose works that I could use in literature classes. I often asked him how to organize the materials in my classroom or what he thought was appropriate for the students' level. I will always be grateful for his guidance and advice.”

Dr. Omar Khalifah, Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature, GU-Q

“Abbas is a treasure of Arabic language instruction. He still has so much to offer, and I am sure that his intellectual production will continue and will benefit future generations.”

Dr. Hana Zabarah, Assistant Professor of Arabic, GU-Q

“I met Professor Abbas Al-Tonsi for the first time in August 2008 when I went to his office to introduce myself after being hired. I found him so immersed in his reading to the point that I hesitated to knock on his door, as I didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought. He was working behind piles of books and newspapers. The image of the open door, of books scattered everywhere, and Abbas, totally absorbed in his work, oblivious to anything else, is still vividly present in my memory. 

I was always struck by his sharp focus. Abbas would always sit in meetings bowing his head as if he were reading something. You would think that he is detached from what is around him because he isn’t looking at the speaker. But his facial expression clearly indicates that he is intently listening to each word. Like other creative thinkers, he knows that one grasps the meaning only through attention. 

Our program will miss your energetic presence, ya Abbas!"

Dr. Amira El-Zein, Associate Professor of Arabic Literature and Culture, GU-Q

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