Abu Dhabi: UAE is committed to preserving and promoting the Arabic language and spares no efforts to enable it to regain its past glories and becoming a global language for culture.
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, leads the country’s efforts to promote Arabic out of his belief that it will remain the language of the future, as well as of science and innovation, thanks to its flexibility and its historic role in different cultures.
“If we look at the history of science, mathematics and medical books, we will find that many of them were written in Arabic and translated into other languages. We will also find many Arabic terms that are still in use in foreign languages. This is because the Arabic language is flexible and adaptable,” Shaikh Mohammad told the 5th International Conference for Arabic Language last year.
The UAE yesterday joined the world in celebrating the World Arabic Language Day, which falls on December 18 every year. On December 18, 1973, the United Nations General Assembly included Arabic among its official and working languages. Most governmental institutions, companies and individuals inside and outside UAE have contributed in promoting this initiative.
Jamal Bin Huwaireb, Managing Director of Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, said no one can match Shaikh Mohammad’s efforts for promoting the Arabic language. “When Shaikh Mohammad assumed office, he showed an unrivalled interest in the Arabic language. I know no Ruler more effective than His Highness [Shaikh Mohammad] in terms of his numerous literary, administrative and incentive initiatives, not to mention his enactment of laws and his unlimited support to whoever wants to serve our beautiful language,” Bin Huwaireb said.
Bin Huwaireb spelt out some of the initiatives taken by Shaikh Mohammad to serve the Arabic Language:
The Committee for Modernisation of Arabic Language Teaching was established, which aims to put a modern perception for learning and teaching the Arabic language. Headed by the Arab space scientist Farouk Al Baz, this committee aims to contribute to the promotion of the use of the Arabic language and teaching it to Arabs as well as foreigners.
The Mohammad Bin Rashid Contemporary Arabic Language Dictionary was published, which is essential for young people and an important reference for students, scholars, teachers, researchers and for all those interested in the Arabic language, particularly Orientalists and Arabists.
The Mohammad Bin Rashid Arabic Language Award is given to those who contributed to the promotion of the Arabic language in the world.
The Arab Reading Challenge proved that the Arab youth need constructive initiatives to show superiority. Under this programme school students in the Arab world read millions of books during one academic year.
The Arabic Language Conference is one of the most important Arab conferences organised under the patronage of Shaikh Mohammad.
The ‘Bel Arabi’ hashtag, is one of the biggest initiatives launched by Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation in the field of social media. The initiative motivates the youth to use Arabic language and to show loyalty to it.
The UAE has also taken many steps to preserve the Arabic language and restore its status as the official language.
These include “Lughati” — an initiative launched by His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, which aims to distribute tablets with specially designed Arabic language educational programmes and applications to students and teachers of government schools.
Arabic Language Charter was introduced as a frame of reference for all policies and laws related to preserving the Arabic language and promoting its use in public life. It requires all commercial establishments across the UAE to use Arabic while issuing invoices and receipts at reception desks and call centres.
The UAE’s efforts also include setting up an Arabic learning institute at the Zayed University for non-Arabic speakers, establishing the Faculty of Translation at the American University in Dubai to make the UAE a hub for Arabic translation in the region.
The Million’s Poet — a TV show, was launched by Abu Dhabi TV in 2007 to promote Arabic poetry.
The Society for the Protection of the Arabic Language has been set up in Sharjah, which works to preserve Arabic language through workshops, language courses and competitions.
Laysh La? Why don’t enough expats speak Arabic?
Sometimes, awkwardness begins where your language skills end. In the UAE, that can be a fairly quick transition. Not many expats can continue beyond Marhaba (Hi) or Kaif Halak (How are you?) when meeting Emirati and Arabs in the UAE.
On UN Arabic Language Day (December 18), Gulf News asked expats who have been here for a fair amount of time why they lag behind in Arabic as a second language. Many put it down to the multicultural profile of the residents (most are expats), the widespread use of English as common ground, and the versatile language skills of the Emiratis themselves (most can speak English and Urdu/Hindi).
