Top of the class

A dynamic new cultural approach to learning Arabic is inspiring a record number of Dubai’s expats – and, crucially, giving them a head start in business. (Additional reporting by Will Coldwell)

There’s no denying that Arabic is a complex and nuanced language, made up of beautifully intricate phrasing and steeped in a deep and rich history that dates back to the early 4th century AD. Yet it was only after its use in the early 7th century in the Qur’an, that the Arabic language was catapulted to its current elevated status as one of today’s five super languages, joining the ranks of Chinese, Spanish, English and Hindi. As the revered language of the world’s second largest monotheistic religion, forms of Arabic are spoken by 1bn people across the globe, with more than 240m native speakers worldwide, and it is the official language of 22 countries, including the UAE.

‘Learning Arabic not only allows expats to communicate more effectively in the region but also gives them a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the local culture’

Moaz Khan, Marketing Manager, the Eton Institute

While Dubai’s geographic positioning on the Arabian Peninsula would suggest that a proficiency in Arabic is imperative for enjoying a full and functional life as an expatriate, the reality can be quite different. The population of the UAE currently stands at 6m, with fewer than 900,000 natural Arabic speakers. Dubai’s population as of 2010 is 1,866,978 and national Emiratis make up less than 20 per cent of the city’s inhabitants. The large expatriate community made up of Asian, African and Westerners has resulted in English becoming the common language between the city’s resident nationalities.

Aspirational expats seek to strengthen ties
Although expats in the UAE can happily exist without knowing their min fadlak (please) from their shukran (thank you) a new breed of expats is emerging, one that feels a sense of embarrassed injustice that English has become the lingua franca of the Emirates, and is seeking to address this by taking advantage of one of the myriad Arabic language courses aimed at expats.

Matt Gamble is the Associate Director of Supervision for Dubai Financial Services Authority, and is an Australian enrolled at University of Wollongong Dubai (UOWD). He believes that an expat insisting on speaking solely English to Arab nationals is more than a little arrogant, and it was this that led him to enrol at UOWD: “I feel that it shows a lack of respect for the Emirati population if you are a guest in the UAE and do not take an interest in their culture. I felt that the best way to get a better understanding of that culture is to learn Arabic.”

The same viewpoint is shared by the Marketing Manager for the Eton Institute, Moaz Khan, who says: “Learning Arabic not only allows expats to communicate more effectively in the region but also gives them a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the local culture.”

Dynamic teaching methods fuse culture and language
The motivation behind the desire to learn Arabic to some extent determines the most appropriate learning method. For those wishing to become completely fluent in the language with the goal of gaining employment as a translator or within the government or services then traditional systematic learning methods are still favourable. But for the keen conversationalist or the ambitious ladder-climber, a perceptible shift in teaching methods is discernable. Rote learning based on scientific methods of knowledge-building is being overtaken by a more exuberant approach to education.

The Eton Institute is a prime example of a language school that has moved away from a methodical listen-and-repeat system of learning, Khan explains: “We believe that 80 per cent of conversation is based on just 20 per cent of the language. By concentrating on that 20 per cent, the Institute allows learners to get speaking in Arabic in the shortest possible time. It emphasises practical vocabulary and grammar in the context of real-life situations for language learning which is effective and immediately applicable.”

There are more than 100 students currently taking Arabic courses at Eton Institute and it is consistently the most requested language at the school, after English. Khan says: “In the past year we have seen a considerable rise in the number of enquiries as more and more expats realise how beneficial it is to be able to speak the local language.”

UOWD is similarly reporting a hike in admissions. “Our current enrolment rates are up by 30 per cent compared with the same time last year,” Mouna El-Kahla, Arabic Programme Coordinator and Arabic instructor at the Centre for Language and Culture (CLC) confirms. The Dubai branch of the Australian institution has built up a solid reputation for its language department, offering a wide variety of Arabic courses covering four levels of ability, with technology, visual aids, authentic material and other learning tools forming the backbone of its approach.

By fusing learning a new language with a cultural programme, lessons are intensified and put into a very real context, thereby making the end goal of mastering a new tongue achievable. Lying at the cornerstone of this new approach, for the institutions and the government-backed initiatives, is a desire to maintain the UAE’s intrinsic heritage and to promote the region beyond the commercialism it has become renowned for.

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) was founded in 1998 with the philosophy of ‘Open doors. Open minds’. By providing a unique experience that introduces expatriates to the traditions, values, culture, religion and language of the UAE, it seeks to publicise the oft-forgotten side to the city and aims to impart an insight into the real Dubai.

Elsewhere, The Arabic Language Centre at Dubai World Trade Centre has been at the forefront of Dubai’s Arabic language scene for 30 years and its courses are perennially popular. Offering the fundamentals to beginners and the intricacies to the advanced Arabic speaker, its range of courses has widespread appeal. It provides a unique teaching method devised by its founder, Maliha Wehbe, whereby mastering oral communication is the focus through fun and enjoyable teaching methods.

Let’s talk business
In business, the Middle East represents billions of dollars-worth of oil, gas, petro-chemical and mineral exportation, and trade and commerce. Arabic speakers are in great demand among international organisations such as the UN, World Bank, foreign agencies, oil and gas companies, the construction sector and international law firms. Being able to speak Arabic, especially Modern Standard Arabic, is seen as a bonus for most major corporations with a Middle Eastern presence.

Directives of Dubai Municipality and Executive Council also state that Arabic should be the language for official correspondence within the government. In addition, in 2007 The Council of Ministers issued a law requiring companies and establishments in the country to ensure that all the data on imported commodities and goods should be in Arabic. The majority of employment contracts, legal documents and public order documents are all in Arabic and across all sectors translators are commonly used. Therefore for the majority of UAE-based companies, having bilingual employees is not a case of preference, it is often a financial necessity.

For British journalist Ed Attwood, learning Arabic was incentivised by the potential of increased professional mobility: “While it’s not necessary for work in Dubai, I’ve travelled to various other Middle Eastern countries and it can be embarrassing not being able to even order a cup of coffee or exchange a few words with Arabs elsewhere. So that was really the main motivation, and if I wanted to work elsewhere in the MENA region, it would obviously be vital.”

A question of personal progress
After personally witnessing hundreds of expats passing through her institution’s doors, Reem Shehab, Director of the Berlitz Language School in Dubai, offers her observations on the rationale behind the increase of students: “Socially, it’s a plus for expats, not wanting to go back to their home countries without having learned the native language. It makes them feel productive and [very] cultured, and for professionals, the benefits can be exponential.”

With a record number of expats enrolling on Arabic courses across the city, self-reproach is not the only reason for such an upturn in student intake; expats no longer blithely assume that their native language will see them through every situation they encounter. With ever
increasing numbers of expats viewing Dubai as a long-term home, rather than a brief money-making sojourn in the sun, more and more investment is being made in personal development.