A Saudi woman who is passionate in making a difference in the lives of students to help them achieve their true potential especially when learning foreign languages; Dr. Taghreed Alsaraj earned both a Bachelor and a Masters in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) from the University of Miami, Florida. She earned her Ph.D. from UCL Institute of Education, University of London.
Dr. Taghreed is an international educational researcher in applied linguistics, a best-selling author, and an entrepreneur. She is the founder and director of EducateRight an educational consultancy and women’s leadership coaching company. Dr. Al-Saraj is a trilingual and has strong communication skills, a public speaker, a self-motivated leader, and a great multi-cultural team worker. She has vast experience with different educational systems around the world including USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Japan. Her areas of expertise include research, teacher training, program analysis, and problem-solving for different educational institutions around the world. Her team leadership quality ensures that projects are completed within the specified time without having to compromise on quality.
Arab Woman Mag had the honor to interview Dr. Taghreed to be enlightened by her expertise and learn more about her bestselling book “The Anxious Language Learner: A Saudi Woman’s Story.
My parents are the driving force in my education while I was growing up. My father, a Saudi military diplomat, was stationed all over the world, and we used to move around a lot growing up. He would never let me be absent from school. If I complained about not feeling well to go to school, he would ask me, “Are you dying? If not, then you are going to school.” Moreover, my mother has and continues to be my greatest mentor. She got married very young, but managed to continue her education and received an undergraduate degree while raising 4 kids all while moving around the world wherever my father was stationed. Her determination to continue her education was very clear for her. Growing up and seeing how my father supported my mother to continue her education and seeing my mom’s determination had a great impact on me.
Being a Saudi woman what were some of the challenges you faced studying abroad?
I grew up living around the world because of my father’s work as a young child, so living abroad was something normal to me. I never really had any challenges per se. I think the exposure to different cultures at a very young age actually helped me be the person that I am today. I have become a multi-cultured person that can adapt to different cultures easily. I learned to appreciate our differences as well as our similarities.
As a successful career woman what keeps you motivated? What is your support system?
What keeps me motivated is that I do what I love! Doing what you love is a blessing as well as a great motivator. So, if you get a pat on the shoulder or a praise, that’s just icing on the cake. As for my support system, I think I would say my personality. I am an optimist by nature and love to look at the glass half full, but still acknowledging that it is somewhat empty. I naturally start to think of how to make it all full. I love the quote by Winston Churchill, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”
As for an external support system, that would have to be my mother who is also my mentor. I grew up seeing her determination, so it was natural for me to push forward and keep doing what I am doing.
What made you choose your career choice, why applied linguistics?
I love languages. I love the rhythms, sounds and the intonations of different languages. I love to research why people do what they do while learning a language. I love to help them in learning new languages. Learning a new language doesn’t just entails learning the meanings of the words that are spoken in that language and making sense of what is being said; rather, learning a new language involves also learning about the culture of that language in order to function in the language. Learning the culture along with the language fosters tolerance. Tolerance is just what this world needs, so we can live in peace and harmony with each other regardless of our differences in views, values or religion. I find that fascinating, don’t you?
Can you tell us about your book?
My book is about how language anxiety can negatively affect the language learner, and I coach the reader of how to overcome this anxiety, so they can go on and learn more than one language. The book is based on my research on this topic, but I wrote it in a non-academic style. The book is full of my stories as well as my research participants’ stories and reflections to illustrate points in order for the reader to understand the topic or relate to it. A lot of people have language anxiety, but they do not know that they have it. They simply choose or find excuses not to learn a language all together rather than deal with the anxiety. Reading about these stories of anxiety can put things in perspective and make the reader realize why they do not want to learn a new language and how to overcome this anxiety.
The book also includes my own personal journey of learning my third language, Turkish. I took myself as a subject for my own research. This book was in the plans for over a year and a half not to mention the time to write it. I wanted to see for myself first-hand what my research participants went through while learning a new language and maybe feel the anxiety that affected them.
I am also an international certified coach and I wanted to help the reader to learn a new language, so I end the book with coaching techniques to help the reader lower their anxiety level and set goals and targets to learn the new language. So not only do I tell the story of anxiety, but also I bring it to life with stories of my life as well as other language students’ lives, and finally I give solutions.
Why do some students suffer anxiety when learning a new language?
Not everyone suffers from language anxiety, but the majority does for many reasons. Many factors come to play to bring up anxiety. It could be that they are pressured to learn the new language within a specific time that is unrealistic for them, or they feel that they are stuck in their career if they do not learn this language to get a better job. Another reason that can bring up anxiety is that our minds play tricks on us and make us see the new language is an obstacle that I “have to” pass through. So the minute we say “have to,” then we get stuck. When we get stuck, we resort to different solutions that may not be the best for us. Students might resort to memorization just to pass exams which the info gets deleted from their memory as soon as the exam is finished or soon after that. So the knowledge is never retained. Language learning should be an enjoyable process. Language learning should be a “want to” rather than a “have to” process.
What are a few tips you can give students to help overcome their anxiety when learning a new language?
