This wasn’t how I imagined Dubai. Then again, I can’t say I had a clear view before moving here and actually seeing the place. Tallest buildings and ski slopes, that pretty much summed it up – oh, and I think I also heard something about it being somewhere in the Middle East. I didn’t know what my extracurricular activities would be once I got here (well, given that I was taking on the role of Food editor, I figured eating out would play a big part), but I was certain that at some point I would take an evening Arabic class.
Being an American, it’s true that I’m at a slight disadvantage as far as second languages are concerned. In a vast country that borders nothing but English-speaking Canada and Spanish-speaking Mexico, and where
a three-hour flight will only succeed in getting you somewhere else inside the stupidly large US of A, it’s no wonder that so many of my countrymen are, like me, monolingual. I mean, take Europe: a wrong turn on a road trip and you could find yourself reaching for the English-Swedish dictionary. No wonder the continent’s inhabitants feel so smug about their linguistic prowess.
With few opportunities back home to become proficient in any language other than my own, I felt certain that I’d take the chance given to me to pick up at least some basic Arabic. After all, knowing the language is an instant career builder (‘other languages’ is an awesome-looking bullet point on the CV). Even when I first got here, I held out hope, but the grind of daily life – and the fact that everybody here speaks English – got in the way of my linguistic aspirations.
Embarrassingly, after more than two years living in the Gulf, I’ve learned little more than ‘marhaba’, ‘shukran’ and ‘andi dinain’ (the last one means ‘I have ears’; I learned it from an Arabic-speaking co-worker who was standing closer than I thought while I was mid-gossip). Oh, and I also know numbers. Sadly, just about every bit of Arabic I know I picked up in a single weekend in Beirut, where learning the odd phrase felt effortless by comparison.
I’ll admit, it’s useful that everyone in town speaks English, but it’s frustrating too. There’s no impetus to challenge myself, and the more I think about it, the more I realise that’s true of so many things. It’s too easy to settle in one’s cultural bubble, yet there are so many other cultures and languages being spoken around us that there’s no excuse to continue to be so sheltered. ‘Andi dinain’, after all, and I intend to use them.