Albertans seek language training for host of reasons

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A few weeks ago I received an email from a student at Sultan Education Academy, or SEA, expressing how this small privately-owned school based around the teachings of learning Arabic was under-recognized by the public.

I was immediately intrigued to hear as to why this story needed to be told. So, I contacted owner and founder Sultan Kaddoura, 38, and student Erin Van Overloop, to set up interviews.

In that initial telephone conversation with Kaddoura, he quietly reminded me that it’s not in Islamic religion for Muslim men to shake the hands of women as a sign of respect. This way when I arrived I wouldn’t be put off by the refusal to shake my hand when being introduced.

“It’s keeping a so-called polite distance,” he said.

This was the start to being educated on a religion I honestly know very little about.

Kaddoura’s story

At the age of two, Kaddoura came to Canada with his parents from Lebanon, and has lived in Calgary and the United States ever since spending about 10 of those years based in Philadelphia.

While living in the U.S., he worked in prisons teaching religion to inmates who were converting to Islam. He explained that in addition to converting to Islam, they also wanted to learn Arabic, the traditional language associated with Islam.

In addition to Islam converts, Kaddoura began to see that they weren’t the only ones interested in learning Arabic.

“Closing communication gaps is a huge start in bringing together opinions and culture amongst others.”
—Ashley Titus
Project management consultant for oil and gas

In 2004, Kaddoura established a school that is still operating under his supervision in Chandler, Arizona. From there he expanded Sultan Education Academy into Calgary in September 2010, located at 201 1440 17th Ave. S.W. on the top floor above Chianti’s restaurant, offering an open environment for his students to learn effectively. The open space is clad with authentic tapestries, drums and custom-made art.

Kaddoura wanted to teach youth and adults how to speak Arabic while understanding the culture, since his educational background is in Islamic theology. His goal is to provide a simplified and structured program for teaching Arabic to help others feel less isolated from their language and spiritual heritage.

Islamic teachings are separate from the Arabic language training programs but they’re offered independently for both adults and youths interested in learning about the Islamic religion.

The rewards of teaching Arabic

“Knowing that you were the reason for [a student’s] learning is rewarding,” Kaddoura said.


The class sizes are kept to an eight-person max to ensure quality of learning.
Photo by: Andrea Dion
“I love what I do, and I can see myself doing this for the rest of my life. I don’t ever want to retire.”

Kaddoura said that learning a new language requires a six-to-12 month commitment to become comfortable and confident. He said this tends to cause people to shy away from the opportunity.

The cost of the Arabic language courses varies for youths and adults. For the adults, prices range from $150 a month for the first three levels, $55 an hour for private language instruction or $1,000 for three months in the intensive short course.

But he pointed out the benefit of being fluent in a second language such as Arabic offers greater opportunity for travel, work and cultural reasons.

An outsider’s perspective

Ashley Titus, 53, is a project management consultant for oil and gas in the petrochemical sector. He has been located in Doha, Qatar for over 20 years.

Titus is able to speak conversational Arabic locally and learned Hindi in school. He said that having these languages have benefited him while working abroad.

“Learning Arabic in this country is essential in the services and hospitality sector.

“Closing communication gaps is a huge start in bringing together opinions and culture amongst others,” Titus said in an email.

Titus explains the process that evolves as a result of taking up a language when working in another country.

“While job skills take precedence in achieving objectives the added language brings on board the communication necessary to achieve [better work communication],” he said.

Red Deer woman learns Arabic

Erin Van Overloop is a 30-year-old student at the SEA. She was born and raised in Red Deer AB, and converted to Islam four years ago, inspiring her desire to be able to read the Qur’an in its original text. She is an avid traveler and currently works as a planner for AltaLink in Calgary.

“When you convert to a religion, I think you’re more motivated to learn about it. Whereas someone who was born into it may take it for granted,” she said.


Van Overloop converted to Islam four years ago, inspiring her desire to learn Arabic.
Photo by: Andrea Dion
Van Overloop spoke passionately about what she has taken away from Kaddoura’s classes through his simple yet effective teaching methods.

“[Sultan] teaches us the basics of classical Arabic; because once you have that foundation you can then build on it to learn the slang.

“He focuses on speaking, reading, writing and comprehension,” she said.

The class sizes are kept to an eight-person max to ensure quality of learning and allow ongoing dialogue among the students. This facilitates in grasping the language quicker.

“I don’t have a brain geared towards learning a new language and some people just have a knack for that,” Van Overloop said.

“There are people in the school that have picked it up and it’s motivating to see them learn so fast.”

When asked why else she had a keen interest to learn Arabic, Van Overloop simply said that she wanted to be able to carry out a basic conversation when she travels over to the Middle East again after having already visited Egypt three times.

“There was nothing more discouraging and infuriating then not being able to speak the language, and having to rely on a translator,” she said.

“You lose that connection with the person and their culture when you can’t communicate with them.”

An Arabic future

Kaddoura hopes to shed light on Islamic religion while drawing attention to the positives of their culture. He aims to focus less on the negative perceptions that are projected to Western culture through the media.


“Because of all the negative things that are happening when people hear Arab, they think of terrorism or violence, they don’t think the most positive thoughts. I want to dispel of that. I want to build friendships with people who are non-Arab and motivate them to learn.Kaddoura hopes to shed light on Islamic religion while drawing attention to the positives of their culture.
Photo by: Andrea Dion

“I want people to be informed about the positive and true image of the religion which is not extreme, it’s not going out to kill everybody and eat lunch. We know that we live in a diverse world and we have to co-exist with everybody,” he said.

As I finished off the last few sips of my Turkish coffee, I felt I had truly taken something away from the conversation I had with Kaddoura and Van Overloop a few days prior.

Kaddoura’s easygoing personality and fervour to inspire others to learn was admirable.

He told me the purpose of his institute is to influence others, hopefully prompting them to engage in the culture and learn about something they too could become passionate about. I packed up my camera and recorder then proceeded to thank him for his time. I went to extend my hand out as a kind gesture then quickly remembered our chat previously and self-consciously placed it back in my pocket, and left.

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