I developed the SPEAK method to help students or language lovers to learn a new language as well as have fun doing it, because having fun and enjoying the process is what language learning should be all about.
- S - Select a language that interests you.
- P - Prep yourself on how the language works and how the people Interact with each other by watching them on TV and in movies.
- E - Expect and Embrace that you may feel or look silly along the way – it’s OK!
- A - Apply the words whenever you can and engage with others who speak the language
- K - Keep going and do not get discouraged!
I am slowly but steadily starting a new blog on my website, www.EducateRight.com that I will share info, tips or answer questions in order for the language learner to enjoy learning the new language and lower the anxiety associated with it and continues to reach the goal.
Can the advice you share in your book be applied to learning any foreign language?
Yes! The tips and coaching can be applied to any language being learned. I address the strategies that might help language learning regardless of the language being learned.
What age is best to learn a new language? Is it possible to learn a new language at an older age?
There is no ideal age to learn a language. I always say anyone can learn a language at any age. But research shows us that younger kids can pick up the language easier and faster. So the more language they are exposed to, the better it is for them. With practice, the kids can then distinguish the languages from each other. Take for example a French mother married to an Italian father and living in America. If the mother talks French to the child and the father talks Italian to the child, then the child will be able to speak two languages at home. Then when the child goes to school they can speak English. I am not saying that the child will be proficient in all 3 languages equally, but they will have a working knowledge of French and Italian, but the dominant one will be English as it is the one studied formally in school. I always say the younger the better because children are less likely to suffer from anxiety as this comes at a later stage in life. As adults, we become inhibited of what others think of us if we make mistakes when learning a new language. We constantly forget how we learned our first language as babies…. trial and error!
For not so young people, of course language learning can still be done. I have a colleague who is working with me at University of California Berkeley who is in his 60’s learning Japanese. Furthermore, research has not showed that older age has a major effect on language learning. We can do anything we put our minds to. If we keep that in mind, anything can be done… be it language learning or anything else. It just means that we have to be motivated enough to stick to the goal of language learning.
What advice would you give for someone who wants to learn a new language, but think it is not possible or too late?
Nothing is too late! As long as we are breathing in this life, and we have the will to do something, then it can be done. I am an international certified coach and work with clients around the world, and my number one question to them is, “what is your motive to …?” It can be to learn a new language or do anything in life. I need them to connect the motive with the task, so they can continue to do what they want. It might be that they are planning a trip to France in 6 months. They want to at least function in the language before they go. So, we now have a time line, a goal, and a task to work towards. Now it is all a matter of logistics to get it done. I am over simplifying the process, but really if we can play tricks on our mind that this will be a piece of cake, then it will be a piece of cake.
In your opinion why is it important to learn other languages?
I mentioned before that language learning promotes tolerance and understanding in our world, but it also allows for greater communication with other people. Can you imagine if you had 3 or 4 languages under your belt? How many people can you communicate with in this world? A lot, I am sure! This can be for either social or business communication. It can leave positive impressions in working relations with companies around the world. The possibilities are endless…
From your expert opinion how long does it take to master a new language?
There is no set time per se that you can master a language. We are all individuals that have our own pace. We all have different motives to learning a language. That motive can either push you to learn faster or take your time in learning a new language. Another factor is if you are immersed in the target language to be learned. For example, if you live in a country where you hear the target language to be learned around you constantly and not just only in language class, then I am sure you will learn the language faster than just hearing the target language a couple of hours per week in class. That makes a big difference in the pace of language learning because you are more immersed in the language you want to learn. This entails that you will be practicing whatever you learned in class. This would be the ideal situation to learn a language.
It took me over a year and a half to learn Turkish for the sake of writing my book, The Anxious Language Learner, and I still wouldn’t consider myself as a fluent Turkish speaker as much as I would like. I know that it could have been much faster and easier for me to learn Turkish if I was either living a couple of months in Turkey or had lots of Turkish friends to practice my Turkish with them. I knew what I was getting into when I chose to learn Turkish, but I still went ahead with it for the sake of research. Another reason for choosing to learn Turkish was very interesting/ amusing, and I dedicate an entire chapter in the book for how Turkey has taken the Arab world by storm. I managed to find a motivation for me to continue learning the language. Yes, the reasons could be amusing to the reader, but hay…at least I have a motive to keep me going and keep learning Turkish! I won’t say more about that. I don’t want to burn the story for the interested readers out there.
Finally what advice would you offer for girls/or women who want to enter this field of study?
My number one advice would be in the form of a question that I always ask while I am coaching my female clients to get them thinking deeply, “Why do you want to enter this field or any field for that matter?” As a female leadership coach, I work on individual differences as well as motivation, and I know from experience if you don’t have a strong motive to do something, then it wouldn’t be done or it would be half done. You need to honestly ask yourself, why did I choose what I chose as a career path or job or anything in life. Only you can honestly answer that question. There is no good or bad motive for doing the things you do. What’s bad for me could be good for someone else. We are not put on this earth to judge people with our individual values. In the end, we need to choose something that will make us happy doing it and wouldn’t mind that it might take over a big portion of our lives doing it. As I always say, as long as it makes you happy and not harm others, then go for it!