Impact Story

Seeing the Big Picture Through Language and Culture Exchange

Florida International University's (FIU) Virtual Tabadul

Approaching their first Zoom together, Ella, 20, from the United States, who is studying Arabic, and Hamaizia, 19, from Algeria, who is learning English, were dubious they would be able to communicate with each other using their respective non-native languages. Reflecting on their experience with FIU's Virtual Tabadul, both agreed that they not only connected, but they also formed a lasting friendship and developed a more holistic understanding of their cultures and themselves.


Ella and Hamaizia first approached Virtual Tabadul attuned to their differences. They were fearful that a variety of obstacles would prevent them from being able to converse. In the end, Hamaizia and Ella beamed as they described their Virtual Tabadul experience. “When we were in a meeting, we would start talking about the intended topic and after a few minutes we forgot about the whole topic and started talking about random personal things. It was like we were best friends and have known each other for years,” recalled Hamaizia.

With Virtual Tabadul, college-aged youth like Ella and Hamaizia, located in the United States, Morocco, and Algeria, meet over Zoom to engage in conversation with a native English or Arabic-speaking peer. Each conversation is sparked by synchronous exploration of a U.S. or MENA location in virtual reality. Using only their cellphone and Google Cardboard, students are transported to one of 12 different real-world environments such as a Middle Eastern bakery in Michigan, ancient Roman ruins in Algeria, and a wedding in Morocco. Partners enter each virtual reality space not knowing precisely where they are, and they are challenged to discover the location by addressing intercultural discussion prompts and examining audiovisual clues embedded in each virtual reality space. 

It was like we were best friends and have known each other for years.


The first space Ella and Hamaizia explored was a university classroom in Miami. While discussing college life, the two discovered that language mastery is critical to both of their career goals: Ella wants to be a translator and Hamaizia an English teacher. Virtual Tabadul provided their first opportunity to converse with a native speaker in their target language, but at first their fear of not being understood stunted their conversation.

Ella was accustomed to a classroom-based focus on grammar, so she felt self-conscious, nervous, and halting as she spoke, always thinking about whether she was speaking correctly. But Hamaizia didn’t care about precision, she just wanted to hear what Ella had to say. Ella says that Hamaizia’s encouragement helped her overcome her anxiety to produce. Talk now, correct later became her maxim.

“As young as I am, it was really cool that this was my first experience to talk with a [native speaker] in Arabic,” Ella observed. “I became confident that I can do this, and, if I put my mind to it, I can really do what I want in this field. It was a huge confidence booster.” 

Hamaizia, on the other hand, praised Ella for her listening skills and her interest in getting to know her as a friend over the course of several Virtual Tabadul sessions. “When I made some mistakes she said, ‘It’s okay, we all make mistakes. I make mistakes more than you when I speak in Arabic.’ I think it’s better to make mistakes in Virtual Tabadul and learn from them so that when you go to class, you can speak fluently without any mistakes. That gave me some confidence to speak in English, even though my grammar is chaos.” 

I became confident that I can do this, and, if I put my mind to it, I can really do what I want in this field. It was a huge confidence booster.


Virtual Tabadul is based on small body of research suggesting that embodied language learning experiences, such as those facilitated through study abroad or engagement in virtual reality spaces, cuts time to mastery by as much as 50%. The reason: Embodied learning experiences use more of the brain than do classroom learning experiences, leading to deeper integration of new knowledge. Soon to be published results of a functional MRI study of students participating in Virtual Tabadul support this claim. Describing the sensations and feelings evoked by Virtual Tabadul, Haimaizia remarked, “When I enter the virtual reality spaces, I feel like I am with my partner visiting a new place, not in my room doing a Zoom meeting. When I went into the U.S. spaces, I felt like my dream to visit the U.S. came true. And when I went into Algerian spaces, I felt proud and happy because Algeria is a great and beautiful country.”

Ella was initially concerned about making the virtual exchange equitable because WiFi is less accessible in Algeria than it is in the U.S. She and Hamaizia were able to find times to connect when other members of Hamaizia’s family were not also using the Internet. Once they were online and exploring the virtual reality spaces, the partners found the clues and discussion prompts compelling. One space that really stood out for Hamaizia featured a family celebrating Eid. One of the scene’s audio clues was a person reading an excerpt of the Koran. When Ella commented on the beauty of the reading, Hamaizia felt a sense of pride that motivated her to share more information about her religion with her partner. Hamaizia reflected that pride for her home and culture was critical to developing new skills in explaining things in English, foundational to her future as a teacher.

Hamaizia loved practicing English in the same way that Ella was learning Arabic. The back-and-forth teaching prompted by Virtual Tabadul made her stop blaming herself for not being “good” in English and taught her to speak her truth from her heart and just say the first thing she had in mind.  What’s more, becoming more comfortable with English made her more comfortable expressing herself in general. “Virtual Tabadul made me immerse myself in English,” Hamaizia said. She called on future participants in Virtual Tabadul and virtual exchange in general to be brave and communicative. “Just talk. Don’t be silent. Just talk, immerse yourself, and start talking.”

Virtual Tabadul is implemented by FIU and is supported by the J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative (JCSVEI). JCSVEI is a U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs program administered by the Aspen Institute.

More Great Stories