DUBAI // Half the population of the UAE is from the Indian subcontinent, yet the default language is English. While that might make communication easier, it often means missing out on a valuable chance to exchange cultures, said Benedicte Hennebo, a Belgian national who is fluent in French, Dutch, Italian and English. "The language you speak shapes the way you see the world," said Ms Hennebo. "If you learn certain expressions and vocabulary, then it is possible to see things through the eyes of your interlocutor. It is key to sharing values and to understanding one another."
But while learning Arabic, Ms Hennebo hit a roadblock. She was taking lessons but had little opportunity to practice: even her Arab friends spoke to her in English. So in May, she began monthly Speak Dating nights, social events dedicated to helping people find their ideal language partner. Unlike their counterparts searching for a romantic connections, speak daters register themselves by language and whether they will be a teacher or student. Various tables are designated by language, with speak daters moving between them halfway through the session.
The languages available vary between events, but the first two sessions included French, German, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, Italian, English, Japanese and Urdu. Yazan Jamous, 24, from Syria, was among 30 people who turned up for the second event last week. At the launch, he came to swap his Arabic for some Urdu, returning to brush up on his English. The sessions had already made a difference in his working environment, he said.
"Every day I see the driver at the office and the tea boys and I feel like no one really cares about them," he said. "Now I greet them in Urdu, they smile and we talk." Mr Jamous said that by helping people learn Arabic at Speak Dating, he was helping them learn about Arab culture. "If you can read the signs or shop names or even words in the newspaper, then you can learn about a place," he said. "Although everyone speaks English in Dubai, it will still deepen your understanding of the place."
Alan Bradley, 58, a French and German teacher from the UK, said he wanted to learn Arabic and Urdu. "Talking past our normal barriers makes us realise we have common ways of thinking. Ultimately, we are united by far more things than divide us." At the first Speak Dating night, Ms Hennebo found her ideal Arabic language match, an Egyptian lady called Nahla who studied French. They have since become friends. Ms Hennebo and her husband recently had dinner at Nahla's house.
"We ate koshery [a traditional Egyptian dish] and spoke in Arabic as much as possible," she said. "It was great. I would never have experienced this element of Arabic culture if I hadn't wanted to learn the language." email@example.com