x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ask Ali: On the UAE: Language barriers crumble with time

What do you say after "hello" in the UAE?

What do you say after "hello" in the UAE?

Breaking the ice can be a fine art, even among people from your own country. So getting to know people from another country, where English is not the first language, can be pretty hard. I've found that some of my acquaintances from western countries break the ice by poking fun at themselves, a trait they call being "self-effacing". It's good to be able to laugh at yourself, but actually confessing to being stupid in public? Call it machismo, call it pride, but somehow it just doesn't gel with us Emiratis.

So if you are looking for a way to break the ice, I suggest something simpler, like our favourite sports (football, falconry), cars, architecture (such as wind towers) or our musical instruments, such as the oud and Arabian drum. Or dates - the edible variety, I mean. These are things we take pride in and are happy to educate people on their finer aspects.

When I meet up with my expat friends, they usually follow up hello with: "HowyoudoingAli? Gud?" I love these ladies and their habit of not waiting to catch their breath between words. But other Emiratis will not get this basic interaction unless you pronounced each word separately, as in: "How-are-you-doing-Ali?" The level of competence in English differs drastically from one Emirati to another, so it just makes sense to get a feel for this before you launch into esoteric discussions. Also, you may find Emiratis who are fluent when speaking English but find it difficult to write a grammatically correct sentence. This is because Emiratis have a felicity with spoken languages since they are exposed to several from their birth.

You will notice that every UAE national has learnt to speak one or two other languages other than Arabic: Urdu, Hindi or Persian. This is because we interact with so many individuals from these countries on a day-to-day basis, but we don't have a need to learn to read or write these languages. English is a compulsory second language at school, but how many of you who have learnt French or German or Spanish at school are actually proficient speaking or writing it?

So my advice to the expat boss or colleague who finds it hard to bridge the communication gap is to check the Emirati's English proficiency, then assign work commensurate with the level. Make it a part of the Emirati's job profile to prepare memos, presentations, etc, in English, because they certainly have the capability, but only if they are given enough time. If you expect them to work to a short deadline, then you may end up spending more time improving their work. And that is both counterproductive for you and discouraging for them.

When they are given adequate time, I have seen some of my Emirati friends sit up several nights in a row with an English dictionary by their side to prepare a presentation. But when they are told to complete projects on short notice they just feel confused and demoralised. They need your time and patience to reach the required proficiency. Remember, this is not about lacking talent or intelligence, it is about mastering a language, and this comes with time and practice. I believe every Emirati would be happy to invest in learning the language when they are given the opportunity and encouragement.

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