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Shaima Mahmoud leads children during a word game in Arabic at the Eton Institute in Dubai.
Shaima Mahmoud leads children during a word game in Arabic at the Eton Institute in Dubai.

All the talk is about learning Arabic

Whether it is to help them settle in or get on in business, expats are eager to learn the language.

DUBAI // It is the official language of the UAE, but the use of Arabic often comes second to the mother tongues of expatriates. However, residents are starting to realise that living in the UAE is the perfect time to learn the language and are enrolling on courses in increased numbers.

Improvements in the teaching of Arabic is believed to be behind the rise in popularity in a country where 50 per cent of residents are Asian and eight percent are western. Dr Eli Abi Rached, the director of Eton Institute, the largest UAE-based language school, said: "Arabic has consistently been the most requested language at the institute after English. "In the past year, we have seen a considerable rise in the number of inquiries as more expats realise how beneficial it is to be able to speak the local language."

Improvements to the curriculum had helped to make the lessons easier to absorb, and there had been progress in the way Arabic was taught to the ever-rising number of students, said Ahmad Ibrahim, an Egyptian who has taught at Eton for four years. "We have improved the syllabus several times since we started and we now teach Arabic in a much more scientific way," he said. "The levels - beginner to advanced - are more defined and each course is far more detailed. Also, a student can go in a class of six to 15 members, five or six members or arrange a private tutorial.

"When we started, we had a limited number of students. But the numbers are rising consistently, and many who started at beginner levels keep coming back for more advanced courses. This has happened much more in the past two years." The school was taking on corporate clients who wanted lessons for their employees, Mr Ibrahim said. Zahra Hadi, a 26-year-old Canadian of Pakistani origin, has lived in the Emirates for 13 years and regrets not learning Arabic sooner.

"There's lots of reasons I decided to learn Arabic," she said. "It's important to understand the UAE's culture and to try to assimilate. And speaking Arabic will improve job prospects." Ms Hadi, who attended the American Community School in Dubai, dropped her initial Arabic studies because learning the language was not compulsory. "It is very difficult to have a conversation in Arabic here in Dubai as there are so many foreigners," she said. "It was easier in places like Syria, where people on the street speak the language."

Jo Parker, a Briton who works for a communications and security products provider, has lived in Dubai for three years and has just completed a three-week intensive course.  "I have been in situations where understanding the language would have been such a help, such as car registration or when going through passport control," she said. "It shows that you have embraced the local culture.  "Some expats are seen in such a bad light, but by simply learning the Arabic language it helps to build relationships." 

Jaya Jayatilaka, the marketing manager of the University of Wollongong in Dubai, said: "There's been a steady rise in demand for Arabic lessons in the past few years. Most of the inquiries and enrolment comes from the western community." During the summer, an intensive programme is offered for people who would like to learn Arabic as a second language. "We get a lot of demand for our Arabic summer courses, with many university students enrolling in them as part of study-abroad programmes," Mr Jayatilaka said. "We even get demand from overseas college students from as far away as the US and Europe. 

"More expats are learning Arabic so they can survive professionally in this country." Ilham Dakkak, assistant director at the Berlitz language school in Abu Dhabi, said the continuing rise in demand for Arabic lessons was largely due to the teaching methods. "Foreigners are starting to realise the full benefit of learning Arabic, and we have had an increase in number of students on previous years. Whether grammar or vocabulary, we teach through conversational techniques, and students seem to respond to this method."

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, in Bastakiya, Dubai, offers 12-week Arabic in conversational spoken Gulf Arabic, rather than the classical form. Amy Smith, the administrator, said: "There is huge demand for these courses. We have about 300 people on our waiting list.  "Most of these are western expats and Asians. But there are many British Muslims, for example, with one Arabic parent, who never picked up the language before. Now that they live here want to learn it." akhaled@thenational.ae

Sana Aziz, 24, was born and raised in Sharjah and attended the Dubai GEM School, but she has yet to fully learn Arabic. It is a problem that continues to affect young students who attend non-governmental schools, where all subjects are taught in English. "We had to study Arabic at school until grade eight only. Even then it was not a very difficult course and the grading was very lenient," she said. "I did not pursue it further in higher education." Ms Aziz agreed that being armed with a knowledge of the language could considerably help job prospects, adding there were other important cultural reasons to learn. "I have a degree from the University of Texas, but to employers here being bilingual is more valuable than the degree these days. Also, I am a Muslim and it is very appealing for me to be able to understand the Quran." Nilou Aziz, an Iranian mother of two whose husband is Lebanese, said the lack of exposure to Arabic speakers was the reason that her children had started a course for youngsters at Eton. "Yasmina, who's three, and Karim, five, are not exposed to any Arabic at home because my husband is always travelling," she said. "My husband and I are both multilingual and we'd like our children to be the same."

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