AMES, Iowa – An Iowa State University Ph.D. student will travel to Jordan next year to lay the groundwork for educational tools that could help people all over the world learn an Arabic dialect spoken from Syria to Jordan.
Andrea Flinn, a graduate student in English studying applied linguistics and technology at Iowa State, was selected for the prestigious Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program. The program, administered by the Department of Education, provides grants to colleges and universities to fund doctoral students who conduct research in other countries in modern foreign languages, social sciences, humanities and related areas of study. The projects funded by the program focus on areas of the world not generally studied in U.S. schools.
Flinn, a native of San Diego, came to Iowa State to complete a dissertation on Levantine Arabic, a dialect spoken in the Levant, a geographical area that includes parts of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. Her dissertation could help develop educational tools for learning the dialect, which could improve the delivery of humanitarian aid to parts of the region and help immigrants settle in new locations.
Flinn explained that learning tools focus overwhelmingly on what linguists refer to as Modern Standard Arabic, a literary form of the language used in print, academia and official documents. But the language is far more diverse than Modern Standard Arabic, Flinn said. There are multiple dialects with enough differences that a dialect commonly spoken in one country might not be well understood in another.
“There’s Modern Standard Arabic, and there’s the language of the street,” she said. “There’s a need for more Arabic speakers, so this kind of research will be useful in the world of humanitarian aid. Aid workers could benefit from having better resources to learn these dialects, which will lead to more effective communication.”
While in Jordan, Flinn will interview a wide range of people who speak Levantine Arabic. She’ll work with authors, actors, film directors and people who develop learning tools in the dialect, and she’ll assemble a library of texts and audio designed to represent the breadth of Levantine Arabic. From there, she’ll use a computer program to identify the most used vocabulary words. This is a linguistics method applied to English decades ago but has never been applied to Levantine Arabic, Flinn said. That database of common vocabulary can inform the design and development of learning tools to help others speak the dialect.
Flinn got her first experience with the dialect about a decade ago during a study abroad program in Oman while an undergraduate at Middlebury College in Vermont. She had been participating in the Air Force ROTC program but discovered a love for learning and teaching foreign languages while studying in Oman. Since then, she’s been working to master Levantine Arabic. Flinn came to Iowa State in part because the program in which she enrolled granted her the flexibility to accept an opportunity to spend a year studying in Jordan with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, a program administered by Harvard.
The Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad
In 2022, the U.S. Department of Education funded 177 fellows from 54 institutions through the Fulbright Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program. The average funding amount for each fellow is around $38,000, according to the Department of Education, and fellows completed research projects across the globe.
Flinn had to complete an extensive application to be considered for the program, including a proposed budget for her research project. John Milstead, Iowa State’s coordinator of nationally competitive awards, said Flinn’s proposal stood out for its well-crafted research approach to an important and understudied topic.
“The Fulbright Hays DDRA program is the gold standard for someone in Andrea’s field of study. It doesn’t get any better,” Milstead said. “Andrea’s proposal is a sound research plan on an important and timely topic. She wrote an excellent proposal from start to finish.”
Bethany Gray, a professor of English who advises Flinn as her major professor, applauded Flinn’s selection for the fellowship and praised her focus and tireless scholastic effort.
“Andrea’s research on Levantine Arabic will contribute substantially to scholarship not only on the teaching of less-commonly taught languages, but also to the teaching of a dialect of Arabic spoken by over 40 million people worldwide,” Gray said. “This Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship is a reflection of her drive and her commitment to conducting her research in the most principled way possible – empirically and embedded within the language and cultural context of Levantine Arabic speakers.”