Can learning old languages give us a valuable new perspective?

A university course is helping students delve into a unique dialect to learn more about Emirati culture and heritage

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A huge part of living in a foreign country is learning the language. Granted, the fact that most people here speak English can often hinder expats’ efforts to learn any Arabic beyond ‘Shukran’.

But learning a language is about more than being able to communicate; it can teach us about a country’s culture and traditions. That’s why NYUAD is taking a unique approach to learning not only Arabic, but the Emirati dialect.

The Colloquial Arabic: Emirati Dialect course at NYUAD takes students through an immersive programme in Al Ain that includes a home stay with a local family and two weeks of pure communication in Arabic from reading and writing to social media and even email.

Now in its fifth edition, this year’s course comprised 12 students from as many countries, including Canada, Poland, Romania, Trinidad and Costa Rica. Participating students must
have completed at least three semesters of modern standard Arabic to ensure they have a full grasp of the language before they begin to slowly listen to, understand and speak in the Emirati dialect, a unique vernacular representative of the UAE’s history.

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“The spoken dialect of any country has its own distinguished features,” explains Nasser Isleem, senior Arabic language instructor and head of Colloquial Arabic: Emirati Dialect at NYUAD.

“The Emirati dialect differs from the land, the sea, the desert – each region has its own aspect when it comes to dialect, and even within that region it differs.”

“I don’t see that language is separate to the cultural component,” he continues. “For example, when someone comes into the house, he should say ‘houd’ and it’s like asking for permission to come in. It’s a language component but linked to culture. The house owner says ‘hdah’ like ‘come in, it’s clear’.

“When someone eats they should use their right hand and at the same time say ‘Bismillah’, which is like a prayer in the name of God. And after finishing, saying ‘Alhamdulillah’. There’s almost an expression or word for every act of life in our culture.”

David Curcubet, a junior at NYUAD, recently took part in the course as a way of better communicating with Emirati friends on campus, but says he learned much more than just words and sayings: “It helped me to understand more about how we communicate and the expressions and phrases that the locals use with each other. It helped me learn a lot of cultural information.

“It gave us more interaction with art in the UAE like movies, poems, novels – normally I wouldn’t have watched [Emirati Arabic] movies in English.

“Here in the UAE, [Emiratis] mostly communicate in English, so learning Arabic is like an additional layer to learning the culture. The course was not only about Emirati dialect but an introduction to local culture. Our host families were talking about their traditions, we were eating Emirati food all the time, so it basically gave us an experience of the culture, traditions and history.”

It’s this immersive experience that Nasser says gives the students a unique glimpse into the beauty of local traditions that will make the rest of their time in Abu Dhabi more memorable: “The students follow the rituals of that house from A to Z. They have respect for everything, they know what to expect and what to do: they sit on the floor with the family to eat, they have the option to accompany the family to the Friday prayer. They are part of the family. They practise what the family practises. They may go to the desert with the sons, attend weddings or funerals.

“It’s a collective, comprehensive experience. It’s really beautiful; it has no borders.”

WORDS Rachael Perrett

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