ASU student overcomes speech difficulty, earns doctorate in linguistics

Courtesy photo of graduating ASU student Umar Sulayman

As an instructor in Arabic for the School of International Letters and Cultures, Umar Sulayman he built the ARB 394 Iraqi Culture and Society class, a popular course that often fills quickly.


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2021 graduates.

Umar Sulayman loves linguistics so much that he sometimes corrects his American friends’ English usage — perhaps unexpected, as English is one of Sulayman’s second languages.

“They look at me like, ‘Oh, so you’re a linguist so you’re going to teach us how to speak now?’” he said with a laugh, but it sort of wasn’t a joke.

“I, like, really love syntax,” he added.

Graduating this fall with a PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics from Arizona State University’s Department of English, Sulayman’s journey to a doctorate has been eventful one. It began in his native Iraq, where he struggled with a speech difficulty while growing up.

Still, Sulayman loved language. That love helped led him to apply, successfully, for a Fulbright scholarship, which took him directly from Baghdad to Pennsylvania.

There were a few stops between there and ASU — we’ll let Sulayman tell you more about them himself — but eventually, he arrived in Arizona to teach English for ASU Global Launch.

With mentorship from Associate Professor Souad Ali, the faculty head of the Middle Eastern and classics program, Sulayman became an instructor in Arabic for the School of International Letters and Cultures (SILC). In that role, he built SILC’s ARB 394 Iraqi Culture and Society class, a popular course that often fills quickly.

“My goal for this course is the same as the mission of ASU: to make students think critically, outside the box. To make them question things,” he told ASU News in 2020. “My students are often fascinated by how complicated the Iraqi society is, with all the different minority groups and varying beliefs and political associations.”

This past Nov. 2, Sulayman successfully defended his dissertation, “Adverb(ial)s in Iraqi Arabic: Cinque's Functional Hierarchy.” The research investigates parts of speech in Arabic using a linguistic framework originally developed for the Italian language. Sulayman thrives on these kinds of cross-cultural connections and revels in opening others’ minds to them as well.

We recently sat down over Zoom to find out more about Sulayman’s path to a PhD and his plans after graduation.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I was always intrigued by languages. I grew up with a speech difficulty, so I always valued language, and I wanted to overcome the speech difficulty that I had for all my school years. My home country is Iraq, and usually kids in Iraq start taking like English classes at the age of 9, in middle school and high school. It's kind of like the second recognized language of Iraq.

I ended up at the Department of English in Baghdad, and I took my first course in linguistics and I was charmed — I would say — by the different subfields of linguistics. I was charmed by how we encode all these sounds that we make as humans and we communicate ideas and emotions.

So I started learning about different fields, and I actually realized that when I was a child, I used to sort of parse words. I would actually try to parse an English word and see if it had any connections to any words in my native language, which is Arabic.

Both of my parents are teachers. I always wanted to teach people how to speak. So the moment I graduated, I started teaching English as a second language.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: Well, I like how student-centered the classes are. And of course, I like the diversity that I found in the PhD program with students from different backgrounds, different nationalities. It taught me to be inclusive.

Just in the English department, (Regents Professor) Elly van Gelderen herself is a second-language learner — a learner of English, not a native speaker. That actually helped me a lot. I thought, “I could do that.”

(As a member of the SILC faculty), I also became the coordinator of the language fair. So I wanted to communicate to the high school students who come to campus every single year that they can experience and get to know and meet faculty members in the different languages we offer at ASU, and how wonderful, how diverse ASU is and accepting of people of different backgrounds, nationalities and languages.

I was admitted to other schools in my PhD, but I would never regret the fact that I actually stayed at ASU because I really love how involved the classrooms are, and love the diversity of perspectives that I got from my classmates.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I took my first master’s in linguistics back in Baghdad, and I started teaching English as a second language. I received a Fulbright scholarship back in 2006.

So I ended up in Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and I received a second master's in teaching English for students of other languages. And I was admitted to the PhD program at IUP, but I didn't want to continue with that because I always wanted to go back to linguistics.

So I started teaching. I got my first job in Ohio, and I taught English for specific purposes and then there was a need at Ohio Northern University to start the Arabic program. So, I built the curriculum for the Arabic program there, and then in 2014, I started actually looking for schools to apply for my PhD. ASU was on the top of the list.

