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Rise in number of expats learning the Arabic language

Despite the false-notion that learning Arabic is difficult, more people seem to be taking the plunge

Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News
'It takes patience [to learn a language]. It’s like the process of losing weight,' says Shannon Elizabeth Munyan.
Gulf News

Dubai: When American expatriate Shannon Elizabeth Munyan landed in the UAE five years ago, the Arabic language was as foreign to her as was the UAE.

As a fresh graduate, her only mission was to make a career here.

But within six months of joining an Arabic broadcasting company, her career ambitions took on an added dimension. “Every time I walked into the office, I would hear many of my colleagues speaking in Arabic. I told myself that if they didn’t speak the language where they were born, then I could learn it the same way they did.”

One year and six months after she took that decision, Munyan became a fluent speaker in Arabic, including learning a Saudi dialect that opened up plenty of career opportunities for her.

Like Munyan, thousands of UAE expatriates develop an interest in learning Arabic, after being exposed to UAE’s culture.

But career considerations are not the only driving force. Personal, social, cultural, academic, even religious reasons push people to learn the language. And it’s not just expatriates. Arabic speakers with poor skills in writing, speaking or listening are also increasingly signing up to improve their language skills.

“For them, the reasons to learn and improve their Arabic language skills have primarily been to better integrate themselves within the Arab society after having lived abroad for several years,” said Maya Mazloum. Arabic instructor and learning and development manager at Eton institute in Knowledge Village.

Specialised language courses, such as medical, media or Business Arabic are also being offered for proficient speakers who would like to become familiar with specific terminologies.

Advancement in technology has made it possible for innovative ways to learn or supplement the language learning through smartphones and mobile devices. Some happen through social media, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or through various apps, experts said.

Rising numbers

Arabic language learning centres in Dubai are seeing higher enrolments, especially between the age group of 20-45.

“The demand to learn Arabic has risen over the last three years,” said Mazloum. “We have seen a growth rate of over 49 per cent in inquiries for Arabic courses [in this period].”

A majority of learners who sign up, said Mazloum, are driven by a growing respect for the Emirati culture and heritage, and learning the language is their way of returning the courtesy the UAE has extended to them as expatriates. “Other reasons [to learn Arabic] include personal growth as well as career-enhancing prospects,” said Mazloum.

The Arabic Language Centre (ALC), at Dubai World Trade Centre, said their average number of students for Arabic classes is over a 1,000 a year, with many of the learners coming from Russia, Europe (particularly UK, France, Germany, Spain), the US or Canada, Asia (India, Pakistan), Iran and the Far East.

For many students, it has been a conscious decision to overcome the inhibitions imposed by the received wisdom that Arabic is a complex, difficult language to learn.

“In many ways, Arabic is easier to learn due to its influence on other languages that you may already be familiar with, such as English, Spanish, Hindi, Urdu, etc,” said Mazloum. “For example, the word for ‘shirt’ in Arabic is ‘Kamis’ and in Spanish it is ‘Camisa’. Such etymologically common ground can actually aid a learner and Arabic is full of such references,” she said.

In a classroom at Eton Gulf News attends in a beginner’s class, Ahmad Ebrahim, the instructor, asks his students to put together sentences describing an early morning routine before heading to work.

“It’s important to develop a curriculum that engages and stimulates students and makes them love the language,” said Ebrahim. “Presenting the language in a simplified and student-friendly way, using interactive and engaging communicative processes is the best way of teaching.”

Ebrahim believes that Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the way to draw beginners into the rich domain of Arabic. MSA is the standard written form of Arabic across the region used in literature, media and understood by everyone as compared to the classical form of Arabic used in the Quran and poetry (usually taught in higher levels for students who wish to learn Arabic for academic purposes).

The first step is to mentally prepare the students, said Ebrahim. “Most [students] walk in with the common perception that the language is too complex and too challenging. [Therefore], the first few classes are conversational and spontaneous as we introduce them to the alphabets, different words and pronunciation.”

Beginners are asked to practise different exercises on how to get their eyes and brain used to writing from right to left, Ebrahim said. Students are taught what they can use in their daily lives, so it’s not always based on the books they teach them from.

”The idea is to get students to feel more confident,” he added. “When they reach a level where they can spot Arabic texts and read them, they become more curious. In all, it takes a year and a half of intensive courses, which are held daily for two hours, for a person to become fluent. For those who take regular courses, which are twice a week, it takes longer.”

Ebrahim pointed out that going through the starters, beginners and intermediate level, each having a certain number of courses, without the advanced, is enough for a person to read, write and communicate in all tenses. “Learners can go from there to learn a new dialect, but they need to have completed 150 hours of MSA first.”

Shireen Sinno, manager at ALC, lists the crucial elements to make Arabic language learning successful: An effective teaching methodology, an influential teacher, supportive learning environment, student motivation, and personal effort.

“Effective teaching takes place when all these factors are present. In fact, they impact the acquisition of any foreign language. Personal effort, as well as exposure to the language outside the classroom context, helps students progress faster. The learner’s motivation, [whether intrinsic or goal-oriented], and personality type (ie the learner’s risk-taking quality, patience, positivity, and tolerance to ambiguity) play a very big role, if not the biggest,” she said.

What makes Arabic language seem complex?

Ebrahim says that negative interference from the student’s first language, especially if their language is close to Arabic, such as Iranian, Turkish and Urdu, can be a big challenge for some learners.

