Language courses in Dubai

Not content with speaking a few words of bad Arabic, a Time Out staffer sat through eight weeks of language lessons. But was it worth it?

The Knowledge

Despite our best intentions, few who make this city their home for a time leave with a good knowledge of Arabic.

Why is this? Because to get along in Dubai, you’re better off learning Urdu or Hindi? Or is it the overtly difficult appearance of Arabic – the tangle of lines and dashes and dots that, to an outsider, seem so extremely daunting?

Either way, few bother, and those that do usually get no further than the basics, which tends to involve throwing around inappropriate uses of ‘habibi’ and repeating their single conversational phrase
in an over-accented way.

I was resolute that I would not end up as one of those people when I signed up for the Eton Institute’s beginners’ Arabic classes. Two hours, twice a week for eight weeks is intensive, but rigorous enough, I’m told, to get a significant grounding in the language and progress beyond the mundane ‘How are you?’ and ‘I’m from England.’

Classes are led by Mohammed Negad, an Egyptian expat and former tour guide, who explains that we will be learning classical Arabic: comprehensible to almost the entire Arab world but without any one specific regional dialect. The group is comprised of business types who dip in and out of Saudi for business, long-time Dubai residents who’ve finally decided to give the local tongue a bash and those who just want to feel a bit more at home.

What begins as a packed first lesson dwindles at an alarming rate as the weeks go on. It’s not surprising – the first few lessons are fittingly daunting. Learning an entirely new script, from right-to-left, with the nuances of writing (which sometimes feels like drawing) this mass of rising, falling and entirely changeable letters depending on where they are in the word – simply put, it ain’t easy.

One of the failings of the Eton Institute’s setup is just how overwhelming those first lessons are, and is what, I suspect, scares a lot of students off. While undoubtedly necessary to learn, understanding the script should be more balanced with conversational Arabic. Language lessons need early pay-off and that means getting the hang of some straightforward phrases to get started interacting with locals. At points the course feels too geared towards eventually reading and writing books in Arabic, rather than having a half-decent conversation over tea with an Emirati. Still, after four lessons, the script on Dubai’s street signs swirls into comprehension, and I can at least make vague conversation.

In the ‘beginners one’ class, students learn how to greet people, construct verbs in both the past and the present, get their head around the complex way of referring to family members (my mother’s-brother’s-son’s daughter will be so impressed) and, eventually, numbers. While there were moments I moaned (those Thursday post-work lessons were a persistent gripe), I have started feeling more integrated somehow. Aside from being able to read street signs, it’s also quite a revealing process about the perceptions of locals towards a lot of expats. The warmth expressed at even the most mundane of conversations is startling; I’ve received slaps on the back from seemingly austere Emiratis just for telling them I only speak a little Arabic. A smidgen of effort, it would seem, goes a long way out here, and won’t go unnoticed.
While I’d never say it’s an obligation, or easy, to pick up Arabic, getting through eight weeks of these lessons provides one of the most accessible inlets into local life, a stumbling phrasebook for 25 countries and the ability to order a shawarma. Mumtaz, habibi.
The three-week intensive Arabic course and the seven-and-a-half week course both cost Dhs1,735. For info, call 800 3866.

What we learned

Though Eton Institute’s beginners one course provides the absolute basics for getting anywhere with Arabic, Time Out managed to get through a surprising amount of material:

• The alphabet and how to read Arabic confidently. While a bit tough at first, this is definitely the most rewarding part of the course
• Basic introduction conversations, such as when it’s appropriate to say, ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ (basically, ‘Hello and welcome’) without sounding ridiculous
• Numbers, perfect for airport announcements
• How to talk about my family, or at least what relation they are to me
• Talk about where I’m from, basic verbs in past and present tense and (importantly) how to order shawarmas

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