Are you one of those people who has a finely considered list of excuses ready for why you’ve been living in the Middle East for years but still can’t speak more than a smattering of Arabic? Come on, you know who you are – and we all know your reasons: you haven’t got enough time, it’s too easy to speak English, there aren’t that many Arabic speakers here anyway, etc, etc, etc.
Well, if the excuses haven’t already dried up, it looks like they’re about to. With a panoply of organisations offering Arabic lessons, from the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, to private firms with courses tailored to your specific needs, it has never been easier to learn the language. But, arguably, none of these groups has gone further to pull the rug of excuses from under you than a brand new website called www.coffeebreaklessons.com.
On the site you’ll find a series of modular lessons aimed at giving you conversational Arabic. Using simple, clickable sound files you can listen to individual words and phrases and practise them at your leisure – perhaps even in your coffee break.
‘You’ll be able to understand the use of words, vocabulary etc, and understand the concept of the Arabic language. With what we have you’d be able to converse in certain situations and understand the basics,’ says partner in the business and website developer Marwan Mousfi. And, as Marwan explains, the fledgling firm has sought out the very latest, cleverest technologies so that you needn’t be tied down when you want to learn a little lingo.
‘We have RSS feeds that provide entertaining information that helps the learning process. You can also view your lessons over a mobile device, which I know some language teaching services also provide, but what we have is facilities to search vocabulary, and that is particularly useful, for example, for someone who is sitting in their office and then goes to a restaurant. They can just pull out their mobile phone and search a word and get its Arabic equivalent.’
Not that the difficulties are just technological. As Marwan is keen to point out, Arabic offers something of a challenge for teaching because it is a language that is chock full of dialects.
‘Each country has a different dialect and, within the same country, people can speak differently depending on their ethnic background. We’ve done a lot of research and we’ve tried to combine a lot of dialects. Although it is based on the Lebanese/Syrian dialect, we still use certain words that are used across all Arab countries. There’s nothing too colloquial, but something that everyone can understand and that’s easy for non-Arabic speakers to remember.’
Website users will soon become familiar with the lessons’ unique style of delivery: each sound file contains one word spoken at normal speed, while the next two are said slowly, a format that came out of early testing. Marwan says, ‘One user mentioned that they would prefer a normal pace word and then a slower one, to accentuate the words. Before we had one audio file per sentence and, based on peoples’ feedbacks, we made changes.’
All the testing, the hard work on formulating the lessons and building the website took several months worth of hard work for Marwan and his other partners. Most of the team are holding down full-time jobs, so what was it that led to all this effort?
‘We knew there is a need [for this] because we come from this culture and we have lived in other cultures too. We know that people living outside of the Middle East, who are married to British or French people, want to keep the language going. Because when they go back home they [find they] forget how to speak the language and find it difficult to integrate. It’s really a whole cultural issue. Given that this region was also witnessing a boom, because of that we thought that there would be potential.’
Obviously, the boom is over for the moment at least, but Marwan and his colleagues believe their idea has legs, nonetheless. They think one day they might be able to develop websites for teaching Arabic to non-English speaking groups and are still adding to the number of lessons that they’re offering. We wonder whether they’ll even have a module for making excuses in Arabic…
Aside from www.coffeebreaklessons.com you can try…
Arabic Language Centre (04 308 6036). At the exhibition hall of the World Trade Centre
Arabic Language Protection Society (04 223 7276; email@example.com) At Al Qasba, Sharjah
Berlitz Language Centre (04 344 0034; firstname.lastname@example.org) On Jumeirah Beach Road
Dar El Lim (04 331 0221) Next to World Trade Centre
Eton Institute of Languages (04 360 2955/60; www.eton.ac) Knowledge Village, block four
Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (04 353 6666; www.cultures.ae) Bastakiya, near Dubai Creek