The United Nations first adopted Arabic as one of its working languages in 1973. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Abu Dhabi: One of the most widely spoken languages in the world, Arabic will be celebrated across the world tomorrow. Marked every year on December 18, Arabic Language Day commemorates the day in 1973 when the United Nations first adopted Arabic as one of its six working languages.

More than 400 million people speak the language across the Arab world. It is the lingua franca of the UAE, and the Arabian Gulf, of the Levantine and a number of African nations. And as the liturgical language of Islam, Arabic is held in high honour by nearly two billion Muslims.

Fluent expats

While native Arabic speakers are found throughout the UAE, many expats are also keen to master the world’s fifth most widely spoken language. In fact, some are so fluent that it would be difficult to set them apart from native speakers.

Gulf News spoke to a number of such expats to find out what drives their passion for Arabic.

Nabil Haskanbancha’s diction, choice of words and dialect is perfect in every way, and it seems unbelievable that the 21-year-old university senior from Thailand has been studying Arabic for just three years.

Beautiful language

“When I arrived in the UAE as a freshman, I did not know much about Arab culture, let alone the language. I signed up for an Arabic class, and I vividly remember my first day at the 9AM class. I remember thinking that Arabic was such a beautiful language. In fact, I didn’t know what I would major in right then, but I knew I had to master Arabic before I graduated,” Haskanbancha said.

Despite admitting to not being a morning person, Haskanbancha made sure to be present at the morning Arabic classes, and he is soon set to graduate from New York University Abu Dhabi (NYU Abu Dhabi) with a minor in Arabic. Not only can he speak the language fluently but he can also write and read at an advanced level.

Nabil Haskanbancha

Introduction to dialects

“We began with Modern Standard Arabic, the literary version of the language that is rarely ever used in speech. And I remember how I would often get awkward stares when I tried to communicate. That’s when I realised that Arabic is spoken in its many dialects, and I made it my mission to understand and communicate in them,” Haskanbancha said.

And he knew he had succeeded when he could play the news in the background and still understand what was being said.  “A while ago, I realised I didn’t have to concentrate on Arabic speech to understand the message, and I really felt like I had unlocked a major achievement,” he said.

Top 10 widely used Arabic phrases and words
Kariman Al Assil, 61, has been teaching the Arabic language teacher for more than a decade. She has also published two books for learners. Speaking to Gulf News, she provided a small sample of the most widely used Arabic words and phrases.

■ Marhaba: It basically means ‘hello’.
■ Assalaam alaykom: This translates literally into ‘peace be upon you’, and is used as a greeting
■ Ma sha Allah: Meaning ‘it’s the will of Allah’, it is used to show admiration for something and wish the person well.
■ Al humdulillah: The phrase, meaning ‘praise be to Allah’, is used across a range of situations, from sadness to ill health. When used in a difficult situation, it conveys the fact that things could be even worse.
■ Shukran: This word is a simple ‘thank you’.
■ Bas khalas: That’s all!
■ Habibi: The word means ‘my beloved’, and is equally loved as its meaning.
■ Majlis: You may have heard it many times, and it means ‘reception’.
■ Tamr: That’s what you call the delectable ‘date’ in Arabic.
■ Qahwa: This is the Arabic word for one of the world’s most loved beverages – coffee.

Language of the host

For Henry Roberts, learning Arabic felt like a prerequisite to pursuing his Bachelor’s degree in the UAE. The 22-year-old Australian said he took his first Arabic course in Australia, just to be able to say a few words when he came to the Arab region. “I was interested in studying at the NYU Abu Dhabi, and it felt like an obligation to learn the language of the region that would be hosting me for the next four years or so. It seemed like the best way to know the people, and to extract the best from the place.

Henry Roberts

So he learnt the standard 28-letter Arabic alphabet and its notations, and signed up for another Arabic course after reaching Abu Dhabi. Today, he can pull off a conversation in the Emirati and the Levantine dialect. “Arabic is a complex language, and the Egyptian and Maghrebi dialects are still foreign to me. But specialising in Levantine Arabic, I figure I can communicate with most speakers,” the Physics major said.

Discovering idiosyncracies

Earlier this year, to properly immerse himself in Arabian culture, Roberts spent about a month staying with an Emirati family in Al Ain. “I learnt so many idiosyncracies of the spoken language that I would not have known otherwise. It was truly special,” he said.

In fact, it was his knowledge of Arabic that helped Roberts enjoy a volunteering gig in Jordan, and a crowdsourcing experience in Oman. “Neither would my bond have been as deep with my Emirati friends,” Roberts said.

Children learn Arabic
More than 400 million people speak Arabic across the Arab world. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Haskanbancha, who is fluent in the Emirati, Levantine and Egyptian dialects, echoed a similar sentiment. “I connect so well with my friends in the UAE. We enjoy the hummus and the shawarma at the many Middle Eastern restaurants here, and love our desert safaris. But none of these experiences would have been as immersive without my knowledge of Arabic. In fact, Arabian hospitality and my knowledge of the language help me feel at home in the UAE, and I hope to stay on and work in this city that I love,” he said.

