Oh, what a shallow bunch Dubai’s English-speaking expats are. We arrive with grand intentions about cultural integration, and broadening our horizons, and, three months in, we’ve quietly given up, and accepted the primacy of our mother tongue.
We may dish out the odd ‘marhaba’ (welcome), ‘yislamo’ (cheers) or ‘shukran’ (ta very much, guv). We may even stretch to an emphatic ‘hallas’ (it’s finished), complete with an expressive hand gesture, to impress visiting friends. But that tends to be where the effort stops.
Regardless of the ways speaking Arabic can help (dealing with officialdom, directing Arabic taxi drivers, talking your way out of a pink slip after a car crash), we tend to muddle through pretty well without. This, though, is changing.
In March last year, the government announced that Arabic was to become the official language in all federal establishments. This was a pivotal move in 2008 – the ‘year of national identity’, during which a series of workshops and conferences investigated what it is to be an Emirati.
All government correspondence will now be in Arabic, while fines have been introduced for companies failing to display items in Arabic.
Dr Radwan Al-Debsi from the Arabic Language Protection Society in Sharjah is particularly pleased. ‘Arabic is the mother language of Islam, so it is already safe forever, we are not worried about that,’ he says.
‘But foreigners need to learn Arabic to deal better with local people, and enjoy economic advantages when doing business in this country.’ He refers, of course, to ‘wasta’: the power of connections and friends.
Yet expats aren’t the only ones whose knowledge of the Arabic language the government wishes to improve. ‘A fairly high number of young Emiratis take our advanced classes,’ says Dr Eli, managing director of Dubai’s own Eton Institute of Languages.
‘They’re embarrassed they don’t have a perfect grasp of written Arabic after returning from studying in the US or Europe.’
Indeed, with more than 200 nationalities now residing in the emirates, the expat influence on the national demographic has become so overbearing it has become a matter of ‘national security’, according to Rahman al-Attiya, the GCC’s secretary-general, who has been warning nationals about impending ‘social disaster’ for several years.
Official statistics on the number of people who speak Arabic in the emirates are limited to a recent statement by Mohammed Hassan, public relations officer for Fujairah Municipality, in the local press: ‘There was a study in the UAE that showed that Arabic is the fourth most spoken language in the country,’ he revealed. ‘Urdu is the first language. Second is English. The third is a combination of them all.’
Arabic’s dwindling usage has been used by many as an excuse not to attempt the language, but a concerted government effort to promote it is changing that. A new Arabic syllabus, for example, has recently been introduced to all schools in the UAE.
But, considering the country’s demographic, it’s unsurprising that popular opinion is against the Arabic tide. A recent poll by Arabian Business revealed that two-thirds thought English ought to be an official language, while less than a quarter thought Arabic should remain the single national tongue.
But this hasn’t stopped a recent expat effort to learn the lingo. Eton Institute of Languages has been offering free beginners lessons, which are currently over subscribed. Dr Eli sees the main motivation for his multinational students as threefold: ‘One third learn so they have a new skill to take home; another third to achieve personal growth, and the final third desire it for business and political purposes.’
Indeed, recent political events have inspired a surge of people learning Arabic in the US and UK. ‘We have many US clients who come over here for a month, sent by their companies purely to learn Arabic,’ adds Dr Eli. ‘If your career depends on it, it’s not so hard – it’s all about frame of mind.’
Learn a few words at work (sneakily) with these online courses:
The site specialises in the local dialect, and is broken into lessons on pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, accompanied by audio soundbites and tips on good books.
‘This is not a complete Arabic language course,’ the site states. ‘But it is built upon the same learning strategy used in Western universities.’ By the time you reach lesson 18, you will have covered three weeks of your regular academic, ‘class and tutor’ studies. ‘By then you should see whether you want to continue learning more or not,’ it says sagely.
Online for three years, this site attracts over 1,000 visitors a day, from over 150 countries, so it must be good. Now with an online bookshop, it’s broken into 18 reading lessons and 23 language lessons.
On the radio
Eton college conduct on-air classes with presenters on Dubai Eye from 10.30am-11am every Tuesday morning, 103.8fm.
In the car
Arabic In One Week – what better way to pass the time in a week’s worth of traffic?
Dhs68, available at Magrudy’s.
Arabic on offer around Dubai.
The four main types of Arabic
Spoken by about 79 million people in Egypt and the most widely understood dialect, due to the popularity of Egyptian-made films and TV shows.
Spoken in Bahrain, Saudi Eastern Province, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, and Oman. With the emergence of the Gulf States as the regional economic centres in recent years, the Gulf dialect has also gained popularity.
Spoken in Algerian Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, Tunisian Arabic, Maltese and western Libyan Arabic. The Maghreb dialect of North Africa is the least understood in the Arab world.
Spoken in western Syria, Lebanese, Palestinian, western Jordanian and Cypriot Maronite Arabic.
Sabaah El Khayr
Masaa El Khayr
Pleasure to meet you
How are you?
What's your name?
My name is...
Typical Dubai conversation
Where are you from?
Min wayn inta?
How long have you lived here?
Munzuu mataa wa inta taAeesh hunna?
What do you do?
To an Arabic-speaking taxi driver
Please could you drive slower?
Min fadlak al kayyada bisoraa aqal
Take a left.
Khuth al yassar
Right here, please.
Alyaamin min hunna min fadlak.
Do a u-turn please.
Min fadlak iddawaraan lil-khalf.
No, I won't pay six dirhams extra because you were already called out by someone else, but they're not here.
Ana asif laan adfa sitta darahim zyada li-anna shaks maa talaabak wa huwa gheer mawjuud il-hin