‘NaTakallam has been my window to the world’ – The refugee language service ideal for lockdown learning

Learners and conversation partners connect online
 (Photo: NaTakallam)

The City’s Cameron Weymes examines the work of NaTakallam, a business that hires displaced people as language teachers online.

NaTakallam, which means “We Speak” in Arabic, was launched in 2016 by Aline Sara, a Lebanese-American woman who was looking for an affordable way to improve her native Levantine dialect of Arabic while living in New York.

At this time, millions of Syrians were fleeing the brutal civil war in their country, mostly to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. 

Sara saw an opportunity to provide an income to displaced people through an online teaching service that would connect Syrians with learners from around the world, and decided to establish NaTakallam.

The company now works with over 100 conversation teachers and provides Arabic language courses in partnership with Cornell University in the US.

NaTakallam has subsequently expanded to include Persian, Spanish and French, hiring displaced people from Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Central America.

Shadi Khaled is one of NaTakallam’s dozens of refugee employees.

Shadi was a music teacher in northern Syria when the war forced him and his family to seek refuge in neighbouring Iraq in 2013.

Despite this, Shadi found his teaching qualifications were not recognized by authorities in northern Iraq. 

Shadi Khaled at his home in northern Iraq
Photo: Shadi Khaled

After almost four years of working in a variety of jobs, including carpentry, he was hired by NaTakallam in 2017 as a language teacher.

Shadi now conducts online conversation classes in Arabic to students around the world from his home in a refugee camp near the Iraqi-Kurdish city of Erbil.

“The best thing about the programme is that it gives students an opportunity to practice their language skills and allows teachers to provide for themselves and their families,” he said.

“At the moment I currently have ten students, some of who are now fluent in Arabic. We do grammar and vocabulary along with discussions about various topics like politics, economics and history.”

Many displaced Syrians in the Middle East are unable to work due to a lack of work permits and other impediments.

As a result, millions of people, often highly educated, are reduced to handouts and cash in hand labour jobs. 

NaTakallam allows displaced Syrians to overcome some of these obstacles by providing them with an income.

For example, Shadi is unable to send and receive bank transfers due to his refugee status in Iraq, but can now get paid by NaTakallam through the local Western Union.

According to Shadi, the coronavirus crisis has increased demand for classes, as learners seek to make use of their free time.

“The situation here in Northern Iraq is the same as other countries, we’ve been partially on lockdown, giving us more free time. 

“Since the coronavirus crisis began many of my students are calling me from around the world and saying ‘we have extra time now, it’s a good opportunity for us to do extra practice’,” he added.

NaTakallam founder Aline Sara
Photo: NaTakallam

Shadi uses his income from NaTakallam to provide for his wife and two children, who have also gotten to know some of the Arabic learners.

“My students speak with my family and I with theirs. Our lessons are an exchange in cultures and traditions,” Shadi added.

“We are not just teachers and students, our bond is greater than that. I tell my students not to be shy in asking anything from me, we are like family and it’s common to keep in touch after a course has come to an end.

“Natakallam has been my window to the world, each program allows me to travel the globe.”

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