Mohammad Omar Zameer, a 41-year-old British legal consultant in Dubai, said it is important to ‘catch them young’.
“I think the new UAE initiative of Bil Arabi will give due importance to Arabic and create interest in the language. Having an interest is critical as it keeps you learning.”
- Mohammad Zameer | British expat
“I’ve been here for around 28 to 30 years; I ‘studied’ Arabic till grade eight. But that was mainly about memorising some words and nouns — everyone passed the exam. I think the new UAE initiative of Bil Arabi will give due importance to Arabic and create interest in the language. Having an interest is critical as it is keeps you learning. And if expats make more friends with Emiratis, especially at school, they will have an added incentive to learn their culture and language,” Omar added.
For Zubair Haider, a 38-year-old Pakistani marketing professional who lives in Sharjah, it’s a classic case of ‘necessity is the mother of all inventions’. He said: “My Arabic is very basic, I know very simple phrases. As they say ‘necessity is the mother of all inventions’. In some parts of Europe, for example, expats pick up the language because they have to. Here in the UAE, most of the people are expats, and they work in all departments, at all levels. So learning Arabic requires an extra effort.”
Haider added: “I think there isn’t enough interaction with Emiratis — that would be a great way to learn some Arabic. For example, the PROs have a working knowledge of Arabic because they meet and greet local officials all the time, and because they need to know about the official documents, which are in Arabic.”
Learning Arabic is easier when you interact daily with Arabs, but Indian expat Mohammad Salim, 35, who also lives in Sharjah, is nowhere close to where he wants to be — in social conversational Arabic.
“I picked up some Arabic from Arab roommates, with whom I lived with for five years. My work in the property and construction sector also necessitates I have a working knowledge of Arabic. But I still can’t have long, social conversations in Arabic, enough though I’ve lived in the UAE for eight years,” he said.
“Most people here can get by, by speaking English — people don’t place as much importance on Arabic as they should. If you don’t have Arab or Emirati friends, then you should consider taking an Arabic language course — there are plenty of options here for that,” Salim, who works in the property and construction sector, added.
For Gabrielle Mairet, a French national living in Dubai, it’s “a pity” that not enough foreigners speak enough of the local language.
“I feel that it’s a pity that we live in an Arab country but don’t speak Arabic. It would be great to have more contact with Emiratis and forming friendships with them.”
- Gabrielle Mairet | French national
“I don’t know a lot of Arabic, my knowledge of Arabic is very basic — just some words I’ve learnt from my Arab friends. For expats, when they come from abroad, they want to first learn English — to be able to communicate with as many people as possible. I feel that it’s a pity that we live in an Arab country but don’t speak Arabic. I think it would be great to have more contact with the Emiratis — the local people — and forming friendships with them. This way, we can also learn Arabic from them,” she said.
‘Mafi Arabic’ — a long-time expat’s excuse
Just outside the Grand Mosque compound in Makkah, an Arab couple haggle with two Indonesian salesmen over the price of expensive Cambodian oud. In the neighbouring block, Indian staff take orders for fried chicken and burgers at a busy eatery. On the other side of the holy city, Bangladeshi taxi drivers fight for parking space at a taxi drop-off point.
Scenes like these may appear routine to the tens of thousands of pilgrims who visit Makkah every day. But for an expatriate living in the UAE, these mundane conversations in Saudi cities are hard to ignore. Unlike in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, almost everywhere in the kingdom — markets, airports, hotels and restaurants — people talk only in Arabic.
Conversations in Arabic between expatriates in the kingdom are not a rare sight, a guide told me during a trip last month.
But why? Because expatriates have to frequently interact with Saudi nationals and Arabic skills are an absolute necessity, an HR manager said. No Arabic, no work, he quipped.
During the four-day trip, my own interactions with the Saudis, however, smoothly switched to English after I shrugged my shoulders in a typical Dubai style: “Maafi Arabic.” The only two words, I must embarrassingly admit, I learnt to say in the last 15 years. At Jeddah airport, an officer at passport control did not bother to speak to me in Arabic. He must have assumed that an expatriate living in Dubai would not understand a word, I told myself while boarding the flight.