“The verb conjugation table in Arabic is bigger than in English (with singular, dual, plural, masculine and feminine categories), which can be confusing for many learners, but once they practise the table for one verb, they are done. It’s like mathematics, if you get the formula, you can apply it easily,” he said.

For people with a French or German background, it is not as difficult to conjugate the verbs, he added, “because they have a similar verb system”.

Pronunciation was listed as another challenge for people who speak a languag similar to Arabic. “These learners have different ways of pronouncing the same letters we have in Arabic. They also have different meanings for words used in Arabic, so to switch what they already know could be difficult.”

Arabic vocalisation (diacritics), also called Tashkeel, is used to help learners pronounce words the correct way.

Linguistic experts recommended that learners spend more hours outside class, to keep practising, immersing themselves in the Arab culture and resources, such as TV channels, and mingling with native Arabic speakers. Another recommendation was taking intensive courses that would enable them to advance quickly.

But beyond the MSA, there is the the extremely important aspect of dialects. Nasser Isleem, a senior Arabic language instructor at New York University Abu Dhabi, who teaches colloquial Arabic Emirati dialect, said that it is not enough for expats to learn MSA alone without learning a dialect that is used by the locals in the country they live in.

The Arabic language has many dialects that even native Arabic speakers might have difficulty understanding, adding that the overall use of Arabic in general in the UAE goes towards the local dialect in different contexts.

“Language research conducted in the UAE, and on young Emirati learners who make up the majority of today’s society, shows that “standard Arabic is actually [their] second language with colloquial Arabic as their ‘mother tongue’”.

He said many Arabic language learners who reside in the UAE and learn MSA find challenges in experiencing and building on the acquired knowledge.

“This is due to the fact that Emiratis, as well as other Arabs in UAE, simply do not use MSA as everyday language. Though it can be read and heard in press and media, and with all of the existing Arab nationalities that make up the local community in the UAE, the Emirati dialect is much more widely used and presented in various settings as a vital means of communication, expressing a unique identity to the Arabic language being used in the country.”

He said while learning MSA can be useful in providing the learner with a strong basis to build upon, “it has become quite vital that an Arabic language learner in the UAE acquires the Emirati dialect because — simply put — native speakers in the UAE and elsewhere do not use MSA for conversation”.

To learn the Emirati dialect, he said, learners should finish three semesters of MSA or its equivalent. “It takes a course that meets 4-5 hours weekly for four months and putting double the time outside class to learn a dialect. The course should be conversation-based where activities focus on listening and speaking.”

Isleem said Emiratis speak different dialects, which go back to the times when people who lived in the UAE were involved in trade and pearling.

“Several words were taken, some reformed and others mixed from individuals and countries with whom people of the UAE had been interacting with: Africa, India, Britain and other Arab countries. For example, when saying a taxi driver, people say, “dreiwill”. That’s not Arabic — it’s derived from the English word ‘driver’.”

Isleem said Bedouin speak Arabic with a special dialect that may differ from one tribe to another. Their language, he said, can be hard to understood, even by some Emiratis.

“Bedouin were to a large extent isolated from people dealing with trading, so they kept their own distinguished and unique vocabulary and expressions. In the northern emirates, people speak the Shehi dialect, which is widely spoken by Al Shehi people.”

Dialect courses are also being offered at various institutes, such as Emirati, Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, among others.

Price

“At Eton, every course is about 30 hours in duration and is priced depending on whether it is online, (Dh560), in groups (Dh1,500), semi-private with three learners (Dh2,500), or private (Dh4,500),” he said. Courses for private classes are 20 hours in duration.

Similarly, at ALC, they said courses are also 30 hours in duration and are around Dh1,950–Dh2,100 per person. Classes are scheduled at different timings for regular or intensive courses.

Arabic language and career growth

Annalinde Nickisch, an HR consultant, said Arabic is an essential language requirement in many job openings and, commonly, bilingual candidates are given preference.

“Not only do candidates with fluency in Arabic and English have better chances of getting selected, a bilingual candidate would commonly get significantly higher pay for the same position as compared to candidates with identical qualifications but who do not speak, read or write Arabic,” she said.

However, she added, even though it is an added advantage, in no way does it replace a professional qualification or relevant work experience.

Nickisch said many candidates include ‘basic Arabic’ as a language skill in their resume and, more often than not, applicants don’t live up to the standard when questioned about their ‘basic Arabic’ skills in an interview.

“I wouldn’t recommend adding any language to your resume unless you can actually hold a basic conversation in that language,” she said.

What are the sectors in which being bi-lingual is an asset?

Though this trend exists across industries, it is predominantly seen in job roles pertaining to customer service, administration, media and public relations as well as throughout banking and government sectors, she said.

Tips

1. Study in a classroom setting with a good teacher and a suitable textbook.

2. Start with learning the Arabic alphabetic and reading and writing. Learning few words and expressions is not the way to pick up the language.

3. Learn the Modern Standard Arabic (fuS-Ha) first, it will be more meaningful and definitely assist learners in picking up another dialect.

4. Always practise and imitate as much as you can.

5. Do not be shy or embarrassed. Make it a habit by using what you learnt with native speakers and even other learners.

6. Watch Arabic films and the Arabic news as well.

7. Listen to music with Arabic lyrics.

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