x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Overcoming a language barrier in my own country

As an Emirati recently returned to my country, I have found my lack of Arabic language fluency to be an ongoing issue.

Language is an essential part of any culture. Without having a rudimentary understanding of a regional lingo, it is almost impossible to fully comprehend the local people. No matter how proficient the interpretations and interpreters are, something, inevitably, is lost in translation. I have been acutely aware of this fact throughout my life as I lost my country's and culture's language at an early age.

In search of an education and a better life, my parents whisked me away from the UAE at the ripe age of four, when my mother tongue was still my primary tongue. But as soon as I landed on American soil the process of disconnecting from the Arabic language, and inevitably the Emirati culture, had begun - a process that I am struggling to reverse to this day. In an effort to improve their, as well as my, command of English, my parents opted to converse in the world's lingua franca. This, as well as all-English public school education, hastened my Arabic recession.

Although there was a brief return to the Emirates before being uprooted to yet another English-speaking country, it was too little, too late. My Arabic had been almost entirely wiped out, designating it a distant second language; my English education continued in a private school, and my ability to communicate with and understand Emiratis was non-existent.

The solidifying of English as my primary language occurred when I spent my teenage years at its source. England not only reinforced my English but relegated Arabic to an almost foreign language.

Having recently returned to my country, I have found my lack of Arabic language an ongoing issue.

Even though English is so widely used in the private and public sectors that one can easily function with it within the UAE, having only basic Arabic has proved limiting. This condition is exacerbated by the fact that I am an Emirati. It is to be expected that an expatriate arriving and even living in the Emirates to not have knowledge of the native language, but is a surprise and shock when a son of the country cannot converse with his fellow citizens. When wearing a kandura, I am rightly spoken to in Arabic and feel obliged to answer in the same language.

Recently, I was asked for an interview by an Iraqi TV news station and told them I could not indulge them, as my Arabic was limited. "It's OK," said the reporter, "you can speak in your local dialect." Little did he know this was an even tougher proposition. Instances such as this are a common occurrence and cause great frustration and embarrassment.

One solution to this quagmire for an Emirati who isn't in Emirati circles would be to take up lessons in Emirati dialect. Shaima Al Sayed began offering such lessons more than a year ago and to my and her surprise, there are many Emiratis in the same boat. When she started her courses she only had foreigners in mind, but to her shock, numerous locals approached her. These were Emiratis who had non-Arabic speaking mothers who had attended private English schools all their lives, or had lived abroad in their childhood. Al Sayed notes that two out of 10 of her students are Emirati, many of whom prefer private classes as they share my embarrassment and shame of not knowing their local dialect. Al Sayed also noticed the students' fear of being mocked by other Emiratis led them to believe they knew a lot less than they really did and when encouraged, eventually excelled in the Emirati dialect.

Al Sayed's courses are not only a gateway to communicating for Emiratis such as myself, it is a path of discovering our own culture. Through the dialect, we can begin to investigate and comprehend the Emirati society through a deeper, more meaningful first-hand account.

These cultural lessons may begin in courses such as Al Sayed's, but give the students the tools to further their Self-Emiratisation outside the classroom.

With the prospect of more Emiratis growing up with a deficiency in their own language and dialect due to private education, a foreign parent and the proliferation of English through technology, mass communication and social media, the loss of Emirati culture could become more prevalent.

To preserve this culture the local language must be maintained and taught from an early age. Furthermore, Emiratis such as myself, who have not had the opportunity to learn the language and dialect at a young age should be encouraged to study them through the creation of government programmes run and taught by Emiratis.

Thamer Al Subaihi is a reporter at The National and a returning Emirati who grew up largely in the US. Contact him at tsubaihi@thenational.ae

Follow Arts & Life on Twitter to keep up with all the latest news and events @LifeNationalUAE