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Society is tongue-tied as expatriates skip their Arabic lessons

Speaking Arabic is certainly practical if you live in the Gulf, but simply learning the language can be its own reward.


Justin Thomas

While waiting in line for coffee, I was alerted to the distressed exasperation of a fellow customer. The agitated young man, who I later discovered was visiting the UAE from Saudi Arabia, could speak very little English, and the barista serving him coffee spoke no Arabic at all.

Given my modest command of Arabic, I was able to intervene and perform my good deed for the day. The barista was spared a tongue-lashing and the young Saudi man got his qahwa bidoon haleeb (coffee without milk).

Such scenes make me think about the many expatriates who are denied - and deny themselves - the usefulness and beauty of Arabic. Arabic is unequivocally one of humanity's greatest languages, spoken by more than 250 million people, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

It has also been classified among the world's "civilisational" tongues, alongside Latin and classical Greek. The difference is that Arabic lives on.

As a psychologist, I particularly appreciate some of the language's more subtle psycholinguistic features. For example, Arabic is one of the very few languages freely permitting both subject-verb-object (SVO) and verb-subject-object (VSO) sentences.

This flexibility makes it a great language for poetry, as does the tendency for many Arabic words to encompass multiple, overlapping meanings derived from common roots. For example, the verb ghazala means to spin, but it also connotes flirtatiousness. One explanation for the origin of this verb suggests it's based on the cheeky backward glance a gazelle gives to a lion upon realising that it has safely outdistanced its pursuer - a poetic image inspired by a poetic tongue.

If more expatriates who do not speak Arabic made an effort, and were encouraged to study Arabic, it would help to address the perceived decline of Arabic among young citizens of some GCC states. As the well-worn advice goes: the best way to preserve your culture is to share it.

The perceived decline in Arabic among young people is certainly a major cause for concern. Expatriate baristas who don't know the Arabic word for "coffee" don't help.

There are many suggested causes for the decline in Arabic, including education systems that increasingly emphasise English. Foreign wives, and the armies of foreign nannies, are also blamed.

One survey from 1999 claims one third of Emirati families are "totally dependent" on foreign housemaids for child rearing. The anthropologist Paul Dresch suggests this widespread reliance on domestic workers has given rise to the urban legend of Emirati children growing up hardly able to speak Arabic, but fluent in Malyalam, Tagalog or Tamil.

The suggested remedy calls for better training of Arabic teachers, and curricula and teaching methods similar to those used in teaching English and French.

One initiative in the UAE is the Watani summer camp, focusing on Arabic language, Islamic heritage and UAE history. The Watani programme's executive director, Marwan Al Hashimi, makes a clear link between national identity and Arabic, viewing the language as a tool to ensure future generations can connect with the UAE's heritage and values.

Similarly, the government in Doha recently announced that the language of instruction at Qatar University, the country's largest, would switch from English to Arabic in some disciplines. For some, the change is an attempt to protect local culture in a country with the world's highest rate of immigration.

The decision came as several Qatar-based higher educational institutions acknowledged that few graduating students are proficient enough in modern standard Arabic to be employed in broadcast media. Qatar, of course, is home to Al Jazeera, a media giant.

Initiatives aimed at strengthening citizens' command of Arabic are laudable, but sharing and promoting the language among the region's many non-Arabic speaking residents would also help.

Expatriates, in certain sectors, should receive Arabic language lessons, and perhaps incentives for progress.

That said, speaking Arabic is its own reward. As one anonymous poet wrote in The language of angels:


How beautiful is this Arabic tongue, a language for angels, more than mortal men


Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi

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