Expat students pledge to speak only Arabic while living in Emirati homes
Students at New York University in Abu Dhabi have signed a promise to speak, write and communicate only in Arabic for three weeks in the hope of gaining fluency.
ABU DHABI // It was not only difficult for Aleksandra Badowska to speak on the first day of her Arabic-only home stay challenge, she could not work out how to use the washing machine.
The 21-year-old Polish student is one of eight at New York University Abu Dhabi to sign a pledge to speak, write and communicate only in Arabic for three weeks, during which time they must also live with a local family.
It is part of the Ramsa course offered to the university’s students after they finish three terms of studying Arabic.
Ramsa meaning “talk” in the local dialect.
During the three-week January programme, they take local dialect classes at Al Qattara Arts Centre in Al Ain, followed by field trips to Al Qattara souq and “activities that symbolise the Emirati society in Al Ain”, said their instructor, Prof Nasser Isleem.
“Twenty four hours in Arabic, even Facebook. I sent an email to one of the students, I got an auto-reply stating that he won’t be able to reply during that period because he took a pledge to only communicate in Arabic.”
The professor also selected host families and it proved to be a challenge to find Emirati families willing to accept male students.
“Thankfully, selecting families for girls proved much easier [but for] the boys, until now, I can’t find them local families,” he said. Instead, Prof Isleem has put male students with expat families from the Levant, which he said proved useful to show them “the other side of the coin”.
“They are exposed to the expat culture and their relationship with the locals. They all have Emirati friends so they mingle with them,” he said.
Miss Badowska, who is staying with an Emirati woman and her two children, said: “At first, it was really difficult, I did not understand anything from what my family was telling me but then it improved a bit.
“I’m always asking her to repeat things slowly, and I ask, ‘did you mean to say this?’”
Often, her host has meant something different.
“It was funny when she was explaining to me how to use the washing machine, I did not understand anything, then she showed me in steps the buttons, so we managed,” said Miss Padowska.
She found it easier learning the cultural differences.
“Like we have to say, ‘bismillah’ before opening the door or entering the house.
Also, the food is totally different, sometimes eating on the floor or dancing in the room with just girls.
“I once heard that living with an Arab family is an unforgettable experience, so I wanted to try it.”
Alexander Burlin, a 22-year-old student from Sweden, was specifically interested in learning intensive Arabic dialects so he could communicate better with the Syrian refugees in his home country.
“This is my first time to live in an Arab home. It was useful for me to hear the words they use at home [as] in class it appears a bit different than in daily life,” he said.
The Swede said it was funny when they went on the field trip to the souq and the students had to join local men dancing “razfa”.
“We did not know how to move,” he said.
Alice Huang, from Taiwan, has had her share of miscommunication with the extended Emirati family she moved in with, however, with the “power of body language”, she has put her messages across.
“The first day was pretty surprising. They let you eat a lot but in a good way. I am worried about how much weight I will gain,” joked the 19-year-old, who particularly enjoyed eating on the floor with her hands. “On the first night, we went to the family farm in the desert and it was really nice.
“We had this huge pot of rice with fresh, home-made meat on top.”
The idea of a home-stay with an Emirati family was what attracted her attention to the course, especially as she had never been outside of Taiwan before joining NYUAD.