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Mobile app teaches Lebanese dialect

Keefak featured on The Daily Star on July 11, 2012.

BEIRUT: Leaving one’s homeland for another country to escape civil instability, experience something new, or search for job opportunities often leads to a tug of war between the cultural values and practices of one’s place of origin and those of one’s new environment.

Language is the arena where the struggle is arguably thrown into starkest relief. Should second-generation immigrants hold fast to their parents’ mother tongue in the face of a society that has little use for it?

The question exercises the minds of many in the Lebanese diaspora, estimated to total some 15 million people – a huge number, considering that the population of Lebanon itself totals around 4 million.

“When my daughter was born, it made me think about the number of Lebanese who grow up and live outside Lebanon and how many lose touch with the Lebanese language,” reflects Hadi el-Khoury, an information security expert currently based in France.

“I have met a lot of people who regret not transmitting their mother tongue to their children. This was my inspiration.”

Khoury is the developer of “Keefak,” a mobile application available on iOS and Android that is designed to teach users the Lebanese dialect of Arabic.

“Once I had the idea, I thought – why not?” recalls Khoury. “The smart phone seemed the most appropriate format since they are becoming so ubiquitous. I gathered the team and we got to work.”

The “Keefak” application currently retails at $4.99; once the initial application is downloaded, all further updates are free. Since it was launched in January 2012, there have been over 1,000 downloads.

“Keefak” is divided into courses, with each course containing four components: Vocabulary, Dialogue, Grammar and Exercises. There are currently 15 courses available, all of which focus on developing rudimentary day-to-day conversational Lebanese Arabic.

In addition to Khoury, three people were involved in the development of “Keefak.” Khoury’s brother Joseph developed it for use with iOS applications, Rawad Rahme ensured its compatibility with Android applications, and Antoine Fleyfel took charge of language instruction.

Khoury explains that one of the central obstacles faced during the design process was combining Fleyfel’s expertise as a teacher and author of books on the Lebanese dialect with a sleek, user-friendly format that would work across different devices using different software.

“We had a few difficulties during the development stage, but we were able to overcome them,” the developer of “Keefak” said.

The “Keefak” team aims to devise an additional five new courses every month until September, when more advanced courses will be introduced.

September is also when the Spanish and Portuguese versions of “Keefak” will be inaugurated, a development that will help Khoury’s foray into South America, home to a huge Lebanese diaspora. Currently, the application is available in English and French with Lebanese Arabic transliterated in Latin characters.

A further aim is to develop a more child-friendly version of the application featuring a likable fictional character, more interactive game-centric learning exercises, and an overall injection of color.

“Something to get the kids excited about when they get back from school,” Khoury says somewhat optimistically.

While Khoury admits that sales so far have not been spectacular, he maintains that the Keefak application has huge potential, not just in terms of its primary target market – the Lebanese diaspora – but among tourists, aspiring Arabists in Western universities, and spouses of Lebanese seeking to communicate with their in-laws.

Khoury also says that he and his team are gratified by the fact that their endeavor is serving to re-establish bonds between Lebanese and their homeland.

“Languages open doors and our application can reconnect people who left Lebanon for whatever reason. It is incredibly rewarding when you are helping people reconnect [with Lebanon],” says Khoury – noting in particular the satisfaction derived when positive feedback is given on the “Keefak” Facebook page.

And there is definitely always room for progress.

“We also appreciate the constructive criticism, because it helps us improve the program and adapt to what people want,” observes Khoury.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 11, 2012, on page 2.

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