So I taught English for Global Launch and then the Arabic department (in SILC) contacted me to teach a summer class. The class was so successful that they invited me to (permanently) move over and teach Arabic. Then there was an opportunity for me to teach an introduction to linguistics class, and so I jumped and said, “Yes, I'll teach it!”

I started my PhD in 2016.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I would say Elly van Gelderen. I know how busy her schedule is and how many students she works with. I am fortunate to have her as an adviser. Of course, I love syntax so I loved taking her classes, and all the discussions. She was always there for me, and that's how I want to view myself as a teacher. I mean, she is my model. I need to be there for my students — especially now, through the pandemic and teaching over Zoom and dealing with students’ different circumstances. (Van Gelderen) taught me to be there, no matter how busy you are. A student deserves a teacher who is there to answer questions, to help, to offer advice.

Right from Day 1, she became a mentor, more than just a teacher. The day that I actually met her, I went to her office and I said, “I’m really interested in pursuing my PhD, and this is my research.” She gave me a couple of books, and said, “OK, go have a look, and if you would like to come back and discuss your research interests more, I will be happy to do that.” And I did. And the more I actually have discussions with her, the more I actually learn, not only about syntax, but about teaching as a profession and how sacred this profession is.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: When I was in Iraq, and I was in the process of applying for my Fulbright scholarship, I came across a quote, and I think it was by someone like the Liberian president (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf). She said, at some point, “If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough.”

So at that time, I was really scared when I walked to the American Embassy in Iraq to do the interview. I was like, “Well, this is a big step. I'm going to the U.S. where English is spoken as the native language.” Of course, I speak with an accent and the English I studied in Iraq was British English. But it was a lifelong dream of mine — to study in a foreign country.

So I received the Fulbright scholarship and I did my master’s and I was successful and I was admitted to the PhD program there (in teaching English), and I said, “No, I don't want to do that.” I wanted to be a linguist more than a teacher.

I tell my students, “Always dream big. Don’t say, ‘Well, I'm not going to be able to do this.’ Just do your best.” I always I tell them: “Do not compete with other students; compete with yourself. How much can you push yourself to the limit? Believe in yourself.”

No one can make you believe in yourself; you have to make yourself believe in yourself, and that’s the key to success. Sometimes I disclose in my classes that I was bullied because of my speech disorder. Now, look at me: I’m 42, and I’m teaching people how to speak.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: My favorite spot for power studying is Hayden Library.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I (jokingly) told my family, I said, “Oh, maybe I need to start another PhD.”

I do have a minor in German, so I would love to work on my German. I took some Spanish classes, but my Spanish is really bad, so I need to go back and do that. I love teaching people English, so I would love to do another Fulbright in a third-world country and serve poor communities. I like to have my students see how similar people are. No matter where you live, people have feelings, have emotions, have dreams, and they all would like to provide for their families and they all would like to be successful. So, I would love to share my experience as somebody who came from a war-torn country with a speech disorder and who is now at one of the biggest schools in the U.S. No dream is too big if you work hard.

I would love to also teach people about the richness of Arabic culture and history, and shatter the stereotypes that the media has unfortunately portrayed of the Arabs.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would want to train more teachers, make education as affordable as possible and, of course, teach people different languages. I think language is the key to understanding other cultures, so that would be my main goal. A second goal would be to provide Fulbright more funding so that they could bring more students from different countries to the U.S. It would help people in the U.S. learn about these countries, and it would help the students go back to their countries and serve for their communities.

More Arts, humanities and education


An image of colorful video game equipment and screens in a photo credited to Stewart A. Elrod / Brandon Skeli on Flickr.

The future is a story

If there was one word reflecting the zeitgeist of today’s media environment, it might be “storytelling.” From its documented role…

A vintage maroon school desk floating on a flat ASU gold background

AI's role in enhancing education

Editor's note: This feature article is part of our “AI is everywhere ... now what?” special project exploring the potential (and…

A shopping cart with a calculator, paintbrush and gear on a flat ASU maroon background

How AI is helping tailor the student experience at ASU

Editor's note: This expert Q&A is part of our “AI is everywhere ... now what?” special project exploring the potential (and…