English words borrowed from Arabic
Arabic has lent to a range of different languages, from Hindi to Portuguese, and most definitely English. Here's a look at some of them.
■ Suk kar: sugar
■ Koton: cotton
■ Ghazal: gazelle
■ Jamal: camel
■ Astrlab: astrolab
■ Jabal Tareq: Gibraltar
■ Alkohoul: alcohol
■ Safar: safari
■ Yasmin: jasmine
■ Kahf: cave
■ Zarafe: giraffe
■ Mir’aa: mirror
■ Ta’refah: tariff

Love for languages

Gabrielle Branche feels a similarly deep connection with Arabic. The polyglot, who can read, write and speak Spanish and French, and can also converse in German and Chinese, knew she had to learn Arabic when she arrived in Abu Dhabi to study Interactive Media and Dance.

“I had high school friends from Palestine, and I wanted to learn Arabic even before getting here. It fit in perfectly with my love for languages,” said the 22-year-old senior from Trinidad and Tobago. “Arabic was the first non-Greek, non-Latin language that I was attempting, and its formal version seemed daunting. But as I went about learning to read road signs and draw parallels with the other languages I knew, I realised it wasn’t all that different or intimidating; in fact, I began to truly enjoy it,” Branche said.

Gabrielle Branche

She has already taken four Arabic courses, and has lined up another one for the next semester. Branche is also determined not to lose her knowledge of Arabic even after she stops formally learning it.

Helps to engage

“Learning Arabic helped me truly enjoy a trip to Jordan. And even when I come across people from Egypt and Morocco, where vastly different dialects are spoken, I feel happy to be able to engage more,” Branche said.

The NYU Abu Dhabi senior is also hoping to inspire others around her to learn more languages.

“I remember knowing just English as a young child because it was my mother tongue, and as a widely spoken language, it was all I needed to know to get by. But then I found myself envious of people who communicated fluently in English even while fluent in another language that was their native tongue. So I decided to arm myself with languages too,” she said.

Centres to learn Arabic in the UAE
Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, Abu Dhabi
Arabic Language Centre, Dubai
Eton Institute, Abu Dhabi and Dubai
The Mother Tongue Centre, Abu Dhabi
Berlitz, Abu Dhabi and Dubai
Iqra’a Arabic Language Centre, Dubai
Note: Many of the centres also provide online courses.

Favourite words

And in keeping with her buoyant spirit, Branche’s favourite Arabic word is ‘hayaah’, which means life.

Haskanbancha, on the other hand, loves ‘yalla’, a word that is easily understood across most Arabian dialects. He also loves how it can mean different things based on context, including ‘hurry up’ or ‘let’s go’.

Roberts said he couldn’t easily pick a favourite word or phrase. “I do, however, think ‘benafsaji’, the Arabic word for ‘purple’, is beautiful because of its many varied consonant sounds,” he offered.

Arabic forms and dialects

Because Arabic is spoken natively over such a wide region, it has developed a number of different versions over the years, including many dialects. Here is a quick look at some of the most popular versions in the Arab World.

Fusha: This is classical Arabic, and is the language of Islam’s holy book - the Quran.

Modern Standard Arabic: This is the version that is read and written today, and spoken in formal environments, such as in courts.

Khaleeji: This version is the one spoken by Emiratis, as well as by the populations of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, eastern Saudi Arabia, southern Iraq and northern Oman.

Levantine or Shami: The name refers to the region of Sham, and this version is spoken by Palestinians, the Lebanese, Syrians and some Jordanians.

Najdi: This is spoken in the rural desert areas of central Saudi Arabia.

Hijazi: Saudi Arabians in the western part of the country -the Hijaz region – speak this version.

Egyptian: The dialect is distinctive and guttural, and though widely spoken by Egyptians, it can be difficult for those unaccustomed to it.

Maghrebi: This dialect is spoken in Algeria, Tunis, Morocco, and in the western portion of Libya. The influence of Romance languages like French, and the Berber languages of Africa, on it is quite clear.

Yemeni: This is obviously spoken by the people of Yemen, although it has its own different sub-branches.

Iraqi: This is spoken by natives of the Mesopotamian basin of Iraq, as well as by Syrians, Iranians and people of southeastern Turkey.

Numbering system

Today’s commonly accepted numbering system, and the basis for the various branches of Math, were derived from the Hindu-Arabic numbering set of 10 symbols – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 0. According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the system is known to have originated in India in the 6th or 7th centuries, and was introduced to Europe at about the 12th century through the writings of Middle Eastern mathematicians, especially the father of algebra, Al Khwarizmi, and the father of Arab philosophy Al Kindi. They represented a profound break with previous methods of counting, such as the abacus, and paved the way for the development of algebra. This contribution also explains why many English numerals look similar to their Arabic counterparts.