x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The UAE is home, and yet you don't speak the language?

Expatriates and nationals spend years learning Arabic and English, but complete fluency often evades us.

When expatriates come to the UAE to work and earn a living, many are curious about the culture and means of communication between people who are from so many backgrounds - citizens and expatriates alike.

With cultural and religious sensitivities to bear in mind, questions are bound to arise. How do people dress in this part of the world? What languages are spoken socially and in business surroundings? Can I survive without a knowledge of Arabic? Does everyone speak fluent English? These are but a few concerns a newly arrived expatriate must contend with, and it's no surprise that many of them relate to language.

Many of us have called the UAE home for years or even decades. Some of the younger generation were born in this part of the world. We attended school in the UAE, and many increasingly are choosing to pursue college and university degrees here.

But it is not always clear to what level students learn Arabic by the time they finish their primary and secondary education. All private schools teach Arabic as a mandatory class. However, tuition varies from school to school.

The bottom line is that young people in the UAE, regardless of their origins, learn Arabic for eight to 10 years. But the likeliest outcome is that most of us can read a little bit, but fail woefully in conversing fluently in Arabic.

It's not just at the school level that there is a need for more Arabic instruction. Working professionals from every field flock into language centres to learn the local language. Many do it almost as a hobby, while others believe that a strong grasp of Arabic would give them an added advantage in terms of career opportunities. While this might be true in theory, the reality is that barely any of these individuals actually end up attaining fluency.

Ironically, often UAE nationals face similar problems when learning English. Last year the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) announced that public schools will start teaching subjects in both Arabic and English from kindergarten through to Grade 12. Under the new scheme, half of classes will be offered in one language, and the rest in the other.

The most striking problem is that despite the fact that, in most public schools, English is already taught from kindergarten, there remains a need for mant students to undergo English foundation courses at university.

According to a Federal National Council report, the Higher Colleges of Technology and Zayed University have tens of millions of dirhams in debt. And much of that is incurred because of English foundation programmes.

Whether it's UAE nationals studying English or expatriates studying Arabic, both communities have been striving to learn each other's language for years.

The situation is somewhat better among UAE citizens who attend private schools, where English is taught as the first language in most institutions. Those Emirati students invariably end up speaking fluent English and often end up going to the West to further their education. However, for expatriates, mastering the Arabic language remains, in the majority of cases, a dream.

The fact is that we can only learn a new language to a high level of competency by practising contnually on a day-to-day basis and in real life situations. The teaching systems often focus on reading first rather than the spoken language.

Students end up studying a foreign language only in class, with no real opportunities to practise their newly acquired vocabulary and grammar. Only a small percentage take the initiative of actually conversing in the language they are learning. The result, of course, is that some of us still cannot speak to each other.


Amrita Chachara is a graduate student in journalism at Manipal University in Dubai