Iraq, Czech Republic, East Timor, Sudan — a U of M professor uses the English language
to bridge cultural gaps and enhance learning skills all across the world.
By Sara Hoover
The passport of Charles Hall, associate professor of applied linguistics in the College
of Arts & Sciences, is a nightmare for customs officers. He’s been to Syria, Algeria,
Eritria, Yemen and almost every Arab country — all on official business for the United
States government. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t slow down the immigration line.
Hall, an expert in legal English and curriculum development, has served as a consultant
for the U.S. Department of State for the past 15 years, working with more than 30
countries. This past summer, he spent a month in Iraq implementing an exchange program
with the University of Memphis and the University of Dohuk in Dohuk, Kurdistan, a
part of northern Iraq. Because the region is so isolated, Hall was brought in to do
needs analysis in pedagogy and curriculum development.
“Kurdistan has been basically isolated from the rest of Iraq for 20 years,” says Hall.
“My role was to look at their curriculum and discuss with the faculty what is the
purpose of teaching. Help them look at the way they taught and look at the way they
can involve their students more in the process of education.” Hall actually taught
several classes so he could serve as an example of interactive teaching.
“Much of the world is still based on a teacher-centered model: the teacher stands
in front of the room for three hours. We’re trying to help people understand that
it should be a learning-centered classroom.
|Hall (right) with a visiting scholar from Tufts University and a staff member of the
University of Dohuk at the traditional Badinan city gate of Amedi. Photos by Chris
“My job is not to go in as what’s called a helicoptered consultant where they sort
of air drop you in and solve all their problems, but to go in more as we all share
common problems and how can we work together to solve them. Every country I work in,
one of my basic goals is to help (the people) understand the value of transparency
and discussion. We may not reach a solution that makes everyone happy, but if we don’t
talk about it, we’ll never get there.”
Hall says because the area is so far removed from the rest of Iraq, he doesn’t encounter
“Kurdistan is completely safe. It’s a multicultural, multireligious society. I worked
with Muslims, Christians and a religion only found among the Kurds called Yazidi.
Arabic is still spoken but young people only speak Kurdish, so this is a very interesting
The program is currently seeking volunteers to work either for a semester or a year
“The Iraqi government is providing scholarships for thousands of Iraqis to come to
the U.S. We are hoping that we will be able to provide an appropriate and welcoming
home for many of these Iraqi scholarship students. It is really wonderful to bring
international students to Memphis, but from my perspective, it is more important to
help Memphians to meet, cooperate and engage with people in other parts of the world.”
U of M doctoral student Chris Hastings spent two weeks in the Iraqi city of Erbil
conducting intensive teacher training with the Ministry of Education. He says he found
his students eager to experience outside influences.
“They are anxious to have people come over and be connected to the outside world,”
says Hastings (BA ’00, MA ’04). “They’re anxious to develop their schools and infrastructure,
and to move forward. Partnerships like this will help them to do so. It’s a great
experience for American exchange students to go over and see something other than
what we see on the news, to see the human side, daily life of people living in and
building up their country.”
Hall got involved as a consultant by accident.
“Fifteen years ago, a lawyer who wanted to travel the world teaching English came
to get her master’s degree,” say Hall. “We both realized that there was a need for
international materials on teaching legal English around the world. She and I have
co-authored a couple of books and articles and worked on programs in many countries.
It was a nice synchronicity of her talents, my talents and a real need in the world.”
Since then, Hall continues to average two programs a year for the U.S. State Department.
The English professor is no stranger to initiating overseas programs. He co-founded
the International Summer Language School in Pilsen, Czech Republic, 20 years ago.
While in the Fulbright Scholar Program in the Czech Republic, Hall came up with the
idea of an English-language exchange program.
“Immediately after the Velvet Revolution (that overthrew the authoritarian government
in 1989), people needed English so they could learn to communicate internationally.
It began as what was going to be intensive English for faculty and students at this
small university in Pilsen for a couple of years. Since then, it has become a large,
20-nation school with 600 to 700 people every summer who are studying six different
languages. Most specifically for the U of M, the students go to learn how to teach
English as a foreign language. On day three, they are already responsible for 45 minutes
of their own class, teaching 15 to 20 mainly Czech students.”
|A group of future English teachers at the University of Dohuk.
The program is presented in collaboration with the University of West Bohemia, which
recently honored Hall with an honorary doctorate for his 20 years of service.
The program hosts 20 to 25 U of M students each summer, but also people from other
universities. And learning isn’t the only thing that develops from the program.
“We’ve had several marriages, children, an adoption, people who’ve moved to the Czech
Republic and to the United States. The exciting thing about the Czech program is often
when Americans go on an international program, they only have classes with and hang
out with Americans. In the Czech program, they are instantly immersed. They live with,
teach and spend every evening with internationals.”
Emily Thrush, a U of M professor of English, participated in the Czech program in
“It was a place we had been forbidden to go to our whole lives, so it was amazing
to be there,” she says. “Students have gone and it’s a life-changing experience. I
took my daughter the second year. She was in college and liked it so much she decided
to get a master’s in teaching English. She went to Lithuania to teach and came back
with a husband.”
The program is open to U of M students and the public. Participants receive a teaching
English certificate that is valid internationally.
Hall’s work can have immense international significance. He traveled to South Sudan
after the African country made English the official language of its legal system.
He worked with the Ministry for Constitutional Law, helping prepare curriculum tools
to increase the proficiency and knowledge of their lawyers in English. In 2011, South
Sudan will hold a referendum to decide if it wishes to remain part of Sudan or to
become independent. The change to English is part of that process.
|Hall (right) with members of the English department at the University of Dohuk in
Kurdistan, Iraq. Photos by Chris Hastings.
While there, he experienced the turmoil a developing nation can have.
“Unfortunately, the regional Ministry of Education was located next to the national
Constitution of Education where I was. When the students and teachers stoned the Ministry
of Education, they didn’t realize the next ministry was not the same. They broke all
the windows in my office and hit me with stones. It was an accident. They did not
mean to hurt me.”
Hall also spent time in the world’s newest country, East Timor. Because of the colonial
history of East Timor, very few people speak English. The official language is Portuguese
and their own native language.
“Because it’s the newest country, they’re still trying to put together their government.
They have no infrastructure. That’s part of my job, to help bring transparency and
develop the skills and proficiencies in legal English so that they can take advantage
of international training courses.”
In the northern reaches of Eastern Europe, Hall has been working in Estonia as part
of Language for Law, which brings together legal professionals and language teachers
from 15 different European countries. Estonia, a former member of the Soviet-bloc,
is a two-culture country of Russians and Estonians.
“Much of the work I do is in multicultural societies that are historically now working
toward figuring out how to live together. They share different backgrounds, different
beliefs, different values and different languages usually. My work in providing them
a common neutral language, English, is essential to giving them a way to meet symbolically
in the middle of the bridge.”
This summer, Hall is implementing a new study abroad program in Alicante, Spain, with
U of M creative writing professor Dr. John Bensko.
“We’ll be teaching English and Spanish as first and second languages and translating
English and Spanish poetry as a means of teaching language,” Hall says.
Hall, who speaks German, French, Dutch, Swedish, Czech and “perfect bad Chinese,”
never knows what’s next for him.
“I never know where I’m going to go because my field is a crisis-driven field. I could
receive a phone call to go to anywhere.”
He seems to take it all in stride and never lets it deter him from his main focus
— his U of M students.
“In the 25 years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen a wonderful transformation at the
U of M in which we encourage and support internationalization and that’s really exciting.
My goal is to make sure every Memphian has a chance to explore the world.”