Students at the Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), Dubai, during a new class on the UAE Arabic dialect from Shuaa Zainal, the English teacher who teaches Emirati Dialect. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News Archives

Dubai: Ash is a 23-year-old who has lived all his life in the UAE. Having passed out of a Sharjah school, he went on to complete his engineering in a Dubai college. He now has a sales job with a construction company. His work requires him to travel extensively within the region and he wishes he could converse in Arabic. “I have studied the language in school, but beyond recognising the basic alphabets and numbers, I can’t understanding anything in Arabic,” he rues.

Shilpa, a Grade 6 student in Dubai, actually studies Arabic as an additional language in school. But throw her a question in Arabic and she draws a blank. “Sorry, I don’t know what you are asking,” she says.

The linguistic predicament is not unique to Ash and Shilpa. A large number of non-Arabic expat students in the UAE also face a similar challenge. This despite Arabic being the official language which is widely used in public life and students learning it as a compulsory subject in school till Grade 9.

So where does the problem lie?

Dr Kaltham Kenaid, director of research at Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), says opportunities to experience Arabic are insufficient.

“We as Emiratis have opened our hearts to the world and invited people to come and live here. English is widely used by most people as part of their daily conversations. Learning to speak and write Arabic needs practice — both within and outside the school. Students need more opportunities to experience the language.”

She said, “Arabic learning for native speakers is based on a curriculum that includes learning outcomes and assessment guidelines for each grade. For non-native speakers, schools are encouraged to develop their own teaching methods in line with set guidelines which are made available to schools.”

At the Taaleem educational group which runs 10 schools, Arabic as an additional language is mandatory for all non-Arab students from Year 1 up to Year 9. And as Norm Dean, chief education officer, says, “If students wish to continue their university education in the UAE, they must continue studying Arabic as additional language till the end of Year 12. Non-Arab students are expected to follow the curriculum standards set in the framework for Arabic as an additional language.”

If students wish to continue their university education in the UAE, they must continue studying Arabic as additional language till the end of Year 12.

- Norm Dean, Chief Education Officer, Taleem

According to him, the curriculum focuses on enabling non-Arabic speakers who are learning Arabic to communicate in real life situations inside and outside school. “The curriculum is based on international principles and expectations applied in the teaching of foreign languages to non-native speakers. It is also adapted to meet the UAE’s aspirations in the teaching and learning of Arabic in a manner that suits the learners’ capabilities and their learning environment.”

Dr Ashok Kumar, CEO of the Indian High School, which also follows the ministry’s curriculum, says, “When living in the Arab land, knowing the native language is always an advantage. We encourage our students to read, write and converse in Arabic as much as possible.”

When living in the Arab land, knowing the native language is always an advantage. We encourage our students to read, write and converse in Arabic.

- Ashok Kumar, CEO, Indian High School

But he admits that students don’t meet expectations. “It is true that expat kids find it difficult to converse in Arabic. It is probably because people in the UAE speak English, Hindi and other languages as widely as Arabic. Also, the students’ peers, parents and relatives do not speak Arabic.”

There’s more to it from the students’ point of view.

Devarshi Chaube, a Grade 5 student at the Indian High School, says, “The biggest challenge I face as a student is that Arabic teachers use only Arabic language while teaching. There is no explanation in English and I get confused. Most of the time, the teachers also don’t understand what I have to say. The school provides remedial classes where I get extra support and personal attention.”

Shazia, a Grade 12 student at another school, says, “I find Arabic hard, may be because I don’t make enough of an effort. Most people talk in English, so I don’t feel the need to know Arabic.”

Jasmine Mansour, head of linguistics at Eton Institute in Dubai, an educational institute for languages, agrees. She says, “The multicultural and diverse population of the UAE has led to English being the main language of communication across the country. As a result, expat students are rarely required to use Arabic for everyday communication.”

The biggest challenge is that Arabic teachers use only Arabic language while teaching. There is no explanation in English and I get confused. Most of the time.

- Devarshi Chaube, Grade 5 student at the Indian High School

Different dialects could also act as a deterrent. “Most students are taught the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in school. But it is important to remember and acknowledge the various other dialects of the Arabic language, all deriving from different regions. Comprehending multiple Arabic dialects when conversing with other Arabic speakers may also lead expat students to prefer communicating in English,” notes Mansour.

Under the circumstances, what needs to be done to encourage students to talk in Arabic?

Mansour says besides formal learning at an early age, small steps like listening to Arabic music, playing games in Arabic or enrolling in an Arabic-related activity help.

Taaleem’s Dean says the group has developed speaking monologue plans to increase Arabic-speaking time among students. “We have created plenty of opportunities for them to practise their speaking outside school too, such as teaching their parents and making weekly videos with Arabic speakers. We encourage students to use Arabic as a language of communication with each other and with all Arabic speakers within the school too.”

KHDA says its efforts to improve Arabic learning in private schools is making a difference.

Learning to speak and write Arabic needs practice — both within and outside the school. Students need more opportunities to experience the language.

- Dr Kaltham Kenaid, Director of Research, KHDA

“We are continuing to see gradual improvement. Arabic is a beautiful language and once students begin to enjoy and love the language, they will definitely start experiencing it.

“Giving adequate opportunities to practise Arabic skills is key to encouraging students,” adds Dr Kaltham.

On learning the language: Rewards and challenges

Matej Simko, Grade 7 student

“The main advantage [in learning Arabic] is that it is a new language [for me], and will help me in the future. My teachers are kind, so that makes it more fun.

“Arabic is a very interesting, and also a very complex, language thus making it harder to learn than most other languages so it is a big achievement for me if I can speak it fluently.

“I don’t speak Arabic outside of school with anyone so if there is a break [in learning], I usually forget some new vocabulary.”

Disha Amin, Grade 7 student

“I have been studying Arabic for six years and most people say that I have a talent for languages. Though my writing and reading has developed tremendously, I am having slight difficulty speaking Arabic fluently. In my opinion, that’s because I do not speak it at home. Yes, I do speak in Arabic to the few Arab guests that come over occasionally, but that still isn’t enough. I speak Hindi at home but if I spoke more Arabic at home, I would be more fluent.”

Jessica Louise Roberts, Grade 7 student

“I have been studying Arabic for six years and love learning it. I live in Dubai so it helps me when I need to communicate in Arabic.

“However, my parents are not from an Arab country, so I cannot speak Arabic at home. My friends too are not from Arab countries, so I cannot speak Arabic with them.

“Overall, I love learning and speaking Arabic and my family and friends think it is really cool that I am learning the language.”

How to become conversant in Arabic:

  • Start learning Arabic at an early stage
  • Make learning/speaking in Arabic part of your routine
  • Listen to Arabic music
  • Play games in Arabic
  • Enrol in one Arabic-related extra-curricular activity

Source: Eton Institute