It’s a common observation that if you’re an expat who speaks Arabic, there’s little need to hone those skills in Dubai. Why? Because though the city is teeming with an array of cultures and languages, the universal mode of communication is English. This isn’t just to the detriment of anyone hoping to practise their Arabic. All of Dubai’s myriad languages – Hindi, Urdu, Spanish, German, Italian, and so on – are overshadowed and underused owing to the monopoly that English enjoys here.
This week’s launch of ‘speak dating’ aims to change that. The concept is rather clever. People with different first languages are put into pairs. For example, say one of the pair speaks French but would like to learn Hindi. The other speaks Hindi but would like to learn French. For the first 30 minutes, the pair converse in one language, so one person is the teacher and the other is the student. After 30 minutes, the pair swap roles and converse exclusively in the other language.
Speak dating founder Benedicte Hennebo, a Belgian expat who is fluent in four languages, explains the concept to Time Out. ‘There are two types of philosophy for learning languages. Either you go to a class and you learn but don’t get to practise, or you go to a country where you don’t have any option but to speak the language – an immersion experience. I’d say speak dating is somewhere in the middle.’
But speak dating is not for complete beginners. ‘Let’s be clear: speak dating is not competing with established language schools,’ explains Hennebo. ‘What it’s really about is language practice.’ So participants need at least a basic knowledge of the language they wish to learn.
When Hennebo first floated the idea, Dubai community art space The Shelter came on board and advertised the opportunity on its blog. The huge response made this week’s launch night at The Shelter possible, with 11 language groups participating. Languages on offer include the usual suspects – Arabic, Urdu and Russian, for example – but also some more unexpected options, such as Turkish and Irish.
The success of speak dating will largely depend on the participants. As Hennebo says: ‘It’s very much about the willingness of people to be a part of the process and to exchange their knowledge. You need someone to take the time and have the patience to speak to you slowly and correct you as needed. It has a double purpose: practising a language but also teaching a language. And it’s about meeting people.’
Hennebo admits that because it’s the launch night, the first speak dating event will be a work in progress. But she hopes people will find their perfect speaking matches and that, together with monthly sessions at The Shelter, the pairs will meet in between sessions to practise their chosen languages.
So what are the advantages of learning a new language? If people from disparate cultures are able to communicate with each other in English, why is it necessary to learn each other’s native tongue? ‘Speaking the language helps you understand better the cultural realities of the other community,’ Hennebo argues. ‘The language you speak shapes your world. If you speak the language, you understand the language, and you also start to understand the way that people see the world. You have a language of cultural references, too.’
The interest sparked by the first speak dating event shows that Dubai’s residents are eager to learn more about each other’s worlds. But why does it take an event such as this to highlight that desire? ‘We’re a bit lazy,’ Hennebo offers. ‘How often do we force ourselves? It’s easier if we do it in a specific context. You could go to the movies instead of going to speak dating, but if you go to speak dating, you know what you’re there for.’ Which do you think you’ll do this week?