View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Learning Arabic in the UAE and the Gulf

Ever thought you’d like to have a crack at learning Arabic now that you’re living in the Emirates or one of the Gulf States?

Lists of the languages most spoken in the world vary but after Mandarin, Spanish and English, Arabic is the 4th most spoken language (by number of native speakers). The total population of people in the Arab countries of the world is estimated at 323 million. That’s a lot of people you can speak to, if you know their lingo.

American writer, Robert Lane Greene, in ‘Why Learning Arabic is So Hard’, has written of some of the reasons why a growing number of people have begun to learn this language:

“I'm one of a growing wave of people trying to come to grips with Arabic, a language long neglected by Americans in the years before Sept. 11. Since then, the CIA and the military have tried to recruit Arab-American ‘heritage speakers.’ The federal government has spent tons of money, both teaching Arabic to spies and soldiers at its specialized schools and encouraging university students to study it. College enrollment in Arabic classes doubled between 1998 and 2002, with much of the increase coming in a patriotic spike after the World Trade Center attacks. As a foreign-affairs writer, I thought it would be good to give it a shot.”

One of the reasons why many ex-pats in the Gulf States don’t bother to learn Arabic is because of the different dialects that are spoken in these parts. What’s the point of learning here, they say, if when you want to go to Egypt they won’t understand Gulf Arabic? In addition to Gulf Arabic, other main dialects include Egyptian Arabic, Levantine Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Maghrebi Arabic, Quranic Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic. A class that I took, taught by an Egyptian teacher now living in the UAE, tended to downplay that excuse saying that Arabic is Arabic and one needs to learn the accent and the words particular to an area, as you would if you were living in London.

If you have started to do a course and then petered out, you may find your reason for giving up in Andrew Dempsey’s article [check out Andrew’s site and resources] entitled:

10 Common Problems Faced by Arabic Language Learners

[He says]

1. Struggling to pronounce new sounds in Arabic that do not exist in your native language clearly enough for native Arabic speakers to easily understand you, such asthe ع ain, ح Ha, غ Gayn, ص Sad, ض Dad, ط Ta ,ظ Za, ر ra, etc.

2. Being assigned long texts or dialogues to translate, with little time to build an active vocabulary that you can use in real life

3. Being given lists of Arabic words to memorize that have little direct bearing on your own personal, academic, religious, or professional needs and interests

4. Finding it difficult to remember key words and phrases that bear absolutely no resemblance in pronunciation or structure to English (or whatever native language you speak)

5. Having to recite long passages in Arabic when you do not even really know the meaning of what you are reciting

6. Sitting in classes with large numbers of students, so that the amount of time you spend speaking Arabic is minimized (and replaced by painfully long amounts of time spent listening to your classmates trying to speak Arabic!)

7. Not being able to find anyone that knows Arabic enough and has enough time, commitment, and patience to sit with you and give you the help you need with your Arabic pronunciation and vocabulary

8. Having to pay large amounts of money for a tutor in order to get the one-on-one work you need on your Arabic pronunciation and vocabulary

9. Wasting valuable time on getting to and from the place where you learn Arabic, whether it’s a school, institute, or tutor’s home.

10. Trying to get people around you (if you live in an Arabic-speaking country) to speak with you in Arabic so that you can pick up sounds and words only to have them answer you in English (whether or not English is your native language!)

Gulf Arabic Language Resources
There are an increasing number of online sites tailored for learning one Arabic dialect or another.

One of the popular, free and user friendly sites is Gulf Learning Gulf Arabic Online with many resources [I notice this site is currently up for sale].

Another do-it-yourself course that comes with two books and three CDs is entitled Spoken Arabic Step-by-Step. This guide, by Dubai-based John Kirkbright, is easy to follow, simply explained and the audio has speakers from several parts of the Gulf States so one can get acquainted with different accents. A review of this resource is posted at Reviewing Books and Movies.

Keep adding to your knowledge of the Arabic language. It is affirming to the local people to use their language, it opens up and develops friendships and, if nothing else, it keeps the grey matter stirred.

There are hurdles and obstacles but as they say in this region:

رِحْلِة الأَلْف مِيل تَبْدَأ بِخَطْوَة Transliteration: riHlit il-alf miil tabda’ bixaTwa

“From small beginnings come great things” (literally, "The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step")

(Taken from, Primrose Arander & Ashkhain Skipwith, Apricots Tomorrow (London: Stacey International, 1997).

Geoff Pound

Image: Conversing in Gulf Arabic (courtesy of Gulf