Laysh La? Why don’t enough expats speak Arabic?

On Arabic Language Day, foreigners living in the UAE reflect on their local lingo skills


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’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 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.


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